Yemen

GEOGRAPHY

yemen-map_20101122_1663970685Yemen (Official title: Republic of Yemen, Arabic pronunciation: al-Jumhuriyah al-Yamaniyah) borders the Arabian Sea, Red Sea, and Gulf of Aden between Oman and Saudi Arabia. It has a total area of 527,970 sq km or 203,850 sq miles and a desert climate. The climate is hot and humid along the coast, temperate in the western mountains, and extremely hot and dry in the eastern desert. A little less than 3% of its land is arable. As with many other Middle Eastern countries, Yemen experiences sand and wind storms in the summer. Currently, Yemen is experiencing overgrazing, desertification, soil erosion, and limited access to fresh water. Many Yemeni farmers grow a plant called Qat, which is chewed for its stimulant properties and is more profitable than traditional crops; however, the cultivation of qat demands far more water than traditional crops, further imperiling the already dwindling water supply. In fact, water, or the lack thereof, has become a major cause of conflict throughout the country. Progress on these issues has been stalled by shortfalls in local and national budgets, and by the prolonged and devastating conflict between Saudi-backed government forces and the separatist Shia Houthi population.

A unique feature of Yemen is Socotra Island located 240 kilometers (150 mi) east of the Horn of Africa and 380 kilometers (240 mi) south of the Arabian Peninsula. The island is isolated and through the process of speciation, a third of its plant and animal life is found nowhere else on the planet. One such example is the dragon’s blood tree, which is an umbrella-shaped tree whose red sap was once used as a medicine. The island also features the dendrosicyos socotranus plant. Known as the “cucumber tree,” this is the only plant with significant genetic similarities to cucumber plants that grows in tree form. Several unique bird species like the Socotra starling and Socotra sparrow are found only on this island. The island has been described as the most alien-looking place on Earth. The island measures 132 kilometers (82 mi) in length and 49.7 kilometers (30.9 mi) in width.

Geography Resources

HISTORY & GOVERNMENT

Yemen is one of the poorest countries in the Arab world, but it is also one of the oldest centers of civilization, dating back to 1200 BCE. Between the 12th century BCE and the 6th century CE, Yemen was one of the centers of world commerce and was situated along the spice trade route, which provided a lucrative source of income. During the 6th century, Yemen fell under Ethiopian rule. Beginning in the 7th century, a series of Islamic caliphs who ruled the area until the 11th century, when Egyptian Sunni caliphs took control of much of the northern region of present-day Yemen. Most of Northern Yemen and small parts of Southern Yemen became incorporated into the Ottoman Empire during the 19th century, although the Zaidi imams generally maintained control of the highland regions until the Ottomans captured Sana’a in 1872.

During this century, the British Empire controlled areas along the coast of Southern Yemen and the port of Aden and administered the region as a part of British India. The British designated this territory as the Aden Protectorate and divided it into an Eastern and a Western Protectorate. The British used this port as a prominent station for refueling its coal ships on the route to India, and this position became even more important following the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869. The British and Ottomans agreed upon a de facto border between the North and South in 1904, creating the divisions between the northern and southern regions which would have critical importance in the country’s modern history.

The defeat of the Ottoman Empire in World War I signaled the end of all Ottoman control of Northern Yemen. As Turkish forces withdrew in 1918, Imam Yahya Muhammad strengthened his control over the region and created the Mutawakkilite Kingdom of Yemen. This kingdom battled with the emerging Saud family in present-day Saudi Arabia, although control of the territory remained mostly unchanged and hostilities ended in 1934 with the signing of the Treaty of Taif. Northern Yemen joined the Arab League as a founding member of the organization in 1945 and entered the United Nations in 1947.

In Southern Yemen, the British formally recognized the city of Aden as a British colony in 1937. The surrounding countryside remained the Aden Protectorate and the British provided little support or development to this region. As pressure mounted for the British to leave Aden in the decades after World War II, the British attempted to consolidate control of this area by uniting several states of the Aden Protectorate into the Federation of Arab Emirates of the South. Throughout the early 1960s, the British worked to incorporate most of the Aden Protectorate into the Federation and in 1963, the Colony of Aden was added and the union was renamed the Federation of South Arabia. Those areas that did not join the Federation of South Arabia, which mostly comprised the territories in the eastern half of the former Aden Protectorate, formed the Protectorate of South Arabia in 1963.

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In the North, Imam Yahya Muhammad died during an unsuccessful coup attempt in 1948 and was succeeded by his son, Ahmad, who subsequently died in 1962. Shortly after assuming power in 1962, Ahmad’s son, Muhammad al-Badr was deposed by coup forces that took control of Sana’a and created the Yemen Arab Republic. This event initiated the North Yemen Civil War, which lasted until 1970. The conflict raged between royalist forces in support of the Mutawakkilite Kingdom who were supported with military aid from Saudi Arabia and Jordan, and the republican forces supported with soldiers from Egypt. By 1970, Imam al-Badr had fled to Saudi Arabia and the Yemen Arab Republic (YAR) was firmly established in northern Yemen.

Southern Yemen, still composed at this time of the Federation of South Arabia and the Protectorate of South Arabia, also experienced its share of unrest. In the 1960s, two competing nationalist groups sought to gain control of southern Yemen. Some republican fighters from the Northern Civil War began entering the south in an attempt to remove the British from the region. They soon established the National Liberation Front (NLF) and quickly began harassing the British. A rival faction, the Front for the Liberation of Occupied South Yemen (FLOSY), rose up against the NLF. The result was five years of bloodshed with between 100,000 to 200,000 casualties. The British announced their intention to leave the south, and as the situation worsened, the British abandoned all of southern Yemen in 1967. The NLF quickly defeated the FLOSY and united the former lands of the Federation and Protectorate of South Yemen, proclaiming the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen in 1970. They began to have close relations with the Soviet Union, China, and Cuba.

In 1972, the governments of the Yemeni Arab Republic (YAR) and the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen (PDRY) announced that they were working toward a union. However, they made almost no progress for two decades and tensions increased as the PDRY launched several attacks in YAR. Finally in 1988, discussions renewed which eventually led to the establishment of the Republic of Yemen on May 22, 1990. Yemen underwent a 30-month transition period as the two governments merged; however, the process soon turned violent. A civil war broke out in May 1994 when southern leaders seceded and formed the Democratic Republic of Yemen in the south. The northern forces quickly captured Aden and the rebellion ended by mid-July 1994.

Yemen’s government, established during the 1994 unification, has a president that is elected by direct, popular vote and rules for a 7-year term. Yemen is a democratic republic with a bicameral legislature featuring a 301-seat House of Representatives elected by the people, and a 111-member Shura Council appointed by the president. While multiple parties are allowed to run for political office, the General People’s Congress Party dominates the political scene and holds a large majority of seats in the House. The members of the legislature have 6-year terms. Men and women 18 and over have the right to vote.

The recent Arab Spring has brought about significant changes within Yemen. On January 27th, 2011, protests began in the capital Sana’a and quickly spread throughout the country. Following widespread protests and an unsuccessful assassination attempt, former president Ali Abdullah Saleh abdicated in February 2012, but the legislature granted him immunity from prosecution for any crimes committed during his presidency. The protests also forced the resignation of Prime Minister Mujawar and began a process of new elections for president. Abd Rabbuh Mansur Al-Hadi was elected and inaugurated as Yemen’s newest president on November 23rd, 2012.

The National Dialogue Conference (NDC) was a transitional dialogue process held in Sana’a, Yemen from March 18, 2013 to January 24, 2014 as part of the Yemeni crisis reconciliation efforts. On September 18, 2013, the NDC was due to end but was instead extended after groups failed to reach consensus regarding issues related to the southern secession issue. It was originally extended for two weeks, but lasted until January 24, 2014.

In October, 2013, war erupted between the Houthis and Salafi elements, allied with major tribes, in Dammaj, lasting until January 2014. On January 21, 2014, Ahmed Sharif Al-Din, a Houthi representative in the NDC, was assassinated in Sana’a on his way to the conference, fueling tensions between Houthis and government-aligned elements. This was the second assassination of a Houthi representative, after Abdulkarim Jadban was killed in November 2013. As a result, the Houthis withdrew from the conference and denounced the outcomes. On January 25, the closing ceremony of the NDC was held and the Final Outcomes Document was signed.

The NDC process concluded on January 25, 2014, and was marked by political violence throughout the country, mass protests in the south, and the beginning of calls for the use of arms by southern leaders in order to protect the citizens of the south.

Between September 2014 and February 2015, Houthi rebels took over Sana’a, rejected a draft constitution, and appointed a council to replace Presdient Hadi who subsequently fled south to Aden. In Februrary, Hadi was able to return to Sana’a after Saudi-backed government forces recaptured the territory but then went into exile in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia until November 2015. He now alternates his time between Sana’a and Aden as security and safety conditions permit. A coalition of Gulf states, led by Saudi Arabia, began to launch air strikes and create naval blockades against the Houthis. According to the BBC, between March 2015 and March 2016, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights estimated that at least 3,200 civilians had been killed, and 5,700 would with 60% of the casualties inflicted by air strikes. Hadi’s hope for a federal Yemen remains elusive.  

International & Regional Issues Resources

INTERNATIONAL & REGIONAL ISSUES

Saudi Arabia has reinforced its concrete-filled security barrier along sections of the fully demarcated border with Yemen to stem illegal cross-border activities such as illegal movement of suspected terrorists and drugs and weapons smuggling. Yemen holds roughly 4,500 refugees from Ethiopia and 227,000 from Somalia. In addition, conflict in the Sa’ada governorate in northwestern Yemen and clashes between Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, also known as Ansar al-Sharia, and government forces have created nearly 431,000 internally displaced refugees.

Despite its proximity to neighboring Gulf Cooperation Council member states, Yemen is excluded from the influential regional organization. Because of its poverty, its lack of oil and other resources, its non-monarchical government structure, and its support for Iraq during the 1990 invasion of Kuwait, Yemen remains out of favor with and is distinctly divided from the GCC cohort. Nonetheless, the GCC in general, and Saudi Arabia in particular, have been generous with their financial assistance to Yemen.

More than 6,000 people, about half of whom were civilians, have been killed since the start of Saudi-led coalition air strikes against Houthi rebels in March 2015, according to the United Nations, leading to international disapproval and allegations of war crimes. In addition, the American application of drone strikes in the ongoing campaign against Al Qaeda in the Arab Peninsula (AQAP) has been particularly controversial due to the high incidence of civilian casualties.

PEOPLE & LANGUAGE

The population of Yemen is close to 27 million and its population is quickly growing at a rate of 2.5% per year. Yemenis are typically of Arab descent, but significant minorities exist of Africans in the west (4%), South Asians in the south (2%), and Europeans in metropolitan areas (1%). Some have immigrated in search of work while others are ancestors of European colonists.

The educational system experienced many years of turmoil as the new united Yemen was forming in the early 1990s. The Yemeni government has increased emphasis on education by allocating anywhere from 14% to 20% of the annual budget to educational development. The Yemeni government provides universal, compulsory, and free education for ages six through fifteen. There are two levels of education: basic and secondary. Basic school encompasses the first nine years and secondary school provides an additional three years of study. Students must pass an exam in order to receive their General Secondary Education Requirement Certificate. Yemen is home to seven universities: Sana’a University, University of Science and Technology Sana’a, University of Aden – Faculty of Education, TCL Yemen – Tayba Center for Languages, Queen Arwa University, Al-Ahgaff University, and the Lebanese International University.

Population of Yemen

Arab 93%
African 4%
South Asian 2%
European 1%

Population Growing Rate (per year)

People & Language Resources

RELIGION

The dominant religion in Yemen is Islam and much of the constitution is based on Sharia law. People follow either the Shafii Order of Sunni Islam (one of the earliest schools of Islamic thought which emphasized the importance of consensus and analogies in defining law), or the Zaydi Order of Shia Islam (a branch of Shia Islam first taught by Zayd ibn ’Ali). The Sunnis are mostly located in the south and the Shia population is concentrated in the north with each group representing nearly 50% of the population. There is a small minority of about 3,000 Christians, less than 100 Jews, and about 40 Hindus. Freedom of religion is not expressly granted in the constitution, but the government typically does not hinder the private practice of religion. However, conversion from Islam and the proselytization of Muslims is illegal.

CULTURE & SOCIETY

The culture of Yemen has been influenced by two factors—religion and history. Yemen has a distinct cultural tradition with influences from Arabian, African, and east Asian sources. One such influence comes from Africa in the form of Qat. This small leaf provides a euphoric feeling when chewed and is common throughout the Arabian Peninsula, especially Yemen. In addition, Indian customs and traditions are evident in cities like Aden where Indian architecture and ancient Hindu temples can be seen.

Yemen offers an array of food which differs from what is commonly found in the surrounding area. Among these are Zhug, a spicy sauce used in many Yemeni dishes, and Salta, a traditional lunchtime soup.

The sexes are segregated in Yemen, and girls’ and women’s lives are bound by religion and tribal traditions. The country has gained attention for its practice of child marriage; there is no legal minimum age set for marriage so it us up to families to make their preferred arrangements. Nadia Alkowkabani has recently become a rising star through her novel, “It’s Just Love”, which details the difficult struggle of fighting against traditionally arranged marriages. Conversely, women have been very active in Yemeni civil society through NGOs and political engagement. Tawakkol Karman, a journalist, politician, and human rights activist, was awarded the 2011 Nobel Peace Prize for her leadership role in the generally peaceful Arab Spring uprisings in Yemen. She has been called the “Iron Woman” and “Mother of the Revolution” by Yemenis for her role in the demonstrations; as a co-recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize, she became the first Yemeni, the first Arab woman, and the second Muslim woman to win a Nobel Prize. Karman is the also second youngest Nobel Peace Laureate to date.

Culture Resources

Art

Art is an omnipresent feature of Yemeni culture. Yemen has a rich history of architectural beauty, with many of the most prominent structures scattered throughout the capital of Sana’a, such as the Al-Sabahi residential buildings.

Yemen also has a selection of aspiring painters and poets. Kheira al Hindi is a Yemeni painter who draws and paints portraits of women in daily life. She has displayed her paintings in small galleries throughout Yemen. Poetry is another popular form of expression in the country. Yemeni poets have been featured on television where works often depict themes of national unity, national loyalty, and the condemnation of violence and terrorism. The 2011 winner of the UAE reality television poetry competition show, Prince of Poets, was Yemeni scholar Abdul Aziz al Zoraei, who wrote a series of poems on Yemeni politics.

Yemen is also home to several prominent museums. The National Museum, housed in one of the former Imam’s palaces, features exhibitions which showcase Islamic scripts, craft, agriculture, and archaeology in Yemen. The Taiz National Museum was located in the last residence of Imam Ahmed, and offered a look into his personal life as everything in the building has been left as it was on the night he died in 1962. However, the structure was destroyed during recent Houthi shelling.

Art Resources

Sites

Yemen is the home to many architectural and religious sites. There are ruins dating back to its early history such as the Cisterns of Tawila built around 155 BCE, and mosques like the Great Mosque of Sana’a built during the rule of the Rashidun caliphs (6th century CE). Another important religious site is the Tomb of the Prophet Hud. Located 140 km (87 miles) to the northeast of Seiyun city in the Hadramaut region, this tomb is a popular pilgrimage destination as it marks the resting place of Hud, an ancient prophet venerated in Islam.

Another popular site is Aden Port, which the British controlled until the period of decolonization in the 1960s. Aden is the mid-way point between Europe and the Far East, and is situated along the Suez Canal trade route. Tourism in Aden is centered on the harbor where miles of long, sandy beaches meet clear, blue seas. There are several nearby marketplaces that offer spices, clothes, or jewelry.

Sites Resources

Music

The music of Yemen has been influenced by its history, and the traditional folk music, homayni, remains popular. It is played during festivals and ceremonies, as well as in casual home settings. Homayni has poetic lyrics and is played with drums. Some pieces of Yemeni folk music can be up to several hours long, and Qat is sometimes chewed during the performances to help stimulate creativity. Ayoob Tarish Absi is a famous Yemeni singer and melodist from the area of Al-Aboos in the Ta’izz Governorate. Ayoob composed the song “United Republic”, which became the national anthem of the Republic of Yemen.

Hip hop and pop music are rapidly growing in popularity. The hip hop outbreak in Yemen is often associated with the influence of Hajaj Abdulqawi Masaed, best known as “AJ”, an American-Yemeni rapper producing music since 1997. The production of Yemeni hip hop music increased greatly with the onset of the 2011 Yemeni Arab Spring revolution. Hip hop and rap music have been used to mobilize the youth into protests against the government as the lyrics are usually political and criticize the government.

Music Resources

Sports

Soccer, basketball, golf, water sports, and racket ball are among the most popular sports in Yemen. Among these, soccer is the most popular. Several city and regional clubs have been organized such as the Al-Ahli Sana’a team of Sana’a and the Shabab Al Bayda’ team of the city of Al Bayda’, so players can compete and the best represent Yemen in international arenas. However, Yemen has only had moderate success in international soccer tournaments. So far, its highest FIFA world ranking has been 90 out of 207 teams.

Yemen also has a significant martial arts following. Mohammed Hussein Al-Ashwal is the most well-known Yemeni practitioner of the wushu, or kung fu style and has won four international gold medals. Tennis is also growing in popularity. The Yemen Tennis Federation has expanded the outreach of tennis programs to youth throughout the country by setting up training camps and holding competitions such as the Yemen Davis Cup. Young Yemeni tennis players have had some success in international competitions, as players Mo’amen and Hussein Hassan won gold medals in the 2006 West Asia Championship.

Sports Resources

LATEST NEWS & COMMENTARY ON YEMEN

The Atlantic Council

Analysis and Initiatives on Yemen

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The Middle East Policy Council

Scholarly essays, commentary and forums on the Republic of Yemen

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The New York Times

News about Yemen, including commentary and archival articles published in The New York Times.

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ADDITIONAL RESOURCES

Yemen Profile

This website provides information on Yemeni history, urbanism, food, economy, social structure, gender roles, government, marriage, arts, medicine, and religion.

Embassy of the Republic of Yemen in Washington, D.C.

Includes latest news and country information

U.S. State Department Yemen Profile

U.S.-Yemen Relations