A Brief History of Yemen

Yemen is the poorest country in the Middle East, but it was once a land of great prosperity.

Marcus Dovigi
Jan 28 · 16 min read
The old city of Sanaa (Rod Waddington)

Early History (2000 BCE-630 CE)

Yemen is the poorest country in the Middle East, but it was once a land of great prosperity. The Romans called it Arabia Felix, or happy Arabia, said to be home to a mythical kingdom of vast riches. During the reign of the emperor Augustus a military expedition set out to explore the area and conquer the legendary kingdom. The mission ended in failure: the Roman army suffered a rare defeat and returned home, stricken with disease and dismay.

Perhaps the Romans were inspired by the Biblical story of the Queen of Sheba, who visited Jerusalem a thousand years before bearing precious gifts for King Solomon. According to legend the kingdom of Sheba was located somewhere in Arabia Felix. Or maybe Augustus was following the footsteps of Alexander the Great, who called the region Eudaemon Arabia (elated Arabia) and planned to conquer it himself before his untimely death.

Whatever the reason, archaeologists have indeed found evidence of a powerful kingdom that once ruled the entirety of Yemen, stretching from its capital Marib in the country’s fertile highlands to the southern port of Aden. The Sabaeans, as they are known, built impressive temples and waterworks and traded in spices like frankincense and myrrh. Their army was formidable, able to defend itself from invaders and pirates, and the kingdom flourished from the lucrative spice trade.

Old map of South Arabia (British Library)

After a thousand years of rule the legendary Sabaeans were conquered by the Himyarites, a powerful tribe who converted the kingdom to Judaism. They competed with the rival kingdom of Aksum, located across the Red Sea in Ethiopia, who also traded in spices and who were adherents of Christianity. The two squared off for regional supremacy and control of the spice trade, with Aksum coming out victorious (thanks to help from the Byzantines, who controlled the top of Arabia). The Aksumites attempted to convert the population to Christianity but failed, as locals held onto their longstanding beliefs and traditions.

The Aksumites had weak control over the region owing to their faraway position across the Red Sea, and couldn’t stop the powerful Persian army, which already claimed the eastern coast of Arabia, from conquering it. Though still important to international trade for its spices and aromatics, the once-powerful Arabia Felix, home of the legendary Sabaean kingdom, had become merely a cluster of warring tribes ruled by Persia.

Medieval History (630 CE-1488 CE)

The arrival of Islam in 630 CE changed the course of Yemen’s history forever. Before Islam the region had a complicated mixture of monotheistic and polytheistic belief systems. There were Christians and Jews, but both religions were tarnished in the eyes of many for having been introduced by outsiders. Islam, on the other hand, originated just north of Yemen in a region of Arabia called the Hejaz, and merged local beliefs and customs with monotheism and belief in the afterlife.

Moreover, Islam came at a moment when Yemen was ripe for change. In the previous century the region had suffered through foreign occupation by the Aksumites and Persians, a harsh climate and poor harvests, and the devastating plague of the 6th century, which killed as much as 25% of the world’s population. Muhammad’s message of community and interdependence resonated powerfully in light of these challenges.

As Islam spread across Arabia a cultural and economic renaissance bloomed, bringing prosperity to the region for the first time in a hundred years. For the first thirty years after Muhammad’s death Yemen was politically stable, and flourished as the economic capital of Islam.

To be clear, it took hundreds of years for Muhammad’s message to penetrate Yemen completely, especially the northern highlands, where tribes were notoriously suspicious of outsiders. Tribal leaders swung from belief to nonbelief depending on their political needs, complicating the early picture of Islam in Yemen. Even as the first Muslim caliphates (called the Rashidun and Umayyad) conquered territory from Spain to India, complete control over Yemen was never achieved. The Umayyads, who ruled from 661–750 CE, were content with collecting taxes and expelling invaders, and local imams (spiritual leaders of the Muslim community) came to occupy the power vacuum.

Sometime in the 9th century a branch of Islam called Zaidiyyah took hold in the mountainous highlands of the north. Named after Zayd ibn Ali, a descendant of Muhammad who launched a failed uprising against the Umayyad caliphate, believing it was corrupt and illegitimate, the Zaydis managed to consolidate authority over several powerful northern tribes. The insurgency marks the beginning of a long trend in which control of Yemen oscillated between foreign empires — first the Muslim caliphates and later the Ottomans and Europeans — and local dynasties, never a single polity.

The Zaydis feuded with a rival dynasty to the south, the Sulayhids, who belonged to a different branch of Shia Islam called Ismailism. The differences between Zaidiyyah and Ismailism are complex, resting mainly on the issue of succession to Muhammad. The Sulayhids controlled Sanaa, the present-day capital of Yemen, and were aligned with the powerful Fatimid caliphate based in Egypt, which was also Ismaili and offered them military support. After the Sulayhid sultan al-Mukarram Ahmad died his widow, Queen Arwa, took over, claiming sovereignty over much of Yemen. Queen Arwa is still remembered by Yemenis today for her benevolent rule and for the brilliant palaces and mosques erected in her honor.

The Queen Arwa Mosque in Jibla (Yeowatzup)

In 1169 CE the Fatimid caliphate appointed the legendary Saladin to sultan in recognition of his military brilliance. But Saladin turned on the Egyptians and dissolved the caliphate, recognizing the sovereignty of the more powerful Abbasid caliphate in Damascus and thereby founding the Ayyubid dynasty of Egypt (Ayyubid being Saladin’s family name). He ordered his older brother Turanshah to Yemen to reestablish Egyptian control. The mission was successful: with the exception of the Zaydi territory the Ayyubids managed to claim all of Yemen, unifying it for the first time since the legendary Sabaeans a thousand years before.

After Saladin’s death a successor appointed a local military commander named Umar ibn Ali to oversee Yemen. Ali, seeing an opportunity to increase his power, bypassed Egypt and recognized the Abbasid caliphate directly (as Saladin himself had previously done). Ali’s dynasty, the Rasulids, took advantage of the progress made in statecraft by the Egyptians to establish the most successful state of medieval Yemen. They had a flair for style: Ali embraced modern city planning, sophisticated architecture, and higher education. But they were never able to subdue the Zaydis, and their use of slaves as soldiers backfired when armed slaves successfully rebelled in the south. By the time Europeans reached Yemen in the 15th century the Rasulid dynasty had been replaced by a series of slave states, and power was fractured once more.

Colonial History (1488 CE-1967 CE)

In 1488 the Portuguese Empire, seeking to bypass the Muslim stranglehold on Indian Ocean trade, sailed around the southern tip of Africa and reached the west coast of India. Along the way they blockaded several ports on the Red Sea, including Aden, an important stop between the Middle East and Indian Ocean. The blockade spurred the newly-founded Ottoman Empire to Yemen to protect its trading links. The Ottomans occupied Sanaa and much of the Red Sea coast, including Aden and the port of Mocha, which had recently become the birthplace of a popular new commodity — coffee.

Coffee plants were brought to Yemen from their native Ethiopia by traders sometime in the 15th century, and it was there the seeds were first roasted and brewed. The beverage spread quickly through the Middle East and then to Europe, and its enduring popularity enriched the coast of Yemen for centuries.

Coffee fields in Yemen (Evan Gilman)

Yemen was thus an important province of the Ottoman Empire. But the Ottomans faced a familiar problem: the distance between Constantinople and Sanaa proved too costly to maintain. They attempted to create two separate provinces, one comprising the Zaydi north and the other the more populous south, but the move failed. One Ottoman governor, Mahmud Pasha, was particularly cruel: he destroyed landmarks and killed popular religious figures, infuriating the local population. The Zaydis rebelled under the leadership of a respected imam named al-Mansur al-Qasim, and a decades-long struggle ensued. al-Qasim became something of a folk hero to ordinary Yemenis for his courageous resistance to Ottoman rule.

After al-Qasim’s death his son Muhammad managed to expel the Ottomans entirely. In 1635 CE Muhammad founded the Qasimid dynasty, which lasted in some form or another for the next two hundred years. The Qasimids were territorially ambitious, at one point even attempting to occupy the holy city of Mecca. They were mostly left alone by the Ottomans, who settled for diplomatic relations and involvement in the coffee trade.

Qasimid rule was particularly harsh. They discriminated against Jews — many of whom had ancestors in Yemen stretching back for a thousand years — forcing them to pay steep taxes and eventually exiling them to an inhospitable corner of the country. The incident, known as the Mawza Exile, is still remembered by Jews across the world.

As with most hereditary dynasties, the issue of succession was a persistent problem for the Qasimids. Elites were often divided at the death of a ruler, leading to political chaos and weakened rule. Further, in the early 18th century Europe broke Yemen’s monopoly on the coffee trade, greatly reducing the Qasimids’ income and forcing them to raise taxes to make up the difference. Lawlessness and rebellion broke out as a result. In 1728 a local governor mustered a military force strong enough to seize Aden and the nearby city of Lahej, breaking away from the Qasimids to create the independent Sultanate of Lahej. The incident makes clear the extent to which the Qasimid dynasty had lost control of its territory.

By this time the British Empire had emerged as the preeminent world power on the back of its Indian colony. But the distance between Britain and India posed a problem: the trip was too long for steam ships to make in one sitting. The British needed a coaling station, and Aden, situated roughly halfway between Britain and India, was the perfect location. After negotiations between the Sultanate of Lahej and British East India Company broke down, the British Navy bombarded and occupied the strategic port in 1839. They forced locals into a truce whereby Britain left the region’s internal affairs alone in exchange for control of the port’s sea-bound trade, a “free trade” outpost for the British Empire.

For the Ottoman Empire, the British drift toward the Middle East was a clear threat to their sphere of influence. After nearly two centuries away they returned to Yemen to reassert their presence, this time more familiar with the region than before. The Ottomans were surprisingly welcomed by many Yemenis, who sought a return to law and order from the turbulent rule of the Qasimids. Merchants, too, anticipated increased trade from the Ottoman arrival. The Ottomans introduced secular and modernizing reforms like better infrastructure, part of the broader Tanzimat program launched across the empire, increasing their popularity among locals.

After initially struggling to pacify the Zaydis, as they had attempted before, the Ottomans settled on leaving them alone and instead strengthening their hold on the wealthy and populous south. They controlled the coastal interior — cities like Sanaa and Marib — and the ports, with the exception of Aden, which was left alone per a shaky truce with Britain. Yemen was thus roughly divided in three ways: between Britain’s Aden colony, the Ottoman territory, and the mountainous north.

Predictably, the Zaydis resented the Ottoman return to Yemen. Ignoring Ottoman attempts to reach out, northern tribes launched a sweeping rebellion that threatened the stability of imperial rule. After pouring thousands of munitions and troops into the fight with little to show in return, the Ottomans settled on a formal treaty with the Zaydis in 1911 that recognized the authority of the imam Yahya Hamidaddin over a considerable part of the north.

Three years later the Ottomans became entangled in World War I, a watershed moment in the history of the Middle East. The dissolution of the Ottoman Empire and subsequent colonial scramble set the region in flux.

Yahya Hamidaddin claimed the former territory of the Ottoman Empire, primarily the northern highlands and coastal interior, including the historic city of Sanaa. He proclaimed the kingdom of Mutawakkilite, and dreamed of controlling a swath of land from Aden to the Hejaz — territory the Zaydis once held under the Qasimid dynasty.

King Ibn Saud (Pavel Sokov)

The emergence of Ibn Saud to the north at the same time proved to be a formative development in the modern history of Yemen. Ibn Saud was the son of a prominent sheikh who ruled over Riyadh, the present capital of Saudi Arabia. Thanks to support from the British, who sought to cultivate a powerful ally in Arabia, Saud conquered most of the peninsula from 1906 to 1932, including the holy cities of Mecca and Medina.

As Ibn Saud moved south he encountered Yahya Hamidaddin and his budding kingdom. The two fought over the fertile region between the Hejaz and Yemeni heartland known as Asir. Saud had superior technology and more manpower, thanks to the British, but the Yemenis knew the region better and were more experienced with mountain warfare. After a months-long stalemate Saud and Hamidaddin signed the Treaty of Taif in 1934, a 20 year truce in which Saud recognized the legitimacy of Hamidaddin and Yahya ceded most of the disputed territory, including Asir.

The British, emerging strong from World War I, had by now negotiated control over the regions surrounding Aden, which came together to form a powerful colony. They existed in a tense state of truce with Yahya’s Mutawakkilite kingdom — both dreamed of controlling all of Yemen but were checked by the power of the other.

The Mutawakkilite kingdom, like previous Zaydi states, was insular and autocratic, with a rigid top-down power structure and minimal civic participation. Intellectuals and activists came to resent the traditionalism of the king, inspired in part by modernist movements sweeping through the world. But the picture is complicated: in contrast to the intellectuals, many ordinary peasants feared integration into the world economy would result in an irreversible change of lifestyle, and resisted such a move.

The stance of world powers is also complex. Due to Imam Hamidaddin’s non-alignment in the Cold War and his dreams of territorial expansion, Britain naturally sought to topple his kingdom. But the Americans sought a friendship with the Imam, a stable and conservative leader similar to allies they had cultivated elsewhere in the Middle East (in Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Iran, Egypt, etc.). They also wanted to explore the region for oil, fresh off the oil craze to the north, which required good terms with Hamidaddin. The U.S. encouraged Yemen to join the United Nations (which it did in 1947) and launched infrastructure projects across the region, demonstrating to Britain and the rest of the world their supremacy in the Middle East.

Threatened by U.S. overtures to the Imam and sensing it was their last chance for regime change, the British orchestrated a coup d’etat in 1948 in which Yahya Hamidaddin was assassinated. But the plan was botched — Yahya’s powerful sons survived, and his son Ahmad persuaded locals to preserve the status quo with him as leader.

In many ways Ahmad had a different governing philosophy than his father. Eschewing isolationism, Ahmad actively courted support from the Soviet Union and China. But the kingdom remained steadfastly independent, never swinging too far to one side of the Cold War, a balancing act of neutrality that stood in contrast to Yahya’s stubborn ignorance. In a display of the kingdom’s newfound internationalism Ahmad sent troops to fight in the 1948 Arab-Israeli War, where senior military officers rubbed shoulders with revolutionaries like Egypt’s Gamal Abdel Nasser.

Nasser’s ascendance to power in Egypt four years later inspired a wave of revolutionary sentiment across the Middle East, including in Aden. In the 1950s Aden was a cosmopolitan outpost of the British Empire, with a bustling economy that attracted migrants from around the world. Britain’s colonial projects required cheap labor, which was supplied by poor Yemenis searching for work. In time these workers organized into trade unions and published weekly newspapers calling for a Nasserist revolution from British rule. Ahmad, sensing an opportunity to maneuver his way into the south, encouraged the activists by providing them with weapons and safe crossing.

Nasser and Ahmad were thus initially united against the British. But Ahmad came to distrust Nasser’s dominance of the anticolonial movement, believing he was encroaching on Yemen’s independence by pouring weapons and personnel into the region. Further, the secular bent of socialism didn’t sit well with Ahmad’s devout Islamic views. In a few short years a seeming 180 occurred — Egypt turned on its one-time ally and sought regime change along Nasserist lines.

Nasser with the leaders of the 1962 coup (Al-Ahram Weekly)

In 1962 Nasser orchestrated a successful coup d’etat which deposed Ahmad’s son (Ahmad himself had died of natural causes merely a week before). A civil war erupted in the north, pitting Nasserist republicans against forces loyal to the Hamidaddin family. For the British, Nasser controlling Yemen was a worst case scenario, and they and the Saudis suddenly found themselves supporting the Hamidaddins. The proxy war proved costly for Egypt, taking away from its ability to fight elsewhere in the Middle East, especially in Israel. Egypt was forced to withdraw following its defeat to Israel in the Six Day War in 1967, and republicans and royalists reached a ceasefire brokered by Saudi Arabia.

In the south, the onset of revolution in the north and slow collapse of the British Empire made the fall of Aden seem inevitable. The British clung stubbornly to the colony, attempting to cede nominal independence in exchange for control of the economy, but locals weren’t fooled. Britain finally left in 1967, and the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen was proclaimed.

Modern History (1967 CE-Present)

So it came to be that from 1967 to 1990 Yemen was separated into North and South; the first a client state of Saudi Arabia with an economy dependent on foreign aid and remittances, the second a satellite of the Soviet Union. The two neighbors oscillated between friendly and hostile relations. There were frequent cross-border skirmishes and attempts at unification, but neither side was willing to sacrifice independence for unity. Because of colonial projects spearheaded by Britain, South Yemen had better infrastructure than the North, but North Yemen forged closer relations with Saudi Arabia and the United States, which proved beneficial in the long run.

One similarity between them was the large number of peasants who traveled outside the country to work elsewhere in the Gulf, especially in Saudi Arabia. Money received from economic migrants helped propel both economies for some time. However, with the onset of the Gulf War and the political turmoil that followed, migrant workers were forced to return home, where they had trouble finding employment and fell into hardship.

By this time North and South were well on the way to unification. South Yemen realized its dependence on the Soviet Union was unsustainable, and as the USSR collapsed in the late 1980s Southerners saw the writing on the wall. In 1990 they reached an agreement whereby they were absorbed into the North, with longtime North Yemen president Ali Abdullah Saleh becoming the first president of modern Yemen. Southerners hoped prosperity would follow, but the terms of the settlement were uneven. Growing discontent culminated in the civil war of 1994, in which a few Southerners fought the North and lost decisively.

Ali Abdullah Saleh, Yemen’s President from 1978 to 2012 (Mohammed Huwais)

President Saleh adopted a pro-Western foreign policy and implemented liberal political reforms. But widespread corruption and sham elections eroded Saleh’s support among ordinary Yemenis. By the time of his death in 2017 Saleh had amassed a massive fortune spread across secret bank accounts in several countries — some estimate his net worth to have been as high as $60 billion, making him one of the richest men in the world.

Saleh’s corruption and hawkish foreign policy outraged Yemenis, many of whom were impoverished and unemployed. In 2004 Hussein Badreddin al-Houthi, a Zaydi politician from the northern highlands, rose to prominence for his criticism of Saleh’s close relations with Saudi Arabia and the United States, while overlooking the plight of ordinary Yemenis. Houthi’s charges found an audience among poverty-stricken young men, who blamed Saleh for the lack of opportunity at home. Saleh attempted to have Houthi arrested, but Houthi resisted and was assassinated by the military. His enraged followers took to the streets and fought back, launching a years-long insurgency that continues to the present day.

Yemen in the 2000s was home to a patchwork of interest groups: There were those loyal to President Saleh, powerful tribes and bureaucrats who benefited from the status quo; the Houthis, who fiercely opposed the Saleh government; al-Qaeda, which from the early 1990s had a presence in Yemen, carrying out terrorist attacks like the bombing of the USS Cole in 2000; and Saudi Arabia, which loomed over its southern neighbor, backed by the occasional drone strike courtesy of the United States.

In 2011 the Arab Spring washed over the Middle East, beginning with street protests in Tunisia and spreading outward. By then Yemen had already been embroiled in civil war for some time, the Houthi insurgency, and as such anticipated many of the developments that followed. President Saleh, taking pressure from below but also from people like Vice President Abdrabbuh Hadi and military chief Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar, resigned in 2012 in agreement with a Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) deescalation plan. He was succeeded by Vice President Hadi, who is recognized as President of Yemen today by the United States and Saudi Arabia.

Today the situation is bleak. In 2014 the Houthis took over Sanaa and forced Hadi to temporarily move the capital to Aden. The next year Saudi Arabia launched a military intervention to expel the Houthis and reclaim Sanaa, a move which has dramatically worsened the humanitarian situation. Because of the Saudi blockade of Yemen’s ports nearly 80% of the population lacks access to clean water and a steady supply of food, in what the United Nations has called the worst famine worldwide in decades.

Much has changed since the Romans were awed by the endless riches of Arabia Felix. But perhaps Yemenis can be heartened by the wealth of their ancestors, for the wheels of history change abruptly.

(Getty Images)

Further Reading

“Aden, the Company and Indian Ocean Interests” — Scott S. Reese (2018)

“Arab Family Studies: Critical Reviews, Chapter 17: Yemen” — Susanne Dahlgren (2018)

“Competing Visions of Welfare in the Zaydi Community of Medieval South Arabia” — Eirik Hovden (2016)

“Destroying Yemen: What Chaos in Arabia Tells Us About the World” — Isa Blumi (2018)

“The British Challenge to Ottoman Authority in Yemen” — Caeser E. Farah (1998)

“The Ottomans and the Yemeni Coffee Trade” — Jane Hathaway (2006)

“The State of Agriculture in the Mutawakkilite Kingdom of Yemen, 1918–1962: A Documentary Overview” — Daniel Martin Varisco (2018)

“The Yemens: Conflict and Coexistence” — Fred Halliday (1984)

“Yemen: The Unknown Arabia” — Tim Mackintosh-Smith (1997)

“Yemeni opposition to Ottoman rule: an overview” — Abdol Rauh Yaccob (2012)

Marcus Dovigi

Written by

Independent Journalist. UC Santa Cruz ’17. Forthcoming articles planned — follow me to stay updated.

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