Summary: Yemen is thought to be one of the oldest inhabited regions on earth. It’s rich and diverse climate and geography provided hospitable living conditions for the first people which inhabited it and some mighty kingdoms arouse, among which Sabean Kingdom was most famous. With the onset of Islam, the country was changed radically and the name »Yemen« is said to have been first used. During this time, Yemen acted as home to inventions and intellectual theories that changes the course of the future, such as Algebra. Later many colonial, political and societal changes occurred including the Arab Spring and what occurred as a result of it.


There are different theories about the source of Yemen’s Arabic name, Al Yaman. The early Muslims living around Mecca divided their lands into those lying northward, or shaman, and those lying to the south, or yamanan. So possibly the name suggests the geographic location of Yemen on the southernmost tip of Arabian Peninsula.

In the Arab tradition and for Yemenis, the word Yemen derives from the expression “Al-Yumn” which means grace and blessing.

Southern Arabia, especially Yemen is often referred to as Arabia Felix, or the Happy Arabia. This name is a Latin translation from Periplus of the Erythraean Sea, a 1st century AD book by an anonymous Greek writer, who coined the original phrase “Eudaemon Arabia” when describing the port of Aden.

The expression Arabia Felix, or the Happy Arabia, was used already in the ancient world, in the time of the Queen of Sheba (10 centuries BC) which was surrounded by a sense of mystery and the air of unimaginable wealth and luxury. Her country on the shores of the Red Sea was fortunate not only because of the trade route passing through it, but also because of the climate considered favorable by the standards of Arabian Peninsula – the “green Yemen”.


Yemen is one of the oldest inhabited regions in the world and Yemeni tradition and folklore abound with biblical references. As an example, Shem, the son of Noah is supposed to be the founder of the city of Sana’a. While the historical accuracy of such stories might be questioned, what is certain is that history in Yemen dates from the very dawn of humankind.



The ancient history of Yemen can be divided into two main periods. The first begins in the first millennium BC with the rise of the frankincense trade and ends with the decline of the eastern cultural centers towards the end of the pre-Christian era when the land route was loosing its importance and was finally replaced by a sea trade route in the western part of the Red Sea.

It is not possible to state exactly when the civilization of Yemen first flourished. The earliest reliable information proves the existence of a highly developed culture in the tenth century BC. This was the Kingdom of Saba, which was the centre and heart of ancient Yemen, the greatest and most important political unit of that era that existed 14 centuries, from 10th century BC. The capital of the kingdom was Marib, the most famous ancient city of Yemen. The city had a strategically important position on the edge of the great desert and controlled the frankincense route which ran from the Indian Ocean through Arabia to the Mediterranean. Frankincense and myrrh were one of the most desirable and the most expensive of incense materials in the Middle East and the Mediterranean lands. The substance with its heavy perfume was used in temples, on ritual occasions, at mummifications ceremonies, public festivals as well as for medicinal purposes. Such trade was possible with the domestication of the camels in the last centuries of the second millennium BC, which were than used for long journeys.

The Kingdom of Saba is mentioned also in Old Testament. The story describes the visit of the famous and wise Queen of Sheba to the King Salomon in Jerusalem. The story became famous, spread throughout the world and has caught people’s attention for centuries. It is mentioned also in Holy Kura’an and Ethiopian Kebra Nagast and has survived in different versions as part of the cultural heritage of various nations, but more notable in Yemen. In Kura’an the Queen of Sheba and her visit to Salomon is mentioned in the sura “The ant”, in which a bird, the hoopoe reports to the king:

  1. Nor tarried it long ere it came and said: »I have gained the knowledge that thou knowest not, and with sure tidinigs have I come to thee from Saba:
  2. I found a woman reigning over them, gifted with everything, and she hath a splendid throne;
  3. And I found her and her people worshipping the sun instead of God, and Satan hath made their works fair seeming to them, and he hath turned them from the Way: “wherefore they are not guided…”

The economic wealth of the Sabean kingdom more than other kingdoms was based not only on income from trade but also on agriculture. The Sabeans developed efficient irrigation systems that depended on the greatest achievement of ancient architecture, the great dam of Marib. This allowed the highly developed cultivation which provided enough food for about 30 000 – 50 000 inhabitants.

Up until the fifth century BC Saba remained the most important state. After this date, a series of political groups proclaimed their independence and established their own states: Ma’in, Qhataban and Hadramawt that started to compete with Saba for power and economic influence.

Ma’in arose in the Al Jawf walley and had a religious centre in Yathul (Barakesh) and succeeded in gaining control of the frankincense trade route. The merchants traveled from the capital of Ma’in, Qarnawu, to the international markets in Syria, Palestine, Egypt and even further.

Qataban, with the capital Timna was first mentioned in the 7th century BC, when it was still dependent on Saba and was supporting it against Axum in modern Ethiopia. In the 5th century BC Qataban became independent, after it was extending its influence and in the 3rd and 2nd century BC reached the peak of its power. They developed efficient irrigation systems in the walleyes, as well as dams and made considerable profit out of their situation on the trade route.

Hadramawt, as well became independent in the 5th century BC and the importance of the state gradually increased because of frankincense growing in their area. The capital of the state was Shabwa, which today lies in the desert.

The capitals of all these states were the caravan cities, ruled in the first instance by influences beyond their control. Their fate, their rise and their fall, depended on the ups and downs of the international markets and the related power politics of the great power that dominated their time.

The Ptolemies, who ruled Egypt at this time gradually acquired the necessary knowledge for sea travel in the Red Sea and discovered the secrets of the monsoon winds in the Indian Ocean. The navigation was then possible along the coasts of Yemen without their help, so the trade gradually moved to the cheaper sea route and land trade declined. The caravan cities gradually started to loose their wealth, and the Bedouin along the route became restless and they began to attack the caravan cities as they had lost the support of the towns.

A Roman governor of Egypt named Aelius Gallus dare to take an army along the frankincense route in 25, 24 BC. The army was defeated by Barakesh but it revealed that “Arabia Felix” was no longer unconquerable.

The second era in the pre-Islamic history of Yemen begins at the time that new kingdom, Himyar, rose in the western highlands. The state became the main power in the entire region and started to compete with foreign trading nations along the new sea route. The capital of the state was Zafar and gradually new cities arose in the mountains. A big part of eastern population (Sabeans) moved to the west and here they started to build irrigation systems again, but the land here was much more fertile as received a lot of rains. Many small dynasties appeared at that time which began to compete with one another for power.

Himyar actually existed from the end of the 2nd century BC, but didn’t become the powerful state until 1st century AD when the land route started to decline. Towards the end of the 3rd century AD Himyar, as the sea power and the wealthiest state, conquered Marib, the capital of Saba and Hadramawt. Zafar became metropolis of the whole of South Arabia. In the early 5th century the kingdom reached also Yathrib (later Medina) from where the Jewish faith was brought to Yemen.

This second epoch in the early history of Yemen is considered to have ended with the occupation of Yemen by Abyssinians in 525 AD. The occupation was followed by the collapse of the great dam of Marib in 570 AD that was also the year of an unsuccessful attack of Mecca by Abyssinians. Shortly after the Persians arrived and included Yemen as a province in their Sassanid Empire for few decades before its conversion to Islam.



Major events in this period of almost 1500 years were the result of outside influences. The interest of foreign powers in southwestern Arabia during all the phases of its history was not so much a matter of ruling the country itself as the controlling the trade routes which led through and around the Yemen. Yemen was the key to the Red Sea and it had a strategic position that the rulers of Cairo, Alexandria and Constantinople all wanted to posses. The history of Yemen, therefore, is often more than a piece of regional history of the Middle East; it is a part of the world-wide struggle for power, influence and trade.

In 632 AD, the year that the Prophet Mohammed died and the rule of the first orthodox caliphs began, the Yemenis sent 20 000 troops to serve in the army of the Caliph Abu Bakr and to bring Islam into the area now occupied by Syria and Iraq. Next year, Yemen year was divided into three provinces: San’a, Al-Janad and Hadramawt.

Further developments within the Islamic Empire diminished the importance of Yemen especially when the empire’s capital was mowed away from the Arabian Peninsula. Soon after the Umayyad caliphate was founded in 661 AD, the capital was moved to Damascus. When the Abbasid caliphs seized the power in 750 AD they moved the capital to Baghdad and in 812 AD made Yemen one of their provinces. As a result, in Yemen, at the southern edge of the Islamic Empire, numerous small, short-lived, semi-independent states and kingdoms were established.

Two events were of great importance for Yemen and still affect the Yemen today: the conversion of Yemenis to Islam in 628 AD and the foundation of the Zaidi Imamate in 897 by the Imam Yahya.

The conversion of Yemenis to Islam is the central moment of the 3000-year history and also it’s symbolical and historical mid point. Islam has done more to form Yemen than any other influence. This is evident not only from the visible signs, such as minarets, mosques, fountains, customs and traditions, but also the Yemeni feeling of belonging to the faith, the belief that the faith is as important a part of home and identity as the country or the tribe.

After decline of trade routes the powers in Yemen moved to the new Sabean centre Sanaa and to Himyar centre Zafar. The centre of the world politics moved much further north, to the struggles between Byzantium and the Sassanid Empire while the both sides tried t reinforce their power even in the less important areas.

The last Himyarite king Dhu Nuwas believed that he could escape this rivalry by converting to Judaism. After his conquest of Najran that was newly converted to Christianity he burned many Christians and the news of this terrible event spread so rapidly that Byzantium couldn’t remain inactive. Supported by the Byzantine fleet, the Abyssinian governor Abraha went to Yemen and declared himself independent. He tried to attack at that time flourishing trade centre Mecca in 570, the year in which Mohammed was born, but he failed. His troops included the elephants that sat down in front of Mecca and this moment the Muslims explain as Allah protection of Mecca. Therefore this year is called also “A year of an elephant”. In order to drive out Abyssinians the Yemenis approached another foreign power, Persia. The Persians came, stayed and made Yemen for one of the province of the Sassanid Empire.

In the meantime Mohammed had begun to preach Islam in his home town of Mecca but in his own town he was without honor and he met many opponents. In the year 622 AD he left Mecca, that became very hostile for him, to Medina and this year is counted as the year of so called hijra. The term hijra is taken from the traditional law of South Arabia and refers to a protective relationship between the tribe and a member of a respective pious family who has come from outside. “Hijra” status obliges the protecting tribe to defend the new arrival as if he were one of their own. In the following years there were bitter battles between Mohamed and the citizens of Medina on one side and the men of Mecca on the other, which the prophet resolved to his benefit. In the year 630 he returned to Mecca almost without resistance and he won the city and his citizens by his clever policy. His increasing success brought more and more Arab tribes from all over the peninsula, including Yemen, to join him.

In the year 628 Badhan, Persian governor of Yemen, appointed by Mohammed as the first Islamic governor in Sana’a accepted Islam. In the same year the tribes all over Yemen started to accept Islam. The first mosques were built in Yemen already between the years 628 and 631 (Sana’a, Taizz, Zabid).

The second important event for Yemen was the foundation of the Zaidi Imamate in 897 by the Imam Yahya. Yahya was born in 859 in Medina. He was a direct descendant of the Prophet and also of his cousin Ali ibn Abi Talib, who later married Mohammed’s only surviving child, his daughter Fatima. Fatima and Ali had two sons, Hassan and Hussein.

The blood descendants of the Prophet and Ali were the representatives of the party of Ali, called Shi’ites (party in Arabic is Shi’a, hence term Shi’ites), which were convinced that the religious and political leadership of Islamic community should have been given to Ali immediately after the Prophet’s death and then to his and the Prophet’s descendants. Many of Shi’a participants were persecuted by the established caliphs.

Yahya was a direct descendant of Ali’s son Hassan. His grandfather Al Qasim was author of several religious works. It was him who compiled the essence of the Zaidi doctrine (original name of doctrine is Hadawiya) and by this means he became the spiritual and intellectual father of this sect. Yahya came to Yemen within the framework of the ancient institution “hijra”. He was invited by parties in Sa’dah to judge their disputes and in return the tribes offered him security and protection. For this reason he could, in his hijra, establish his interpretation of the law, of Koran law, and also of the Zaidiya school of law. But not anyone can found hijra; among the prerequisites are the membership of a “holy” (in pre-islamic times) or “pious” (after the coming of Islam) family. It was because Mohammed belonged to the holy family of Mecca and Yahya was a descendant of Mohammed. So,Yahya came with 50 faithful followers in 897, solved a problem between the tribes and established the Zaidiya school of law. This was the beginning of the Zaidi imamate in Yemen that was the longest lasting of all states of Southern Arabia while it lasted till 1962 when the revolution happened.

Yahya was successful as a judge in matters of tribal disputes and as a religious leader of respected man and was recognized by the people as an administrator of justice, particularly in matters of taxation. He was a man of faith and a politics, of the pen and the sword. He wrote many works like commentaries on Koran, like works where he attacked the legality of the Imamate positions of the caliphs Abu Bakr and Umar. There are also many writings where on the function, purpose and history of the Imamate and others with specifically theological content.

Other important dynasties in medieval Yemen were Najahids, Sulayhids, Ayyubids, Rasulids, Tahirids and Kathirids.

Najahids and Sulayhids were two dynasties controlling the southwestern part of the present Yemen. After the decline of the Ziyadids (818-1018) who ruled the southern Tihama region, and established Zabid, the most important Sunni teaching centre, the Ethiopian slave Najah rose, took the power in Zabid and established the dynasty with the same name.

In the same time in Haraz Mountains a devout Muslim, Ali bin Sulayhi, established the Sulayhid state (1046-1138). Ali bin Sulayhi was originally from Shafi’ites (Sunni) family, but he came in touch with a new doctrine, Ismaili school of Shi’a, that was a doctrine of Fatimids in Egypt. After almost 20 years of gathering the followers of new doctrine, he established his state with the centre in Sana’a. On his way to Mecca he was killed and his son Mukarram Ahmad has held the position. Soon he gave all his ruling of the country to his wife Arwa bint Ahmad and she became a queen that was an exceptional thing in that time. Queen Arwa ruled the state until her death in 1138 and was known as a very wise and well-educated woman; people used to call her “a little Bilquis”. She moved the capital from San’a to Jibla where she did a lot for the progress of the town and the state.


The Ayyubids (1174-1228) and Rasulids (1228-1454)

One of the crucial points in medieval history of Yemen was the year 1174 when Yemenis were conquered for the first time in history by a foreign force, Ayyubids that were of Kurdish origin. For the first time different dynasties were brought together in a highly developed system of government, with modern, centralized administration. The previously geographic term Yemen came to mean a political entity which comprised the whole southwestern Arabia, included Hadramawt and Najran. Ayyubids founded many Islamic schools (Sunni teaching) and reinforced religious traditions, so they acted as a foundation on which the later Rasulid dynasty could build and develop into the longest and most magnificent epoch of medieval Yemeni history. However, Yemen was too remote to control and in 1229 the country was left to the man of Turkoman origin Umar ibn Rasul. Rasulids remained in power for over two centuries with the capital in Taizz and ruled to most of the today Yemen, from Mecca to Hadramawt. At that time the University in Zabid was on its peak while thousands of Yemeni and foreign students attended the 200 schools of the town.

The Tahirids (1454-1526) and Kathiris (1454-1967)

After Rasulids the power over Yemen was overtaken by Tahirids from Lahij who ruled the southwestern part of the country from 1454-1526. In the Hadramawt area, a new dynasty, the Kathiris rose to power in 15 century and existed till the revolution in 1967. At that time the dynasty was much weakened by Quaytis, the western tribe that Kathirids brought to the region to serve as soldiers but they subsequently took power of most of the region.



The Portuguese

In Europe, changes within and outside marked the end of the Middle Ages and the beginning of modern history: the fall of Constantinople in 1453, the discovery of America and in the same year, 1492, the driving out the Boabdil from Granada and the completion of Reconquistada, the discovery of printing, Renaissance, and the Reformation. While the Spaniards and the English were concentrating on the Americas, Vasco de Gama succeeded in sailing around the Great Hope in 1497. This was the beginning of Portuguese rule in Indian Ocean. De Gama landed as a conqueror in Mozambique, some years later in 1502 he occupied Mombasa and Lamu on the coast of Africa and Goa, Diu and Cochin in India.

In 1507 Alfonso de Albuquerque landed on the island of Soqotra in order to take the control of the trade route between Egypt and India, via the Red Sea, from this point and thus to gain control of the entire European spice trade. In Cairo tax revenues dropped so drastically that the Mamelukes prepared a fleet against the Portuguese. Albuquerque realized that he could only exercise lasting control over the Red Sea from Aden, but his attempt to take the city in 1513 failed. The Egiptian Mamelukes now decided to conquer Yemen using land forces. Their troops landed in Kamaran and then just out of Zabid where they inflicted devastating defeat on Tahirids. Finally they conquered Taizz and Sana’a. In 1517 the Mamelukes were defeated in Egypt by Osman Turks who then took control also over their political power and position. Turks were award of fertility and natural resources of Yemen and strategically important harbor of Aden so in 1538 they took this port.

First Turkish occupation (1538-1636)

Within a few years the Turks had succeeded in occupying many places in Southern Yemen and the Tihama. By this time their only remaining opponent was the Imam. Imam Yahya leaded the vigorous resistance against the Turks and that was the time that defensive works give the today appearance of towns Kawkaban and Thula. These two fortresses could never be conquered. Soon both sides came to a sort of unofficial arrangement whereby the Imam retained the actual control between Kawkaban, Thula and Hajja as far as the Tihama, and the Turks controlled the lower part of Yemen, the lowlands and Tihama.

Al Qasim, later called “the great” proclaimed himself an Imam in 1597. He was very politically and militarily skilled and he fought against the Yemeni rulers imposed by Turks. The battles mainly took places in traditional Zaydi regions: Kawkaban, At Tawilah, Hajjah, Huth, Sa’adah and Shahara, the eagle’s nest in the north. Shahara usually served as a base of resistance from where the Zaydi rulers lead the resistance. The Turks were defeated and they left the country in 1636.

The coffee trade and its consequences

The course of 17th and 18th centuries was determined not so much by political events as by the new economic importance of the world markets which Yemen gained through the coffee trade. For about two centuries coffee was the most important product on world markets and Yemen had the trading monopoly of coffee.

The Turkish occupation exterminated all political rivals of the Imams, and by this time, after the Turks had been driven out, the next Imam Al Mutawakkil was the sole ruler of northern, central and southern Yemen. His long rule (1644-1676) is considered a period of order, justice and prosperity, but most importantly it offered him the opportunity to include Hadramawt in the state of Yemen once more for the first time in many years. Following Imams could barely keep the control in the big state, where every tribe wanted to rule itself. As the most significant event was the revolt of prince in Lahij during the period 1728-1731 when Lahij became independent from the Imamate. The modern division of Yemen can be traced back to this event, which also made the British occupation of Aden in 1839 much easier.

British occupation

The rise of Mokha had led to the decline of Aden, but it was not able to affect the potential strategic importance of the latter which was determined by its natural harbor. When the British occupied Aden in 1839, once again with a view to securing the Red Sea, the population of this ancient and medieval city had fallen to 1289. The British used the occupation also as a warning to Egypt who conquered the Tihama and held it among 1833-1840. The opening of Suez Canal in 1869 strengthened the importance of the Yemen, but it also allowed the Turks to transport troops directly from Istanbul to Al Hudaydah. In 1872 the Turks re-occupied Sana’a and only withdrew again in 1919 because of First World War.



The modern history of Yemen began with the desire of foreign powers – the Turks in the north and the British in the south – to control the crucial trade routes that passed through the area.

When World War I spread to Arabia, Britain became worried for its base in Aden and tried to use the skilled fighters of the Yemeni tribes against Turkish garrisons. Imam Yahya saw the perfect opportunity to drive the ancient Turkish enemy out of the country and united the tribes. Working with the tribes the British colonel Lawrence of Arabia disrupted the Hejaz railway, essential for Turkish supplies and the Turkish expeditionary force was almost exterminated by Imam Yahya. Turkish garrisons were stormed despite dreadful losses and the occupants slaughtered.

Britain repaid Yahya’s support when the treaty of Sevres in 1920 recognized him as King of Yemen. However nothing changed for the North Yemenis who wanted far more contact with the outside world. But Imam Yahya had secured his power by keeping Yemen in a state of extreme isolation and backwardeness. Forces of the opposition soon arose in Yemen, with the aim of ending Yahya’s despotic rule. Young intellectuals, tradesmen and important local figures were striving for political reform but most of these rebels were arrested and imprisoned. The original underground groups, Hai’at an-Nidal, the Free Yemeni Party and the Gamiyat al-Islah didn’t combine to form the Free Yemeni Movement until 1944. A rebellion against the Imamate began on 4 June 1944 when four prominent Yemenis fled from persecution in Aden. Imam Yahya didn’t agree with the terms of the opponents and wanted to smash the opposition. However, in 1946 one of the Imam’s sons joined the rebels in Aden; he became the leading figure of the resistance. The Free Yemenis decided to assassinate Yahya, what they realized in 1948.

The 1948 revolution

Son of Imam Yahya, Prince Ahmad escaped to Hajjah while Abdullah bin Ahmed al Wazir was proclaimed as leader of the country and head of the state. Prince Ahmad organized a countercoup from his base in Hajjah. The revolutionaries executed al Wazir publicly; Prince Ahmad proclaimed himself a new Imam and moved the capital from Sana’a to Taizz.

Ahmad allowed his tribal warriors to plunder and burn the city of Sana’a, which has always been a peaceful enclave, protected since the days of the Prophet. So, the Yemen’s first revolution ended with political, religious and human tragedy.

Imam Ahmad ruled the country for 14 tortured years. He was known as a cruel leader, “the horrible”, and as a complete autocrat. No visa application could be approved without his personal signature and every plane take-off in the country required his direct order. He was known to enjoy a high life and the company of beautiful women. However, Imam Ahmad used the foreign aid to start some developing programs and also established Yemen’s first diplomatic relations with countries such as Britain, the USA and Egypt in 1951 and the Soviet Union in 1956.

The imamate of Yemen remained, however, the underdeveloped country. At the end of Imam Ahmad’s rule there were still no paved roads in the country, no Yemeni doctors, no schools other than Quran schools, no legislation except the Quranic Shari’a law, no factories and a lot of diseases.

Imam Ahmad had faced considerable resistance from the underground movement that was preparing the revolution. They wanted a republic and an end to the secular and spiritual rule of Imamate. In 1961 he was seriously wounded in an assassination attempt and he passed away in 1962. Eight days after his death, a coup against his son, Mohammed Al Badr, proclaimed the YAR and marked the start of the revolution and long civil war.




The 1962 revolution started in Tahrir square in Sana’a. Imam Badr meanwhile escaped from the prison to the north of the country. He raised the tribal and Saudi Arabian help and fought a civil war that lasted almost eight years and divided the country, the tribes, clans and families. Republicans were supported by Egyptians who supplied them with weapons and help, but this new occupation force was opposed by many Republicans. These soon provoked a quiet revolution and the country got a new government. In the winter of 1967 the Royalists surrounded Sana’a for 70 days. The battle of Sana’a was won by soviet weapons and because of the death-defying courage of militia and people of Sana’a. However, one men proved the key to the survival of liberal government, Qassem Munassar, tribal general of the Royalists and one of their best men, turned Republican in 1968 with his Beni Husheich tribe and 60 000 allied warriors. The crowd of arguing princes in the Royalist headquarters destroyed the tribe’s belief in a reformed Imamate and tribal leaders killed the Munassar on 29.6. 1969. Imam Al Badr had left Yemen in March 1969 and gone into exile to Saudi Arabia. Agreement was achieved between Royalists and Republicans and after this the kingdom of Saudi Arabia recognized the Arab Republic of Yemen without conditions on 23.7.1970. This ended nearly 8 years of conflict between these neighboring states with widely different social systems.




In 1839 the fleet of British ships appeared off Aden. Supported by cannon fire, the British easily overcame the minimal fortifications in Aden and took control. From this day the British ruled the southern Arabian coast with a firm hand, later expanding their control over the entire hinterland. British were the thorn in the side of the Turks in North Yemen, particularly after the Suez Canal opened in 1869. Imam Yahya, too, wanted South Yemen. However, divisions among Imams, fighting between Turks and Yemenis and the growing resistance of the Yemenis to both Turks and Imams put all the aces in the British hand. When the Free Yemenis marched on Sana’a in 1948 a common nationalist impulse went through all the country. But the revolution failed and the disappointed South Yemenis returned to fatalism. The next step toward freedom of South Yemen came when Aden’s trade unions united to form the Aden Trade Union Congress (ATUC) in 1956. From 1961 onwards, the ATUC would play a leading role in the development of independence organizations such as the National Liberation Front (NLF) and the Nasserite Front for the Liberation of South Yemen (FLOSY).

These groups began to resist the colonial power of Britain, which was becoming more and more oppressive. However, while the FLOSY wanted to win the war by peaceful means, the party of NLF, supported by Eastern bloc never doubted that only armed struggle could bring them any success.

From 1963 on, the charismatic leader of NLF, Qahtan Mohammed ash-Shaabi unified the movement and had all the strings I his own hands. For four long years street battles were fought in Aden’s Crater City and then throughout the whole hinterland. In a secret agreement the British and the NLF decided to exterminate the Nasserite FLOSY. If Britain had to give up South Yemen, the NLF seemed the lesser evil when compared with the expansion of the Pan-Arabic influence of Nasser in the South Arabian area. In three murderous days FLOSY was decimated to the point of insignificance.

After four years of fighting, the British decided to withdraw and Qahtan ash-Shaabi, designated the first Bedouin and peasant president of South Yemen, demanded 100 million pounds as reparation for 128 years of colonial rule. The British gave a pittance that designated all plans of rebuilding the country. South Yemen was forced to become totally dependent on the Eastern bloc. The last British regiment left Aden on 29.11.1967. South Yemen was free, but seemed likely to sink into party political squabbling.

Coups and presidential murders

In 1969 there was a South Yemen coup and the government was replaced by a three-man Presidential Council led by President Salim Rubaia Ali. In 1978 he attempted a military coup to impose his policy of reunification with North Yemen, but he failed and was executed. His successor, Abdul-Fattah Ismail, moved even closer to Marxism and used the banner of “scientific socialism” to unite the various factions of the NLF in the Yemeni Socialist Party (YSP). Ismail was pressurized by the army and various tribes in 1980 and was exiled to Moscow. After five years later he returned to Aden and was appointed to the highest party offices by the ruling President Ali Nasser Mohammed. After nearly 20 years of party power struggles, a climax was reached on 13.1.1986, when the president, pressurized by ultra-radical groups, tried to exclude the Politburo from decision making. Ismail and other senior members of the YSP were shot in the struggle.

It was the start of the South Yemen civil war of 13.1.-24.1.1986 in which various parts of the army hastened to help each of the factions. The war is said to have claimed 10 000 Yemeni lives and large parts of Aden were destroyed. Ali Nasser Mohammed was forced to give up and flee to exile in North Yemen with 20 000 followers. The President became Haier Abubaker al-Attas.



The North Yemen was experiencing the turbulences too. The peace making President Al Iryani was pressured by Saudi Arabia, the conservative tribes and the army to resign on 12. June 1974. The following day, Colonel Ibrahim Mohammed al-Hamdi formed a governing council of seven members and took control over the country. A number of parliamentary and democratic elements built up by Al Iryani were dissolved.

Al-Hamdi wanted the reunification with Southern Yemen, but this didn’t suit the Saudis or tribal fundamentalists that shot him in 1977. A new President became Al – Ghashmi. Again it was obvious that only a strong my and a powerful central administration could control Yemen and hold off coups and the tribal federation. However, unified Yemen suited neither Saudi Arabia, nor the South Yemeni government, both of which talked pro-unification while attempting to undermine it. Al-Hamdi and his successor al–Ghashmi were both killed and the former military governor of Taizz Colonel Ali Abdullah Saleh, declared himself the new head of state. Two days later, the National Parliament confirmed him as Commander-in-chief of the army and President of Yemen.

The border war of 1979 with South Yemen brought the republic to the brink of defeat. Only the tribal confederation prevented a South Yemeni conquest. However, Saleh was elected for another 5-year period of office in 1983 and 1988. Saleh remained a strong president who has succeeded in controlling his government and rebuilding the republic.

Oil paves the way

North and South Yemen were both in a difficult situation. North Yemen was deeply in debt from buying arms, mainly from Soviet Union. The constant budget deficit was reduced by capital aid from Saudi Arabia and money sent back by Yemeni workers in Saudi oilfields. Because of this dependency, the Gulf recession had disastrous consequences.

South Yemen was isolated in the Arab world because of its socialism. It was one of the poorest countries in the world. The socialist planned economy allowed no private enterprise and 200 000 South Yemenis earned their living as migrant workers in Saudi Arabia. This totally impoverished, but well-armed country could make only slow progress towards economic reconstruction.

Then the influences of the outside world worked in favor of Yemen for once. New oil fields were discovered in a disputed eastern border region which Saudi Arabia claim to. The situation demanded a speedy unification of North and South. More, the Soviet Union broke up and all financial help to South Yemen was cut and the leadership simply had to change course.

Quick steps for unification were taken by government of both states and on 21 May 1990 a joint constitution, acceptable to both governments was presented. There was opposition in Sana’a from Muslim fundamentalists who refused to treat with the “infidel Communists”, but a referendum showed the vast majority wanted unification.

On May 22 1990, the newly united Republic of Yemen was born with the President Ali Abdullah Saleh.

In the months, leading up to the first free elections on the Arabian Peninsula it was clear that this process was unlikely to proceed smoothly. The election date was postponed more than once making it obvious to observers that many intractable political problems lay ahead. The considerable economic problems facing the country required swift and resolute handling together with a united political front. Disputes arose between supporters of the former government of South Yemen – now the Social Democrats under the leadership of Vice-president Ali al Beedh – and supporters of President Ali Abdullah Saleh and his People’s Congress. Added to this were tensions caused by the powerful fundamentalist Islah party, a growing force in Yemeni politics. A return to the bloody violence of 1970’s seemed likely.

Assassination attempts and skirmishes between the parties poisoned the political climate. Neighboring state, primarily Saudi Arabia, were exacerbating the internal strife and making it difficult for Yemen to achieve political stability. Election in 1993 showed that almost all people in the south supported their former president while in the north People’s Congress came in ahead of the fundamentalist Islah party. Presidential council under the chairmanship of conservative Islah party leader supported the policies of President Saleh. The tension between north and south grew so great that al Beedth and other South Yemeni politicians returned to Aden.

Oil on the fire

One important cause of bitterness was the following of backward-looking policies that threatened to undermine the achievements of the South Yemenis. In the south, girls were obliged to attend school and there was an effective health service. Everyday existence was a more liberal affair without strict Islamic interference. Fundamentalist influences in the north of the country encroached on these gains.

However, more pressing were the economic issues. It was the oil who brought South and North Yemen together. Most of the reserves, it was subsequently confirmed, were to be found in the former territory of South Yemen and Saleh wished the greater share of the benefits to flow northwards.

Long standing enmity between the main tribes and an unwillingness to bend before a “centralized state” also played a part in the conflict. The oil had been discovered in a tribal territory, but the state was not prepared to pay the tribesmen. The response of their leaders was straightforward, the Sana’a government was boycotted, oil company employees or tourists were taken hostage and military posts became targets. The collapse of the government machine could have been predicted.

Civil war returns

The military units of the south and the north clashed early in 1994. International pressure and influence were brought to bear which led to a signed peace agreement, but within few weeks it fell apart and the conflict escalated. The fighting was mostly in what had been South Yemen and North Yemen contingents entered Aden by July. The former South Yemen president fled together with 7000 followers to Oman. The civil war ended but peace did not follow. In October 1994 Saudi Arabia and Yemen found themselves in conflict, but Yemen stabilized internally mainly because of the growing strength of the Islah party.


AFTER 1994

The war succeeded in reinforcing Yemeni unity instead of tearing the country apart. Immediately after the war northern religious extremists damaged different southern sites, from mosques and shrines, to hotels and restaurants serving alcohol, but such incidents soon ended. President Saleh declared a general amnesty to all secessionists dropping their arms, excluding only a 16- strong clique of leaders.

Most of the parties now support national unity even if they disagree on other issues. The second parliamentary elections, in 1997, went so smoothly that many western observers left the country before the results were in.

The main problem seems to be public dissatisfaction with the ineffectiveness of the government and the slow pace of economic development. Some issues of tribes in Marib and Al-Jawf governorates remain unsolved, but despite these difficulties, Yemen seems more stable then ever.

Ali Abdullah Saleh

In 1958, Saleh joined the regular armed forces. By 1970 he was enrolled in a non-commissioned officer’s school. At the time of the 1962 revolution, which overthrew the Imam’s regime and precipitated the Yemeni civil war, Saleh was an army sergeant who chose to side with the revolutionary republican forces; he was wounded in the line of duty. He was commissioned as a second lieutenant in 1963 and enrolled in the armored school for officers in 1964. In 1974, Saleh was one of the chief participants in the military coup that brought Lt. Colonel al-Hamdi to power. After the coup, he held a number of military commands, including armament chief of armory corps, armor battalion commander, staff officer of the armor division, and the commander of the Taiz Brigade, a position that he held through to the time of his election to the presidency in 1988. In 1982, Ali Abdullah Saleh was promoted to the rank of colonel.

After the assassination of President al-Ghashmi on 24 June 1978, Saleh became a member of the temporary council of the presidency and used his position to defeat other contenders for the presidency. On 17 July, the People’s Constituent Assembly (the North Yemeni Parliament) elected him president and commander in chief of the armed forces. He was reelected for a third term on 17 July 1988, and became the first president of unified Yemen in May 1990. In September 1999, the Republic of Yemen carried out the first direct presidential elections ever held on the Arabian Peninsula and voters returned Saleh to office for another five-year term. Finally, he was elected for a president again in last elections, held in September 2006.


Yemen in the Arab Spring


The Arab Spring began with protests breaking out in Tunisia. Soon after, protests began in Sana’a as well. The first major protest took place on January 27th, 2011. This protest, along with the subsequent few protests was against the state of the economy at the time, widespread corruption in government affairs and for various other reasons, one of which was the presidency of Ali Abdulah Saleh, president at the time. Shortly after the first protest, on February 2nd, Ali Abdullah Saleh promised the country that he would not re-run in the 2013 elections and that he wouldn’t pass the presidential position to his son. Nonetheless, protests continued throughout the following months.


On the 3rd of February, 2011, 20,000 or more people took to the streets in demonstration in both Sana’a and the southern city of Aden. Protests continued throughout the month of February and begin occurring in other cities around Yemen, including Taizz, Mukalla and Aden. The first deaths during a demonstration took place on the 11th of March in a day that would later be called the Friday of Anger. Soon later, on the 18th of March, in a day that came to be known as Juma’at Al Karama or Friday of Dignity, 52 or more people were gunned down in the capital, Sana’a. It is still not clear who ordered this horrible act.


Throughout April, the Gulf Co-operation Council (GCC) began constructing a deal in efforts of mediating political unrest in Yemen. In late April, Ali Abdullah Saleh agreed to sign the deal. Later, only hours before being expected to sign, he backed down. This happened three times consecutively. As a result, on the 22nd May, the GCC declared that it would suspend mediatory efforts in Yemen. A day after, sheikh Sadiq Al-Ahmar, leader of the Hashid Tribal Federation, vowed his support to the revolutionary opposition. In the following few weeks, heavy fighting broke out between government armed forces and the armed militias of sheikh Sadiq Al-Ahmar in northern part of Sana’a. The fighting included the use of live rounds, artillery and even mortar shelling. Then, on the 3rd of June, 2011 an explosion occurred near to the mosque that was part of the presidential residence. Ali Abdullah Saleh and several others were injured and at least five were killed in the explosion. The following day, Abd al-Rab Mansour al-Hadi, vice president to Ali Abdullah Saleh, took Saleh’s place as president.


The GCC continued to work with Yemeni political officials to ensure a peaceful transition of power. On the 21st of February 2012, a presidential election took place in which Abd al-Rab Mansour al-Hadi was the only running candidate. With an estimate victory of 99.8% of the vote, Hadi officially took Saleh’s place as the president of Yemen.