(Union of North & South)

Currency unit

Yemeni Rial









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The Romans called Yemen "Arabia Felix" . It was then the most prosperous part of the Arabian peninsula. It controlled the spice trade with India and passed it on to the northern countries, Rome and Egypt. The biblical Queen of Sheba probably came from Sh'aba in Yemen (but Ethiopian tradition claims her for Ethiopia). The influence of this area extended into the Indian Ocean (remains in the Maldives are traced to pre-Islamic Yemen). The possibly Jewish Lemba of southern Africa may have come from Yemen in pre-Islamic times. (google "Lemba yemen zimbabwe") In recent times Yemenis from Aden became seamen. Many settled in Zanzibar and colonies of Yemenis from the Hadhramaut can be found as far away as Indonesia (and Britain).

In pre-Islamic times a great dam was built at Marib which sustained an important irrigated area and a military power (no-one knows who built it). In the first three centuries of the Christian Era this kingdom controlled most of the peninsula. It was the collapse of the dam in 450 CE (possibly as a result of climate disturbance following the explosion of a mega-volcano near Krakatoa - see Problems) which ended this supremacy (as well as the rise of Persian power). The kingdom was invaded by the Christian Ethiopians in 522 CE as a response to the request of the Byzantine government who wanted to protect the Christians of the area from a king of Sana'a who had converted to Judaism. As now, the control of the entrance to the Red Sea was of interest to Ethiopia and Byzantium (the "Western" power of the time). This remote war was part of the Cold War between Byzantium and Persia, which also wished to control this area.

The fall of the southern kingdom helped the rise of Makkah as a trading city.

On the coming of Islam Yemen became a part of the Islamic world, but out of the mainstream which was centered on the cities of the north: Damascus, Baghdad and Cairo.

Soon after the time of Mohammed a state in the north was founded by a descendant of Mohammed. From him descended a line of 70 Shi'ite Imams (this is a different sect of Shi'ism from that of Iran).

Before the revolution in 1962 North Yemen was one of the most inaccessible states. It had been ruled by an Imam - strictly, the religious leader of a Shi'ite sect. But Yemen had had periods under the domination of the Ottoman Empire 1536 - 1635 and 1872 -1917 though the Imams never renounced their rights and the Ottoman presence was more symbolic than effective.

The 1962 revolution was carried out by supporters of Gamal Abdul Nasser in the name of Arab nationalism. The revolutionaries also wanted to modernize the country where modern machinery and social ideas had been excluded by the Imam.

Following the 1962 revolution there was a civil war in which the republican group supported by Egypt fought a monarchist group supported by Saudi Arabia whose rulers were afraid of any modernization on their borders - especially the idea that kings could be deposed. It ended in a compromise (1967) with a moderate republican regime acceptable to the Saudis and the Egyptians. The regime took the form of a military controlled state.

South Yemen (geographically, southeast Yemen) was controlled by Britain as the Aden Colony and Protectorate from 1839 until 1967. To the British the port of Aden was an important base for the Royal Navy for this whole time, and especially after the opening of the Suez Canal when Aden became an important link on the route to India. British rule came to an end when they were driven out by revolutionaries who gained support from the Soviet Union. These named it the People's Democratic Republic of Yemen. During the 1970s the revolutionaries attempted to conquer parts of Oman by means of a guerrilla war in Dhofar but failed (mainly because of British military support to Oman).

The two Yemens fought several wars and skirmishes, which made union a surprise when it occurred (while the author was in Aden). In the south there was a destructive civil war which crippled the country, and also ended the attempt to impose Marxism.

In 1990 South Yemen's support from the collapsing Soviet Union was withdrawn and the government realized they had no resources unless they joined up with North Yemen, which occurred in May 1990. The author observed in 1990 that some of the procedures of the British civil service were still functioning despite more than 30 years of Communist rule. (But also the hotel showed the signs of control from Moskva with staff trained in the communist tradition of bad food and surly service.)

United Yemen
The united country had a military backed government with elections held in November 1992.

Oil discoveries in the region between the two countries helped bring about union, as they could not be exploited without union. There is also oil in the section of the Empty Quarter (Rub al Khali) claimed by Yemen but disputed by Saudi Arabia. In 1993 oil was also found in South Yemen, which may have encouraged the southerners to attempt to break the union.

The strength of the new country is that it has the largest population in the Arabian peninsula and is the only area of Arabia which has reliable rain. North Yemen has an agricultural culture based on the monsoon rain which falls on the high country. Nevertheless the agricultural production doesn't feed the people.

Disputes with Saudi Arabia continued when, in 1990, Yemen apparently supported Saddam Hussein's invasion of Kuwait by failing to vote for UN sanctions and attempting to evade them. The numerous Yemeni citizens working in Saudi Arabia were expelled at short notice, thus crippling Yemen's economy. The United States also withdrew aid from the country.

Northern Yemen has a society which is still largely traditional. The South has a British tradition in the city and parts of the rural area. It is too soon to tell which of the two former peoples will dominate the new state but the North had the numbers. There are signs that the more disciplined southern army was being used in the north, partly to ensure the union could not be broken, and partly to control the wilder parts of the north.

The frontier with Saudi Arabia is undefined, and there could therefore be disputes. The southern province of Saudi Arabia, Asir, has in the past been part of Yemen. Yemen may well have the better disciplined army so that war is unlikely.

Until 1994 the union seemed on balance likely to remain, unless the northerners tried to impose their ways on the south.

However, during 1993 some of the members of the former ruling party of the south were murdered and in early 1994 there were signs of growing tension between northerners and southerners. The fact that there are economic benefits to the union does not mean it cannot break up.

At the beginning of May 1994 there was fighting between northerners and southerners when the northerners tried to conquer the south. Possibly Kuwait and Saudi Arabia would have been happy to support a split and may have assisted the southerners. The north appeared to have conquered the south by July 1994.

In December 1995 and again in 1996 there was some fighting with Eritrea over islands on the Eritrean side of the Red Sea.

As there are areas where there is little government presence, Yemen is suspected of being an area where Islamic fundamentalists of the sort led by the late Osama bin Laden (whose family originated in Hadhramaut) may be found. It was from Aden in southern Yemen that a group attacked the US Navy ship Cole in the harbor.



South Arabian
(ancient Semitic language, pre-dating the Quran)

Interesting reading

The famous British District Officer, Harold Ingrams, "the first person to bring peace to the tribes since Mohammed" - the Yemen

Yemen, The: Imams, Rulers and Revolutions

Victoria Clark - Yemen: Dancing on the Heads of Snakes

Yemen: Dancing on the Heads of Snakes

Useful source of literature







South Yemen was controlled by a single party, the Yemen Socialist Party, in effect a Communist Party. With the end of support from the Soviet Union and eastern Europe (because of the ending of communism in eastern Europe) the party transformed itself and announced the privatization of state businesses. Following this came the unification with the north in May 1990.

The north had a government which like many in the Arab world is not easy to define as single party or military. The northern government appeared to be the dominant influence in the new united statel. Elections have been held.

Women played a political role in the south; whereas in the north they are confined to a more traditional role. Women may be the losers out of the union of the two states. By early 1992 there were still some women in the joint parliament.

The free elections took place, making Yemen unique in the Arab world. This intention for democracy does not seem to interest the United States which continued to punish them for the UN vote on Iraq. After the elections the two former ruling parties then combined to form a majority in Parliament. Thus the result of the elections seemed to form a new ruling oligarchy. The true test of democracy would have been another election.

There were three parties in Parliament. The largest is the General People's Congress (north), second the Yemen Socialist Party (south), third the Islamic Party. There was at first no undisputed leader but a five member Presidency Council. However, the former northern President, Ali Abdullah Saleh became the president of the Council and behaved like a dictator.

In January 1994 the coalition broke up after the socialists said the Islamic party was siding with the northerners, leading to civil war.

In reality the government was one of the Arab dictatorships under Ali Abdullah Saleh, who ruled for about 30 years.

The government has three main problems.

  • There is still a seccessionist movement to restore the independence of the South. This seems unlikely to succeed.
  • The second is tribal unrest in parts of the north, where the government has little real authority.
  • The followers of the late Osama bin Laden are said to have training camps in the north, in areas where the government has little authority. The western powers, especially the United States are bringing pressure to remove these camps, from which individuals are said to have attempted the assassination of the Saudi security minister, and the blowing up of an airliner travelling from Amsterdam to Detroit.

In the last week of 2010 there have been reports of demonstrations in the street against the president, asking for democracy. What could this lead to? A genuinely democratic system might well lead to a split of the country back into North and South Yemens.

After weeks of demonstrations and shootings of demonstrators Ali Abdullah Saleh seemed to have agreed to resign by the end of May 2011.

But he didnŐt and fighting has broken out between one of the most powerful tribes and government forces.

In June 2011 he left for medical treatment in Saudi Arabia after being wounded by a bomb attack on his residence. What will follow? His vice-president was elected in a one-candidate process.

How does Yemen work?

Photos of Aden in colonial days.

Interesting reading

Harold Ingrams - Arabia and the Isles

Paul Torday - Salmon Fishing in the Yemen
a satire on western aid policies

Salmon Fishing in the Yemen

Lachsfischen im Jemen
Paul Torday on a visit to Yemen

Isa Blumi - Chaos in Yemen



Chaos in Yemen: Societal Collapse and the New Authoritarianism (Routledge Advances in Middle East and Islamic Studies)







Yemen is the only country in the peninsula with rain and an agricultural economy capable of supporting the people without subsidy.

Oil has been discovered in the region between the two former countries, which was an important consideration for bringing about union. The discoveries are as yet in an early stage and it is too soon to say whether the country will be a large oil producer.

It turned out that there was little oil and by 2011 production was already declining.

It possesses the port of Aden, until the 1994 civil war the most developed part of the state (though much run down after decades of Communist management).

However, 25% of the national income came from remittances of people working in other countries, such as Saudi Arabia. This was interrupted with the Kuwait War.







In north Yemen there is an intricate irrigation system by which rain falling on the high country is channeled through terraces and led in a controlled way down the escarpment to the coastal plains. As many of the people are now working in the oil rich countries, or following a western style education have moved to the city, the irrigation system is being eroded because of lack of maintenance.

There is considerable scope for production of solar energy.






Human Rights

South Yemen had one of the world's most oppressive regimes. This was relaxed before union when the ruling party renounced Marxism. However, women had more freedom than in most Arab countries, and were able to work and were represented in the South Yemen parliament.

Climate effects

One degree
It is possible that the Indian ocean monsoon may become stronger, bringing more water to the highlands.

Two degrees
Possible increase in monsoon.

The author was present in Aden when the two states merged.

Last revised 24/02/12

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