Yemen, Republic of, country in southwestern Asia, on the southwestern corner of the Arabian Peninsula. It is bounded on the west by the Red Sea and on the south by the Gulf of Aden (an arm of the Arabian Sea, which is part of the Indian Ocean), and is separated from Africa by the narrow strait of Bab el Mandeb. To the north and northeast lies Saudi Arabia and to the east is Oman; these two countries are Yemen’s only contiguous neighbors. Yemen includes several sizable islands, most notably Socotra in the Indian Ocean, Perim in the Bab el Mandeb, and Kamaran in the Red Sea. Yemen covers about 527,970 sq km (about 203,850 sq mi). Sana‘a (Sanaa) is Yemen’s capital and largest city.
The Republic of Yemen was created in 1990 out of the peaceful unification of the Yemen Arab Republic (YAR) and the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen (PDRY). The YAR was commonly called North Yemen, and the PDRY was generally referred to as South Yemen, although South Yemen was actually less to the south than to the east and southeast of North Yemen. In May 1994, civil war broke out between the ruling powers of northern and southern Yemen, which had maintained separate armies and security forces as well as political differences. The fighting, which lasted more than two months and produced thousands of casualties and major economic and infrastructural damage, resulted in the defeat of southern secessionists and the survival of unified Yemen.
Prosperous and famed in ancient times, historic Yemen has been a very poor and unknown land for more than the last thousand years. The discovery of oil in both Yemens in the mid-1980s held out the prospect of economic development and an easier life for the people of Yemen.
With 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 ad 500s (see Himyarites). At their heights, the Sabaean and Himyarite kingdoms encompassed most of historic Yemen.
Because 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 the caravan 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 Tihāmah 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.
Land, Touritsm and Tourism Resources
Geologically, much of Yemen constitutes the upturned corner of the rectangular plate that defines the Arabian Peninsula. The edge of this corner takes the form of a steep, jagged mountain range that traces the western and southern limits of a high plateau; the plateau descends gradually north and east from the mountains into the desert interior, on the edge of the vast Rub‘ al Khali (Empty Quarter) of Saudi Arabia. To the west, the mountains drop abruptly to a low, flat coastal desert plain called the Tihāmah; averaging about 50 km (about 30 mi) in width, this plain parallels the Red Sea the length of northern Yemen, turns abruptly east near the old border between the two Yemens, and then runs parallel to the Gulf of Aden for part of the length of southern Yemen. Averaging about 1,830 m (about 6,000 ft) and rising at Jabal an Nabī Shu‘ayb to 3,760 m (12,336 ft), the highest peak on the peninsula, the Yemeni highlands have a generally semiarid but otherwise temperate climate, despite their location well south of the tropic of Cancer. By contrast, the coastal desert is hot and humid much of the year, and at times extremely so; summer and winter winds often bring severe sandstorms. Average temperatures for Yemen as a whole vary from about 27°C (80°F) in June to about 14°C (57°F) in January.
Every year during the summer months, monsoon winds blow inland over the water, picking up moisture, and the mountains force the warm air to rise, cool, and condense. The considerable, although erratic, seasonal rainfall allows for intensive cultivation, much of it on stonewalled terraces and in wadis—streambeds that flow with water only during and after the rains. The average rainfall in the highlands varies from 303 to 762 mm (8 to 30 in), whereas on the coast it varies from 76 to 229 mm (3 to 9 in).
The mountains of northern Yemen are cut at right angles in several places by great wadis that feed large aquifers (underground layers of earth or stone that hold water) at their base on the Tihāmah. Moreover, since the highlands in the north are loftier and more extensive than in the south, the north has a generally less forbidding climate, greater rainfall, more intensive and extensive agriculture, and a much larger population. The eastern two-thirds of southern Yemen are basically uninhabitable, except for coastal oases, fishing villages, the port of Al Mukallā, and the large, well-populated district of Hadhramaut, which extends from the coast into the country’s interior.
Preparing a Meal, Yemen Nearly all of the population of Yemen is of Arab descent and most are Muslim. Here, a man and woman in traditional garments prepare the evening meal. Food and Agric. Org. of the United Nations
Most inhabitants of Yemen are ethnic Arabs, although there exist relatively small communities of Africans, South Asians, and Europeans. Thousands of refugees from the conflict in Somalia were residing in Yemen in the early 1990s. A significant minority of the population is organized into tribes, and for many Yemenis tribal identity is of primary importance. This is particularly true in the northern highlands, where the sheikhs of several individual tribes and two large tribal confederations, the Hashid and Bakil, can still mobilize large numbers in defense of tribal interests. Virtually all of the inhabitants of northern Yemen are sedentary, meaning they have fixed homes and do not move from place to place like nomads. A slightly smaller percentage is sedentary in the south. A small number of nomadic pastoralists can be found on the edge of the desert far to the east. Although Yemen has traditionally been characterized by a stratified social system marked by castelike groups at the top and bottom, this structure is breaking down as economic opportunities become available and new social ideas come to prevail.
The total population of Yemen is 20,024,867 (2004 estimate). The average population density is 38 persons per sq km (98 per sq mi). Although more than one and a half times its size in land area, the former South Yemen had less than one-third the population of the former North Yemen in the late 1980s. The population of southern Yemen is concentrated in a few areas, including Al Mukallā and the other towns of Hadhramaut, the highlands north and east of Aden, and above all, in Aden proper and its metropolitan area. By contrast, the far larger population of northern Yemen is scattered over a great many towns, villages, and hamlets; the combined populations of its principal urban centers, Sana‘a, Ta‘izz, and Al Ḩudaydah, comprised less than 10 percent of the north’s total population in the late 1980s.
Nearly all Yemenis speak Arabic. However, the country’s extremely rugged terrain, widely separated population centers, and less-developed means of transportation and communications have produced several dialectical differences. The most notable difference exists between the dialect of the northern Yemeni highlands and that of Aden and the southern part of the former North Yemen.
Yemeni Folk Dancers Most of the people in Yemen are of Arab descent, and the country is predominantly Islamic. Religious and cultural traditions are an important part of the country’s history. Here, onlookers at a wedding celebration enjoy a folk dance.Photo Researchers, Inc./George Holton
The indigenous population of Yemen is almost entirely Muslim, with small resident communities of Christians, Jews, and Hindus. The Christian population that existed in Yemen in pre-Islamic times virtually disappeared during the Islamic era, which began in the 7th century ad. All but a few thousand members of the formerly significant Jewish community, which may have resided continuously in Yemen since pre-Islamic times, emigrated to Israel shortly after its creation in 1948. Yemen’s Muslim population has suffered from divisiveness. Through centuries of persecution, the once large and powerful Ismaili Shia community (see Ismailis) was reduced to an insignificant minority residing in the mountains, although this number has increased somewhat in recent years. A long-standing division remains between the Zaydi Shia Muslims and the Shafi’i Sunni Muslims, Yemen’s two principal religious groups (see Shia Islam; Sunni Islam). Long less than a majority, the Zaydis of the northern highlands dominated politics and cultural life in northern Yemen for centuries; with unification, and the addition of the south’s almost totally Shafi’i population, the numerical balance has shifted dramatically away from the Zaydis. Nevertheless, Zaydis are still overrepresented in the government and, in particular, in the former North Yemeni units within the armed forces.
Way of Life
Men often wear one of several types of skirts rather than pants, and a straw hat or headcloth.
Yemeni tribesmen are known by the jambiyya, or curved dagger, carried in a scabbard on a wide belt at the front of the body. Men often wear one of several types of skirts rather than pants, and a straw hat or headcloth. They also may wear Western styles of clothing. The clothing of Yemeni women, which includes robes, shawls, and veils, varies greatly from region to region; much of it is colorful, striking, and imaginative.
Women in Yemen tend to live secluded from nonfamilial men, although this is less true under the more relaxed conditions in the countryside and former South Yemen generally. The most distinctive and important Yemeni social institution is the “qat session,” a relaxed but ritualized afternoon gathering at which men and women socialize separately and chew the mildly narcotic leaves of the privet-like qat (khat) plant. Most men and many women “chew qat” at least twice a week.
The Yemeni diet includes rice, bread, vegetables, fish, and lamb. A spicy green stew called salta is one of Yemen’s most popular dishes. Housing in Yemen varies from region to region. In the Tihāmah, near the Red Sea, people live in African-style circular reed huts. Residents of the highlands, many of whom are farmers, sometimes live in stone or mud-brick houses of multiple stories, often intricately decorated with alabaster or stained glass. City dwellers also reside in houses of this type, or else in modern-style houses or flats.
Yemen’s relative isolation and traditionally weak economy have produced a number of long-standing social problems. Because education was until recently unavailable to the majority of Yemenis, the country has traditionally had one of the lowest literacy rates in Asia. This is particularly true for women in Yemen, who have not generally been encouraged to seek schooling. In addition, health care in Yemen is notoriously underdeveloped. Polluted drinking water, inadequate vaccination, and a shortage of medical personnel and facilities have contributed to the quick spread of numerous diseases among Yemenis. These conditions have also given Yemen a high infant mortality rate and a much lower rate of life expectancy than in other countries of the Arabian Peninsula. Over the past two decades, Yemeni leaders have made greater efforts to provide social welfare for the nation’s inhabitants; with the help of foreign aid, new training and treatment facilities have opened, and new health-care programs are in operation in some rural areas.
Traditional Music of Yemen Performed by a group of villagers from Husseiniyat in Yemen, this fast and furious, largely improvised music is played for dancing. A duet of two flutes (gasaba) is backed by a polyrhythmic ensemble of three large horizontal drums (tabl) and several kettledrums (marfa, tunkarat)."Chargui and Hakif dances" from Yemen: Traditional Music of the North (Cat.# Unesco D 8004) (p)1988 Auvidis-Unesco. All rights reserved.
Beyond language, cultural differences abound between regional groups in Yemen. Many of the inhabitants of Hadhramaut reflect the cultural and genetic influence of Southeast Asia with which the district has historic commercial ties. Those Yemenis living in the coastal lowlands reflect the racial and cultural influences of nearby Africa, and cosmopolitan Aden, which Great Britain ruled as part of India from the mid-1800s through the early 1900s, still bears traces of the culture of the Indian subcontinent.
Currency and Foreign Trade
Yemen’s unit of currency is the riyal, which consists of 100 fils (56.6 riyals equal U.S.$1, 1996, official rate; 176 riyals equal U.S.$1, 2002 free-market rate average). In March 1994 approximately 18 riyals equaled U.S.$1 officially; however, the currency declined sharply later that year, due largely to the country’s civil war and its lingering effects. In 1995 Yemen’s budget expenditures exceeded revenues by 24 percent. Yemen imports considerably more than it exports, and has relied quite heavily on foreign assistance to offset its trade deficit. Principal exports include crude oil, some refined petroleum products, textiles, hides and skins, coffee, vegetables, and dried fish; among Yemen’s many imported products are manufactured consumer goods, textiles, foodstuffs, machinery, transportation equipment, and chemicals. Leading purchasers of Yemen’s exports are South Korea, Singapore, Japan, the United States, Saudi Arabia, and Bahrain; chief sources of imports are the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, the United States, France, the United Kingdom, Malaysia, and Turkey.
Throughout the 20th century and probably earlier, the major export of both Yemens was Yemeni workers. This increased dramatically after the 1960s, and the two Yemens became largely remittance economies, increasingly dependent on hard currency earned by workers abroad, mainly in Saudi Arabia and other countries of the Arabian Peninsula. This changed in 1990, when Saudi Arabia withdrew the privileges of Yemenis working there and halted foreign aid to its southern neighbor; the move was made in retaliation for Yemen’s support for an Arab diplomatic and political solution to Iraq’s seizure of Kuwait and its resistance to the deployment of foreign troops to Saudi Arabia to counter the Iraqi military threat. As a result, 850,000 Yemeni workers returned home, producing a major reduction in national income, large-scale unemployment, and general economic upheaval. To compensate for the loss in remittances and economic assistance, the government of Yemen began to focus on creating a more viable and stable domestic economy.