Yemen is a relatively populous, mountainous country in the southern tip of the Arabian peninsula. It is the southernmost country of the Middle East, bordering Saudi Arabia in the north and Oman in the east. In the south, the over 1000 kilometres long coastline stretches along the Gulf of Aden, extending to the Arabian Sea or Indian Ocean, while to the west the narrow – yet unpredictable – Red Sea separates the country from Africa. In fact, biogeographically the western part of Yemen belongs to the Paleotropics, just as Ethiopia and Eritrea, where the same vegetation and climate are found.
Yemen has a long history of independence. Legend speaks of the Queen of Sheba, or of Arabia Felix. Facts teach us that no one ever really succeeded in conquering Yemen, an inaccessible mountainous country riddled by stubborn tribes.
Yemen’s population is the largest of the Arabian Peninsula, and has been a prime source of Arab diaspora since ancient times. Peoples from North Africa to Indonesia trace their ancestry back to Yemen. Tribal influences remain very strong in Yemen, resulting in a sometimes puzzling political system. The people of the Akhdam make up a neglected Yemeni underclass, and have no rights.
The population of Yemen is to a high degree homogeneous. All Yemenis are ethnic Arabs with a strong tribal ancestry. The only distinction is whether a tribe has an affiliation with the Sunni (Shafi) Islam or the Shia (Zaidi) Islam. There is also a small minority of Shia Ismailis. There used to be a large number of Jews, but at present the Jewish community number only one or two thousand.
Yemen’s political system is complicated, and sometimes paradoxical. Political alliances depend on many factors, as they do in all states. In Yemen, this is complicated by the strong position of the tribe (al qabila), which is always looking out for tribal (and often conservative) interests. The tribe can be regarded as an extension of the family, reaching far beyond the extended or expanded family. Backed by a strong tribal base, longtime president Saleh has proved a master in balancing the country’s powers. In doing so, Saleh has held the country together in relative peace, but has also created obscurity, widespread corruption and nepotism. This has proved a less favourable environment for progress, investment and innovation.
Though rapidly urbanizing, Yemen is still a very rural country. Nearly three quarters of the population leads a traditional, rural life in sometimes very remote mountain villages. Poverty is widespread, social injustice is deep. Begging is common in the streets of the big cities. Women are denied an equal position in society. Healthcare is improving fast.
Yemen is a culturally rich country. The formidable architecture with its unique houses has been seamlessly integrated into the spectacular landscape. Poetry and literature are not classified or written down, but passed on orally to new generations, enriching the language with many sayings and proverbs. Popular culture has a rough, masculine edge to it, but the Yemeni language and speech are rather eloquent and poetical.
The era of Yemeni domination of trade routes and much demanded export products – such as frankincense, myrrh and coffee – is long gone. Yemeni economy is very poor. Virtually no export products are produced. The economy rests largely on oil export, remittances and foreign aid, which feed the consumption, the informal sector and the booming qat production.
During much of the twentieth century, Yemen was virtually cut off from the outside world as a result of the theocracy of the Imams Yahya and Ahmad. The revolution of 1962 ended the isolation and signalled the start – boosted by the introduction of western-style democracy since 1990 – of an array of newspapers, many of which still exist today. However, most of them represent a particular political, tribal or economic faction in Yemen; only a few are really independent. Moreover, many opposition newspapers have been closed down by the authorities at one time or another, their editors and journalists imprisoned or otherwise harassed. This has put a severe dent in official Yemeni press freedom. Internet sites are often blocked by authorities, but show remarkable resilience and ingenuity, opening the world to Yemen and vice versa.