Yemen, or “Al Yaman,” which means, “The South,” is a rather large, sparsely populated country at the southwestern corner of the Arabian Peninsula. (Get your bearings with this map.) One of the oldest centers of civilization in the world, much of Yemen’s land is actually fertile enough to keep a stable population, unlike that of its neighbor to the north, Saudi Arabia, which required its citizens to have nomadic knowhow to get by. Invading kingdoms coveted this fertile land and ruled parts of Yemen throughout its ancient history–kingdoms such as the Semites, the Sabeans, the Himyarties (most notably ruled by the Jewish king Yusuf Asar Yathar/”Dhu Nuwas” who was notorious for persecuting Christian Aksumites) and even the Sassanids from Persia.
Islam arrived early in Yemen, around the year 630, while Muhammad was still alive, and Yemen became one of the first provinces in the Arabic/Islamic empire. (Today 99% of Yemenis are Muslim, split evenly between Zaydi-Shi’a, whose members live in the north and northwest, and the Shafa’i Sunni, who mainly live in the south and southeast.) Yemen remained very much under Arab control until the 19th century when the Ottomans took much of the northern part of the country, making San’a its capital. British forces were also interested in Yemen, specifically in the southern port of Aden which it used as a refueling station for British ships traveling to India. Aden became even more desirable after the Suez Canal opened in 1869, giving boats a clear route through the Mediterranean into the Gulf. In 1904 the British and Ottomans formally split Yemen in two, with the Ottomans presiding over northern Yemen and the British over the south. (See a map of “North Yemen,” also called “Yeman Sana’a,” and a map of “South Yemen,” also known as “Yemen Aden.” You’ll see that, oddly, some of South Yemen is actually north of North Yemen.) Local Yemenis disliked this dual rule and rebelled against both the Ottomans and the British, inspiring tribes throughout the nation to join. Britain tried to manage South Yemen as an area divided into many small tribal kingdoms but it became unwieldy.
After the Ottoman Empire collapsed in 1918 northern Yemen became an independent state called the Mutawakkilite Kingdom of Yemen, ruled mainly by Zaydi-Shi’a Muslim kings. North Yemen became known for its strict clerical rule and its increasing international isolation. In 1962, after an anti-royalist coup, the country, renamed the Yemen Arab Republic stumbled into an armed conflict now known as the North Yemen Civil War. In the conflict Saudi Arabia and Jordan supported the royalists while Egypt’s president Gamel
Adel Nasser (more about him in the Egypt background e-mail) sent 70,000 troops to support the republicans, hoping that if the Yemeni monarchy fell, so too would the monarchy in Saudi Arabia. Unfortunately for Egypt, many Yemeni tribes sided with the royalists and, despite receiving Soviet military help, Egypt’s troops were not able to defeat them. Egypt’s troops withdrew in shame; Nasser called Yemen “Egypt’s Vietnam.” After Egypt withdrew, the royalist/tribal coalition fell apart; historians suggest the tribes had joined the collaboration in order to oppose the Egyptian meddling rather than out of sincere support of the monarchy. In 1970 Republican forces declared victory and vowed to
give tribal leaders a voice in government. Later that year, Saudi Arabia even recognized the Yemen Arab Republic (“North Yemen”) as a nation. Also in 1970, “South Yemen” changed its name officially to the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen and became a one-party, socialist-supported state.
Throughout the ’70s and ’80s, even though there were several skirmishes between the North and South–the Saudis supporting the North, the USSR the South–Yemenis talked often of reunification. In 1990 the North and South officially reunified and became the Republic of Yemen. The president of this presumably democratic, multi-party republic was long-time Northern Yemeni President, military leader and Zaydi-Shiite, Ali Abdallah Saleh.
Unfortunately for Yemen the merger between north and south has been rocky. A civil war between the two broke out in 1994. This time Saudi Arabia, which saw a united Yemen as somewhat of a threat, supported the South. The United States kept calling for peace negotiations the United Nations tried, and failed, to negotiate a lasting cease-fire. Eventually the South seceded and established the Democratic Republic of Yemen, which remained a nation unrecognized internationally. There was more fighting though, and the North defeated it. President Saleh announced an amnesty and welcomed southerners back into Yemen.
Throughout the ’90s and 2000s President Saleh remained in power, running in and winning several popular elections, most which were deemed free and fair. (Though
he faced very little opposition and the results always seemed a foregone conclusion.) In 1999 parliament elongated the presidential term to seven years and created a 111 seat, presidentially-appointed Islamically-inspired Shura Council to balance the popularly elected 301 seat House of Representatives. In 2005 Saleh said he wouldn’t run for president in the 2006 elections, then in 2006 changed his mind, won the election and remained in charge. Throughout his rule Saleh’s friendship with Iraq and Saddam Hussein withered and by the 2003 U.S. invasion that toppled Saddam he and Yemen had become increasingly close to Iran. The fact that Saleh is Shia Muslim and was facing opposition from a Sunni-oriented rebel group in the south helped solidify the Yemeni-Iranian bond. Saleh’s relations with the United States haven’t always been strong, though since 2000, when al-Qaeda bombed the U.S.S. Cole in Aden Harbor, the U.S. has tried, with intermittent success, to enlist Saleh as a partner in fighting “the War on Terror.”
In 2011 Yemenis turned on their TV sets, saw the mass movements of the Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions and wondered why they shouldn’t take to the street and try to oust Saleh. Some began to protest, calling not only for Saleh to resign but for the government to be more responsive to the increasingly impoverished population. Still, Saleh wouldn’t go. Even after being injured in a rocket attack and flying to Saudi Arabia for several months to recuperate Saleh eventually returned. Several times throughout the demonstrations Saleh has announced plans to one way or another leave the presidency, but so far that hasn’t happened. As of this writing (October 2011) protests by a complex coalition of students, civil society groups, Yemeni tribes, Sunni secessionists and even al-Qaeda continue, facing increasingly harsh government crack down. No one knows what’s going to happen next.
Wikipedia on Yemen | Watch this video for a basic overview of Yemen’s 3000 years of history, though you may want to take the part about Allah destroying the big dam with a grain of salt.
One thing that people in Yemen can count on existing today, tomorrow and into the foreseeable future, as long as Yemenis have a say in the matter, is qat. Qat is a small evergreen shrub grown in Yemen that has become central to the national personality. Every day at about two in the afternoon a substantial percentage of the population (mainly male, but increasingly female) stops working, or studying, or protesting the government, and sits with friends and family to chew qat. When a person chews qat the plant releases a juice that acts like a mild amphetamine, enabling the chewer to spend hours engaged in somewhat hazy discussion about politics, society and the meaning of life. Qat sessions
last well into the evening and end with a contemplative “Hour of Solomon,” described a bit more in the music section below. While not everyone approves of this tradition (see articles like “Qat: The Plague of Yemen”) and while qat cultivation takes a lot of water, which in drought-stricken Yemen is a seriously dwindling resource, an estimated half to 2/3 of the population chews qat on a regular basis. Qat may be “the plague of Yemen,” but for the time being it seems to be here to stay.
According to The Atlantic, “You don’t ‘get’ Yemen if you don’t get Qat.” | Does Yemen’s Qat habit hinder a popular revolution? | PBS on Qat