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 resembles a rectangle, stretching 1500 kilometres from east to west and 350 kilometres from north to south. It is 528.000 square kilometres. Yemen is slightly smaller than France, Afghanistan and Somalia, and slightly larger than Iraq, Spain or Morocco. Yemen’s northern neighbour Saudi Arabia is four times as big, while its eastern neighbour, Oman, is about half its size.
Elevation and Central Habitation
Yemen’s population is concentrated in the western part of the country, where a ridge of impressive mountains rises from the Red Sea. The width of the mountain ridge variates between 100-200 kilometres, in length stretching across the whole of (western) Yemen, and extending well into the southern Saudi provinces of Jizan and Asir. The mountains are high – that of Jabal Nabi Shuayb, 3666 meters in height, being the highest of the whole Arabian peninsula, with alpine vegetation and a military base on its summit. Most mountains are about 2000 meters in height, making the ridge a large barrier to humid air blowing in from Africa and the Red Sea.
As a result, there is sufficient rain to feed a large population. The fertile mountains around Ibb – towards the south – are green all year round. Rain-fed agriculture abounds in the mountains, which are adorned with laboriously maintained ancient terraces. The largest towns are found along the spine of the mountain ridge, with capital Sana’a in the middle, third largest town Taizz in the south and many medium-sized towns inbetween and in their environs.
The mountains in the north are significantly more arid and consequently much more thinly populated. Northernmost town Sa’adah, once the capital, has roughly a mere 25.000 inhabitants. Beyond the southern end of the mountain ridge lies hot and humid Aden. Its strategic position and natural port have stimulated growth for centuries, making Aden the second town in Yemen.
Another section of the population lives in the coastal plain bordering the Red Sea, called the Tihama, which like the mountain ridge stretches well into Saudi Arabia. The Yemeni Tihama is perpetually hot and in summertime humid as well. It has fertile, semi-tropical spots centred around oases and rivers, mostly in the foothills of the mountains. In some places, the Tihama has an African atmosphere, with dark-skinned people living in straw huts. The plain hosts historic towns such as Al Mokha and Zabid. The port of Al Hudayda is the fourth largest town in Yemen.
To the east, the mountain ridge gradually descends into the arid and sparsely inhabited provinces of Al Jawf, Marib and Shabwa. With the exception of a concentration of agricultural activity and antiquities around Marib, these extensive provinces derive their economical importance mainly from oilfields beneath the semi-desert lands.
Even further to the east, the Hadhramawt suddenly arises, an isolated chain of fertile oases. Yemeni in origin, the Hadhramawt is associated with an ancient, distinct civilization. Exemplary are the towns with their splendid architecture, such as Shibam, home of the world’s first skyscrapers. Shibam has been extensively renovated by unesco. The official governorate of Hadhramawt stretches to Mukalla, a large port town on the Arabian Sea, 500 kilometres from Aden.
With Oman, Saudi Arabia and the Emirates, Yemen shares the Ruba’ Al Khali, or Empty Quarter, a vast desert that occupies a large part of the peninsula. It is one of the largest sand deserts in the world, uninhabitable for human beings. Over five thousand years ago, it was home to hunters and gatherers, feeding on wildlife sustained by numerous lakes, which are still detectable in the landscape. Nowadays, the Ruba’ Al Khali has some of the largest oilfields in the world. It presumably holds a wealth of archaeological and geological riches that are yet to be explored. The British explorer Wilfred Thesiger crossed the desert in the first quarter of the twentieth century, resulting in the famous book Arabian Sands.
Yemen has several climates. The west of Yemen benefits from monsoon rains, which fall mainly in late spring and again at the end of summer. Most rain falls in the mountains, with a maximum of an annual 1000 milimetres in the south gradually decreasing to an average of 400 milimetres in the northern mountains. Temperatures in the mountains vary according to altitude and season, with an average of 16 degrees centigrade and frosty winter nights in the higher mountains. The Tihama, by contrast, is always hot and also very humid during the rainy season, a climate similar to that across the Red Sea, in Eritrea and Somalia. The eastern desert has a dry climate, with heavy, but sporadic rains and frosty nights.
There are no railways in Yemen. A number of two-lane roads connect the cities and towns along the spine of the mountain ridge, and to the west and east of them. Many of the thousands of villages can only be reached via unpaved roads, which are often subject to landslides and degradation – thus leaving many people cut off from medical and other basic services. The large island of Soqotra (see box) and several smaller islands, mainly in the Red Sea, also belong to Yemen. Most of them are uninhabited, and serve as military bases. The island group of Hanish has a small resort for tourists interested in deep-sea diving.
Several of Yemen’s areas have on various occasions been designated as nature conservation areas. The island of Soqotra is by far the most important of them, due to its exceptional number of endemic species. The area of Autma is one of the oldest Yemeni nature reserves. The official national park of Jebel Bura preserves Arabia’s last surviving forest, which is still inhabited by baboons. With the exception of isolated Soqotra, conservation of nature reserves is not always adequate, it sometimes lacking popular support, and often lacking finance and subject to corruption.
Box: Frequently nicknamed the Galapagos of the Indian Ocean, the long-neglected island of Soqotra could possibly become one of Yemen’s jewels, and is still in competition to become one of the ‘Seven Wonders of the World’. Soqotra lies at the maritime crossroads of Africa, Asia and Arabia, 800 kilometres south-east from Aden and 250 kilometres from the tip of the Horn of Africa. Throughout history, Asians, Europeans and Africans have visited and influenced Soqotra for both commercial and military reasons, despite isolated conditions as a result of difficult seas and winds. In the 1970s, Soqotra served as a Soviet military base. The island measures about 135 by 40 kilometres. Soqotra and the three surrounding smaller islands are together home to up to 50.000 people. Soqotra is in the process of becoming a destination for environmental tourism and an important site for the conservation of ecodiversity, for much of the isolated island’s rich and remarkable flora and fauna is endemic and unique to the world.
Box: In 2007, plans were revealed to build a bridge between Yemen and Djibouti. The bridge will reconnect the Middle East and Africa, which were once united on the super continent of Gondwana but which drifted apart hundreds of millions of years ago. The bridge will connect two new cities, to be built on either side of the bridge. The bridge will span 3,5 kilometres from Yemen to the island of Perim and from there over 20 kilometres across the Red Sea to Djibouti. The first 5 kilometres will consist of approach bridges, the middle span of 10 kilometres will be supported by just three giant pylons towering more than 400 meters above the 300 meter deep sea. Heading the plan is the Dubai based Middle East Development llc, assisted by engineers of the Danish cowi company, who calculated that construction would take at least twelve years and $20 billion.
Banner: ‘In the name of God. Tree conservation is the responsibility of the government, scientists, preachers and all members of society. For the tree is God’s creation, wherefore he entrusted us with its conservation. It greatly enhances moisture and rainfall, and living conditions.’ (Fatwa, or decree by cadi (scolar) Ahmad Mohamad Zabara, mufti (religious lawmaker) of Yemen)
Banner: ‘Yemen has got a very spectacular topography ranging from majestic mountains to mysterious desert dunes, from fertile flat plains to more than 2000 kilometres of breath-taking beaches along the Arabian Sea coast in the south and the Red Sea coast in the west. (From the Saleh presidential website)