Yemen: Country profile
Country profile: Yemen
Last Modified: 03 Mar 2010 21:07 GMT

Prosperous and famed in ancient times, Yemen has been an important transit point between Africa, the Middle East and Asia.

Spices, textiles and precious metals such as gold and silver have been carried through this vast, fertile but mostly deserted land for more than 1,000 years.
With the discovery of oil in the mid-1980s, the prospect of economic development and an easier life for Yemenis may yet transform what is now a poor country.


Yemen is in the Middle East, between Oman and Saudi Arabia. The Arabian Sea, the Gulf of Aden and the Red Sea border its shoreline. It has a land area of 527,970 sq km.

Historical background

Yemen is one of the oldest centres of civilisation.

The Romans called this country Arabia Felix - meaning wealthy and fertile - in contrast to the relatively barren deserts they conquered to the north.

In the seventh century, Muslim caliphs began to exert control.

After the caliphate broke up, the former north Yemen came under the control of imams of various dynasties predominantly of the Shia Zaidi sect.

Egyptian Sunni caliphs occupied much of north Yemen throughout the 11th century. In the 16th century and again in the 19th century, north Yemen was a part of the Ottoman Empire.

Modern political history

In the early 1960s, Yemen, then a British protectorate, was sucked into the greater intrigues of the Cold War. While its southern part came under the influence of communists, the country also became a staging ground for inter-Arab politics. Countries such as Saudi Arabia and Egypt interfered directly in its affairs.

By the mid-1960s, the country was effectively split and run by separate political ideologies in the north and south.

The present Republic of Yemen was formed in 1990 after the merger between the tribal dominated north and Marxist-led south.

In 1994, a brief civil war erupted when continuing peace and reconciliation talks came to a halt, but it quickly ended when the separatist southerners were defeated.

Since unification, the country has been trying to modernise but it is a long and slow process, mainly due to poverty.

Yemen held its first direct presidential election in September 1999, electing President Ali Abdullah Saleh to a five-year term in what was generally considered a free and fair election.

In 2003 he was re-elected, but this time after having amended the constitution to allow for a longer term of office.

In 2004, clashes intensified between Yemeni forces and the Houthis, an armed Shia separatist group in the country's north.

A peace deal was signed in 2007, but was never implemented and the violence continued. 

In 2008, Qatari mediation helped revive the agreement between the government in Sanaa and the Houthis.

However, in late 2009, Yemen accused the rebels of not adhering to the peace process and launched an all-out military offensive against them.

After scores of people died in the conflict, in February 2010, the Yemeni government and the Houthi fighters reached a truce, but sporadic violence still continues.

Attacks on foreign targets in Yemen

Over the past 15 years, several foreigners have been kidnapped by tribal groups often demanding greater government assistance for food and other amenities, but what has garnered greater international attention has been the attacks on a US warship, the USS Cole, in 2000, and on a French tanker in 2001.

The US embassy has also come under attack. In 2002 a Yemeni man threw a hand grenade over the wall to protest against a visit to the country by Dick Cheney, the then US vice-president.

In 2003, two people were killed when protests outside the embassy turned violent.

On September 17, 2008 a car bomb exploded at the gates of the embassy.

Since the 9/11 terrorist attacks in the US, Yemen has been fending off accusations that it is a haven for Muslim fighters with authorities having declared the arrest of several suspected al-Qaeda members. The US, meanwhile, has provided equipment and anti-terrorism training for the Yemeni security forces.

Official name: Republic of Yemen
Capital: Sanaa
Form of government: Republic
Gained independence: North Yemen gained independence in November 1918 (from the Ottoman empire), while South Yemen attained its independence in November 1967 (from the UK); the two unified on May 22, 1990.

Population: 22,858,238 (July 2009 est)
Languages: Arabic (official)
Religions: Islam (official; Sunni 60% and Shia 40%)
Ethnic diversity: mainly Arab; Afro-Arab, South Asian, European
Literacy rate: 50.2% (a gender imbalance means men's literacy rates are higher than those of Yemeni women)
Important media: Al-Thawrah (official daily newspaper), Yemen Times (English weekly newspaper), Yemen Observer (English weekly newspaper), Republic of Yemen Television (state-run, operates two networks), Republic of Yemen Radio (state-run, operates two networks)

Currency: Riyal (YER) - 1 USD = 203.05 YER (approx)
Natural resources: Oil, fish, rock salt, marble, coal, gold, lead, nickel copper
Major industries: Oil production and refining, cotton textiles, leather goods, food-processing, handicrafts, aluminium products, cement
GDP: $26.24bn (2009 est)
GDP real growth rate: 3.8% (2009 est)
Per capita GDP: $2,500 (2009 est)
Unemployment: 35% (2009 est)

Population below poverty line: 45.2% (2003 est)


Beyond language, cultural differences abound among the various groups in Yemen. Many of the inhabitants of the famed area of Hadhramaut reflect the cultural heritage of south-east Asia with which the district has had historic commercial ties.

Those Yemenis living in the coastal areas reflect the racial and cultural influences of nearby Africa. The city of 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.

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