history of the Yemen stretches back over 3,000 years, and its unique culture
is still in evidence today in the architecture of its towns and villages.
about 1000 BC this region of the Southern Arabian Peninsula was ruled by three
successive civilisations -- Minean, Sabaean and Himyarite. These three
kingdoms all depended for their wealth on the spice trade. Aromatics such as
myrrh and frankincense were greatly prized in the ancient civilised world and
were used as part of various rituals in many cultures, including Egyptian,
Greek and Roman.
the 11th century BC, land routes through Arabia were greatly improved by using
the camel as a beast of burden, and frankincense was carried from its
production centre at Qana (now known as Bir 'Ali) to Gaza in Egypt. The camel
caravans also carried gold and other precious goods which arrived in Qana by
sea from India.
chief incense traders were the Minaeans, who established their capital at
Karna (now known as Sadah), before they were superseded by the Sabaeans in 950
BC. The Sabaean capital was Ma'rib, where a large temple was built. The mighty
Sabaean civilisation endured for about 14 centuries and was based not only on
the spice trade, but also on agriculture. The impressive dam, built at Ma'rib
in the 8th century, provided irrigation for farmland and stood for over a
millennium. Some Sabaean carved inscriptions from this period are still
Himyarites established their capital at Dhafar (now just a small village in
the Ibb region) and gradually absorbed the Sabaean kingdom. They were
culturally inferior to the Sabaeans and traded from the port of al-Muza on the
Red Sea. By the first century BC, the area had been conquered by the Romans.
the rise of the great ancient civilizations in Egypt, Mesopotamia,
and along the Mediterranean Sea, historic Yemen became an important overland
trade link between these civilizations and the highly prized luxury goods of
South Arabia and points east and south. As a result, several pre-Islamic
trading kingdoms grew up astride an incense trading route that ran northwest
between the foothills and the edge of the desert. First, there was the Minaean
kingdom, which lasted from about 1200 to 650 BC, and whose prosperity was due
mainly to the trade of frankincense
and spices. The large and prosperous kingdom of Saba'
(Sheba), founded in the 10th century BC and ruled by Bilqis, the queen of
Sheba, among others, was known for its efficient farming and extensive
irrigation system built around a large dam constructed at Ma'rib. Farther
south and east, in the region that would later become South Yemen, were the
Qataban and Hadhramaut kingdoms, which also participated in the incense trade.
The last of the great pre-Islamic kingdoms was that of Himyar, which lasted
from about the 1st century BC until the 500s AD (seeHimyarites).
At their heights, the Sabaean and Himyarite kingdoms encompassed most of
of their prominence and prosperity, the states and societies of ancient Yemen
were collectively called Arabia Felix in Latin, meaning "Happy
Arabia." However, when the Romans occupied Egypt in the 1st century BC
they made the Red Sea their primary avenue of commerce. With the decline of
routes, the kingdoms of southern Arabia lost much of their wealth and fell
into obscurity. Red Sea traffic sailed past Yemen, and what seaborne commerce
Yemen engaged in had little impact on the country's interior. The Tihamah
region, which was hot, humid, swept by sandstorms, and clouded in haze,
isolated the comparatively well-watered and populous highlands. The weakened
Yemeni regimes that followed the trading kingdoms were unable to prevent the
occupation of Yemen by the Christian Abyssinian kingdom (modern Ethiopia) in
the 4th and early 6th centuries AD and by the Sassanids of Persia
in the later 6th century, just before the rise of Islam.
Rise of Islam
Islamic era, which began in the 7th century, contains many events critical to
the formation of Yemen and the Yemeni people. The force with which Islam
spread from its origins inMecca and Medina
in the nearby region of Al Hijaz
(the Hejaz) led to Yemen's rapid and thorough conversion to Islam. Yemenis
were well-represented among the first soldiers of Islam who marched north,
west, and east of Arabia to expand Muslim territory.
was ruled by a series of Muslim caliphs, beginning with the Umayyad dynasty,
which ruled from Damascus in the latter part of the 7th century; Umayyad rule
was followed by the Abbasid caliphs in the early 8th century (seeCaliphate).
The founding of a local Yemeni dynasty in the 9th century effectively ended
both Abbasid rule from Baghdad and the authority of the Arab caliphate. This
allowed Yemen to develop its own variant of Arab-Islamic culture and society
in relative isolation. In the 10th century, the establishment of the Zaydi
imamate, essentially a theocracy, in the far north of Yemen forged a deep,
lasting link between the towns and tribes of the northern highlands and the
Zaydi Shiite sect of Islam. By contrast, the two-century-long rule of the
Rasulids, beginning in the 1200s and initially based in Aden, identified the
coastal regions and the southern uplands with Shafi'i Islam. The Rasulids, one
of the major dynasties in the history of Yemen, broke from the Egyptian
Ayyubid dynasty to rule independently. Their capital, later located at Ta'izz,
was famous for its diverse artistic and intellectual achievements.
the early 16th century Portuguese merchants came to Arabia and took over the
Red Sea trade routes between Egypt and India. The Portuguese annexed the
island of Socotra in the Indian Ocean, and from that vantage point tried
unsuccessfully to take control of Aden. Following the Portuguese, the Egyptian
attempted to take power in Yemen, successfully capturing Sanaa but failing to
take Aden. Armies of the Ottoman
Egypt in 1517, and in 1538 brought most of Yemen under their control. The
Ottomans were expelled nearly a century later, after a long struggle led by
the Zaydi imamate that united and strengthened Yemeni identity and ushered in
a long period of Zaydi rule.
Yemen developed an extensive
coffee trade under Ottoman rule, with the coastal town of Mocha (Al Mukha)
becoming a coffee port of international importance; despite this, the
highlands of Yemen remained economically and culturally isolated from the
outside world from the mid-17th century to nearly the mid-19th century, a
period during which Western Europe was greatly influenced by modern thought
process by which Yemen and the Yemeni people were divided into two countries
began with the British seizure of Aden in 1839 and the reoccupation of North
Yemen by the Ottomans in 1849. Throughout the second half of the 19th century,
both the Ottomans and the British expanded their control of Yemeni lands. In
the early 20th century, the two powers drew a border between their
territories, which came to be called North and South Yemen, respectively. This
boundary remained intact for most of the 20th century.
In North Yemen, Ottoman rule met
with significant opposition during the early 1900s. Under the leadership of
the Zaydi imam, Yemenis staged many uprisings. After years of rebellion, in
1911 the Ottomans finally granted the imam autonomy over much of North Yemen.
Defeat in World War I forced the Ottomans to evacuate Yemen in 1918.
Last of the Imams
the next 44 years North Yemen was ruled by two powerful imams. Imam Yahya ibn
Muhammad and his son Ahmad created a king-state there much as the kings of
England and France had done centuries earlier. The two imams strengthened the
state and secured its borders. They used the imamate to insulate Yemen and
revitalize its Islamic culture and society at a time when traditional
societies around the world were declining under imperial rule. While Yemen
under the two imams seemed almost frozen in time, a small but increasing
number of Yemenis became aware of the contrast between an autocratic society
they saw as stagnant and the political and economic modernization occurring in
other parts of the world. This produced an important chain of events: the
birth of the nationalist Free Yemeni Movement in the mid-1940s, an aborted
1948 revolution in which Imam Yahya was killed, a failed 1955 coup against
Imam Ahmad, and finally, the 1962 revolution in which the imam was deposed by
a group of nationalist officers and the Yemen Arab Republic (YAR) was
proclaimed under the leadership of Abdullah al-Sallal.
first five years of President Al-Sallal's rule, from 1962 to 1967, comprised
the first chapter in the history of North Yemen. Marked by the revolution that
began it, this period witnessed a lengthy civil war between Yemeni republican
forces, based in the cities and supported by Egypt, and the royalist
supporters of the deposed imam, backed by Saudi Arabia and Jordan. In 1965
Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser met with King Faisal of Saudi Arabia to
consider a possible settlement to the civil war. The meeting resulted in an
agreement whereby both countries pledged to end their involvement and allow
the people of North Yemen to choose their own government. Subsequent peace
conferences were ineffectual, however, and fighting flared up again in 1966.
By 1967 the
war had reached a stalemate, and the republicans had split into opposing
factions concerning relations with Egypt and Saudi Arabia. In late 1967 Al-Sallal's
government was overthrown and he was replaced as president by Abdul Rahman al-Iryani.
Fighting continued until 1970, when Saudi Arabia halted its aid to royalists
and established diplomatic ties with North Yemen. Al-Iryani effected the
long-sought truce between republican and royalist forces, and presided over
the adoption of a democratic constitution in 1970.
In June 1974
military officers led by Colonel Ibrahim al-Hamdi staged a bloodless coup,
claiming that the government of Al-Iryani had become ineffective. The
constitution was suspended, and executive power was vested in a command
council, dominated by the military. Al-Hamdi chaired the council and attempted
to strengthen and restructure politics in North Yemen. Al-Hamdi was
assassinated in 1977, and his successor, former Chief of Staff Ahmed Hussein
al-Ghashmi, was killed in June 1978. The lengthy tenure of President Ali
Abdullah Saleh, who ruled North Yemen from 1978 until it merged with South
Yemen in 1990, proved more stable. Saleh strengthened the political system,
while an influx of foreign aid and the discovery of oil in North Yemen held
out the prospect of economic expansion and development.
Rule in the South
history of South Yemen after the British occupation of Aden in 1839 was quite
different. After the opening of the Suez
Canal in 1869,
Aden became a vitally important port along the sea lanes to India. In order to
protect Aden from Ottoman takeover, the British signed treaties with tribal
leaders in the interior, promising military protection and subsidies in
exchange for loyalty; gradually British authority was extended to other
mainland areas to the east of Aden. In 1937 the area was designated the Aden
Protectorates. In 1958 six small states within the protectorates formed a
British-sponsored federation. This federation was later expanded to include
Aden and the remaining states of the region, and was renamed the Federation
of South Arabia in
During the 1960s British
colonial policy as a whole came under increasing challenge from a nationalist
movement centered primarily in Aden. Great Britain finally withdrew from the
area in 1967, when the dominant opposition group, the National Liberation
Front (NLF), forced the collapse of the federation and assumed political
control. South Yemen became independent as the People's Republic of South
Yemen in November of that year. The NLF became the only recognized political
party and its leader, Qahtan Muhammad al-Shaabi, was installed as president.
In 1969 al-Shaabi was ousted and replaced by Salem Ali Rubayi; until 1978,
South Yemen was governed under the co-leadership of Rubayi and his rival,
Abdel Fattah Ismail, both of whom made efforts to organize the country
according to their versions of Marxism. In 1970 the country was renamed the
People's Democratic Republic of Yemen (PDRY). Foreign-owned properties were
nationalized, and close ties were established with the USSR. Rubayi was
deposed and executed in 1978; under the prevailing authority of Ismail, Soviet
influence intensified in South Yemen. Ismail was replaced by Ali Nasser
Muhammad al-Hasani in 1980. In 1986 a civil war erupted within the government
of South Yemen; the war ended after 12 days, and al-Hasani fled into exile.
Former premier Haydar Bakr al-Attas was elected president in October.
between North Yemen and South Yemen grew increasingly conciliatory after 1980.
Border wars between the two countries in 1972 and 1979 both had ended
surprisingly with agreements for Yemeni unification, though in each case the
agreement was quickly shelved. During the 1980s the two countries cooperated
increasingly in economic and administrative matters. In December 1989 their
respective leaders met and prepared a final unification agreement. On May 22,
1990, North and South Yemen officially merged to become the Republic of Yemen.
Ali Abdullah Saleh, then leader of North Yemen, became president of unified
Yemen, while Ali Salem al-Beidh and Haydar Bakr al-Attas of South Yemen became
vice president and prime minister, respectively. Sanaa was declared the
political capital of the Republic of Yemen, and Aden the economic capital. By
the summer of 1990 more than 30 new political parties had formed in Yemen.
Rising oil revenues and financial assistance from many foreign countries,
including Iraq, Saudi Arabia, and the United States, brought hope that Yemen
could begin to strengthen and expand its economy.
invasion of Kuwait in 1990 and the events that followed in the Persian Gulf
took a serious toll on Yemen's economy and newfound political stability.
Yemen's critical response to the presence of foreign military forces massed in
Saudi Arabia led the Saudi government to expel 850,000 Yemeni workers; the
return of the workers and the loss of remittance payments produced widespread
unemployment and economic upheaval, which led in turn to domestic political
unrest. Bomb attacks, political killings, and violent demonstrations occurred
throughout 1991 and 1992, and in December 1992 a rise in consumer prices
precipitated riots in several of Yemen's major cities. Concern arose that
declining economic and social conditions would give rise to Islamic
fundamentalist activities in Yemen. Political turmoil forced the government to
postpone general elections, which were finally held on April 27, 1993,
completing the Yemeni unification process begun three years earlier. The
General People's Congress (GPC), the former ruling party in North Yemen, won
121 seats in parliament; the Yemen Socialist party (YSP), the former ruling
party of South Yemen, won 56 seats; a new Islamic coalition party, al-Islah,
won 62 seats; and the remaining 62 seats were won by minor parties and
independents. The president and prime minister remained in office after the
election, and the three major parties formed a legislative coalition.
War and its Aftermath
successful elections quickly gave way to political turmoil. In August 1993
Vice President al-Beidh withdrew from Sanaa to Aden and ceased to participate
in the political process. This followed his visit to the United States, where
he had held talks with Vice President Al Gore, apparently without the consent
of President Saleh. From his base at Aden, al-Beidh issued a list of
conditions for his return to Sanaa; the conditions centered on the security of
the YSP, which, according to the vice president, had been subject to
northern-instigated political violence since unification. al-Beidh also
protested what he considered the increasing economic marginalization of the
deadlock persisted into the later months of 1993, despite extensive mediation
efforts by representatives from several foreign governments. In January 1994
Yemen's principal political parties initialed a Document of Pledge and
Agreement, designed to end the six-month feud between Yemen's president and
vice president; the document called for a thorough review of the constitution
and the country's economic programs and goals. The document was signed by the
two leaders in February, but military clashes occurred almost immediately
thereafter. In April Oman and Jordan halted mediation efforts aimed at getting
the two sides to adhere to their peace agreement. Later that month, heavy
fighting broke out between northern and southern forces at 'Amran, north of
Sanaa; the fighting signaled the disintegration of the Yemeni union.
exploded into full-scale civil war in early May. Both sides carried out
missile attacks in and around Sanaa and Aden. On May 21 al-Beidh announced the
secession of the South from the Republic of Yemen and the formation of a new
southern state, the Democratic Republic of Yemen (DRY). The DRY assembled a
political structure similar to that of unified Yemen, and al-Beidh was elected
president by a five-member Presidential Council. Meanwhile, Saleh dismissed a
number of YSP party members from Yemen's government in an attempt to remove
the influence of al-Beidh.
continued throughout June, much of it centered around the port cities of Aden
and Al Mukalla. Both sides launched attacks on oil installations, and a great
deal of infrastructure was damaged or destroyed. Following the failure of a
Russian cease-fire agreement, Saleh's northern forces launched a final drive
on Aden and Al Mukalla in early July, ultimately defeating the DRY army. By
mid-July all of the former South Yemen was under Saleh's control.
collapse of the DRY, Saleh's government was faced with the task of rebuilding
Yemen's economy and government. The infrastructure in and around Aden had
sustained the most damage, from water systems to oil refineries and
communications centers. In July more than 100 cases of cholera were diagnosed
in Aden, due in part to water shortages in the city.
September 1994 the Yemeni legislature approved a number of major reforms to
the country's 1990 unification constitution. Saleh was formally reelected
president on October 1, and he appointed Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi as his new
vice president. In an attempt to revive the country's economy, Yemeni leaders
made efforts to devise and implement an economic austerity program called for
by several international economic agencies; this was achieved with a great
deal of difficulty in the spring of 1995.
February 1995 the governments of Yemen and Saudi Arabia agreed to negotiate a
settlement to their long-standing dispute over their shared border. The
agreement defused a potentially explosive situation, as Yemen and Saudi Arabia
had skirmished in the region only a few months before. As of May 1996
negotiations continued but the two sides had not agreed on a formal border.
December 1995 Eritrea, which lies across the Red Sea from Yemen, seized Hanish
al Kabir (Greater Hanish Island), strategically located at the mouth of the
Red Sea, from Yemeni troops stationed there. At least 12 people were killed in
the fighting. Both Yemen and recently independent Eritrea claim the Hanish
Islands; Yemeni plans for a resort on Hanish al Kabir reportedly sparked the
attack. By May 1996 the two countries had reached a truce and agreed to submit
the question of sovereignty over the islands to arbitration.
unification, North Yemen was governed by a benign authoritarian regime
dominated by the military, and South Yemen functioned as a centralized
socialist party-state. Politics opened up with the creation of the Republic of
Yemen in 1990, and the number of freely functioning parties, lobbying groups,
and communications outlets multiplied. During a 30-month transition period,
the unification regime was based on equal power sharing between the General
People's Congress (GPC) and the Yemeni Socialist party (YSP), the former
ruling parties of North Yemen and South Yemen, respectively. An open, hotly
contested national election in April 1993 marked the end of the transition
period and yielded a coalition government consisting of the GPC, the YSP, and
the conservative Islamic Reform Grouping (al-Islah), with the GPC
holding nearly a majority of the cabinet posts. The 1993 election was the
first multiparty election on the Arabian Peninsula, and the first in which
women could vote; the vast majority of Yemenis participated.
The constitution adopted in
1990, which was similar to North Yemen's 1970 constitution, provided for a
301-member elected legislature, called the Council of Deputies. In addition to
its legislative tasks, the council would select a five-member Presidential
Council and vote on the composition and program of the cabinet. The
Presidential Council would choose from its membership a president and vice
president, and also nominate the prime minister. The members of the Council of
Deputies would be selected for five-year terms, as would the president and
vice president. In September 1994, at the end of the country's civil war, the
Council of Deputies voted to adopt major reforms to the unification
constitution. The amended constitution declares Islamic Sharia (basic
law) as the basis of all legislation and describes the economy as
market-based. The reforms also abolished the five-member Presidential Council,
and stipulated that the presidency be decided by universal suffrage, with no
one permitted to hold office for more than two terms.
1990 the president has been Ali Abdullah Saleh, the former leader of North
Yemen; Saleh was most recently reelected in 1994, following Yemen's short
civil war. At the end of Saleh's five-year term in office in 1999, the
president will be directly elected according to the terms of the amended
constitution. From 1990 to May 1994, Ali Salem al-Beidh, the former top leader
of South Yemen, was the vice president of unified Yemen. Following the civil
war, in which al-Beidh led the losing secessionist forces, Saleh replaced him
with Major-General Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi. Saleh also appointed a new cabinet
comprised of members of the GPC and al-Islah parties to replace the
three-party coalition formed in 1993 that had included the YSP.