Yemen has always been different from the rest of the countries of the Arabian Peninsula. Even the Ancient Greeks thought of it as such, referring to the land that would eventually constitute Yemen as Eudaimon Arabia – “Fortunate Arabia” or “Happy Arabia” – because its rainfall and fertile land made for a stable population.
But the country it has become has rarely been fortunate or happy for long. Located at the intersection of major trade routes, it is an outpost for distant powers seeking access to Arabia. It is a prize peninsular powers have long tried – and always struggled – to control. It is a diverse country, a little more than 200,000 square miles in size, boasting a fertile coastline, mountains as tall as 12,000 feet (3,700 meters), and desert terrain. Its inhabitants are at least as diverse, disconnected as they by dozens of tribal and religious affiliations. Here, diversity all too often leads to volatility, for no one group can control the country for long.
Yet it is an overlooked country, usually afterthought among the machinations of more powerful actors, even as a civil war rages within its borders. It still makes headlines from time to time, of course. It initially re-entered global conversations during the Arab Spring, when its citizens rose up against President Ali Abdullah Saleh, sparking the current civil war. It gets some publicity when a bomb dropped by a member of the Saudi-led coalition fighting there lands on a wedding procession. Heads turn when Houthi rebels launch a missile at a passing ship or at a Saudi embassy. It was even the target of the Trump administration’s first counterterrorism operation, which left at least six women and 10 children dead.
Instability – if not always bloodshed – has been part and parcel of Yemen’s history for thousands of years. In this analysis, we will study the geography that divides this country, the turbulent transitions in power it has experienced over the centuries, and the roots of the civil war that continues today.
Yemen lies at the southwestern tip of Arabia. To its west, the Red Sea narrows into the Bab el-Mandeb strait, where the Horn of Africa nearly touches Arabia. Through the strait is the Gulf of Aden, then the Arabian Sea and, eventually, the Indian Ocean. Much of Yemen’s east, where it borders Oman, is sparsely populated. The north (especially the northeast) is bounded by desert and Saudi Arabia.
In a way, Yemen is an extension of the Hejaz region, which runs along the western Red Sea coastal region of modern-day Saudi Arabia. The various Muslim powers that have wielded influence on the west coast of Arabia were able to project power into Yemen as well, but their influence there was always tenuous. Interest in Yemen was secondary to controlling Hejaz.
The Hejaz Mountains trace the Red Sea from Saudi Arabia through Yemen, but there are narrow plains, especially along Yemen’s western and southern coastlines. In Yemen, the mountain range separates into the western and central highlands. The western highlands have relatively fertile soil and get more rainfall than the central highlands. Several valleys intersperse the highlands.
Because of its mountains and vast tracts of desert, Yemen is difficult to access by land. It is easily accessible by sea, but for most of Yemen’s history, those who sailed to the country rarely ventured past the port of Aden.
But that doesn’t mean the lands were uninhabited. Beginning around the 12th century B.C., several kingdoms rose and fell in modern-day Yemen. Religions, too, thrived before being replaced – first Judaism, then Christianity, and finally Islam. A turning point for the region came in 628 A.D., when, the governor of Yemen – then part of the Persian Sassanid Empire – converted to Islam, paving the way for the country’s Islamization.
The Medieval Islamic Age
Islam was a unifying force for Yemen, but even it couldn’t completely overcome the country’s divisions. The Persian ruling elite, which had converted to Islam during the lifetime of Prophet Muhammad, sought the help of his immediate successors, the caliphs, to maintain their control over Yemen’s various tribal confederations. During the period of the Rashidun Caliphate (632-61), they tried to establish a system of local authorities, but the caliphate’s internal problems and priorities prevented it from controlling the entire country.
By the time the Umayyads (661-749) founded the first hereditary caliphate, the Arabian Peninsula was losing geopolitical importance. Throughout their reign, the Umayyads were headquartered in the Levant, in the eastern Mediterranean, and their focus was on expanding toward North Africa and Central Asia. Yemen was largely left to its own devices. When the Abbasids eclipsed the Umayyads near the middle of the eighth century, local Yemeni factions had already begun to assert themselves.
By the end of the ninth century, the Sunni-dominated Islamic world was in decline. Local dynasties were increasingly challenging the Abbasids. Yemen was a microcosm of this phenomenon. And it was at this time that the fault lines that exist today were being drawn, especially in the form of the geopolitical sectarian divide between the Sunnis and Shia.
Muhammad ibn Ziyad, whom the Abbasids appointed governor of Yemen in 817, founded the Ziyadid dynasty, which ruled over large parts of Yemen for two centuries. The Ziyadids had to contend, however, with rivals in the highlands around Saada, where the Ismaili and, more importantly, the Zaydi subsects of Shiite Islam had gained ground. The Zaydis would be particularly successful in establishing a lasting regime. Regionally, Sunni rule was being increasingly challenged by the rise of the Ismailis in the form of the Cairo-based Fatimid caliphate (909-1171).
As a result, as the Ziyadids declined, a number of competing dynasties (Najahids, Sulayhids and Zurayhids) ruling different parts of the country rose in their place. This lasted about 150 years. It was not until Saladin’s victory over the Crusaders and the establishment of his Ayyubid dynasty of Kurdish origin that Sunnis bounced back in Yemen. The Ayyubid dynasty didn’t last long, but it created a balance of power between Sunnis in the coastal and southern highlands and Zaydi Shiites in the upper highlands.
The Sunni-Zaydi struggle would continue for the next three centuries. The Sunnis gained ground under the Turkmen Rasulids, who succeeded the Ayyubids and ruled Yemen from 1229 to 1454, establishing the longest-reigning and most effective Muslim dynasty in the country. Local rule was restored briefly under the Tahirids (1454-1517), but their reign was short lived. In addition to fighting the Zaydis, they had to deal with European colonialism – the Portuguese had established a naval presence in the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden. This development again brought pressure from Egypt, now ruled by the Mamluk dynasty, which took over the areas of Yemen ruled by the Tahirids in 1517.
The Mamluks, like the Ayyubids before them, viewed Yemen as a critical way station on the trade route from Egypt to India. Portugal’s control over the island of Socotra and its assaults on the port of Aden were a threat to the Mamluks. The same year they established control in Yemen, however, the Mamluks faced an Ottoman assault from the north. The Ottomans, having expanded into Europe, had set their eyes on the Middle East. After taking over Egypt, the Ottomans inherited the Mamluks’ concerns. This set the stage for the first Ottoman period of rule in Yemen, beginning in 1538 and lasting a century.
But the Zaydis regrouped, taking advantage of the fragmentation of their country and using it against the Ottomans. They forced the Turks out in 1635. Under the leadership of the Qasimids, the Zaydis, like those dynasties before them, established their state in Sanaa. But their territory stretched from Asir (a province on the Yemeni border in present-day Saudi Arabia) in the north to the port of Aden in the south and to Dhofar (now in Oman) in the east. This state of affairs held until the mid-19th century, when the Ottomans staged their own comeback. By this time, the British had expanded their influence in the region. The Ottomans were not as strong as they had been. Their rule was short-lived.
The Present and Beyond
The Zaydi imamate, which dates back to the late 800s and strengthened under the Qasimids, was well positioned to take advantage of the collapse of the Ottoman Empire and the establishment of Yemen as a nation-state. However, Saudi Arabia was emerging as a force on its northern flank. Meanwhile, the British occupied Yemen, and the old Sunni resistance in the coastal areas and the southern highlands was still a factor. The result was that the Zaydi polity, known then as the Mutawakkilite Kingdom of Yemen, was highly circumscribed during its reign, which lasted until only 1962.
By now Arab nationalism had spread to the ranks of the modern Yemeni army, whose officers sought to form a republic in Yemen. Under the leadership of Abdullah al-Sallal, the military ousted the last Zaydi monarch and established the Yemen Arab Republic. Egypt sent troops to support al-Sallal and the republicans, while Saudi Arabia backed the royalists. (It’s ironic that the Saudis backed the Shia, but at the time the threat from Egypt-led Arab nationalism was greater than the one posed by the Zaydi.) In 1967, Egypt withdrew its forces, and by 1970, Saudi Arabia recognized what came to be known as North Yemen.
Meanwhile, the south of the country around Aden remained under British control even after the creation of the Federation of South Arabia, of which it was a part, in 1963. The British promised independence in five years, but nationalist factions launched a rebellion against London’s rule. The British eventually negotiated a handover of control, and in 1967 the People’s Republic of Southern Yemen, led by the National Liberation Front, was formed. A short time later, Marxists gained control of the NLF, and two years after that they established a communist regime allied with the Soviet Union.
North Yemen and the People’s Republic of Southern Yemen co-existed peacefully, more or less, until the end of the Cold War, when, in 1990, their presidents signed a power-sharing deal and the countries unified. In 1994, there was a brief civil war when the south tried to secede, but the north, under the leadership of Ali Abdullah Saleh – a former army commander and tribal warlord who had become president of North Yemen in 1978 – and backed by Saudi-supported Salafist tribal militias, defeated the secessionists.
After the war, Yemen was formally unified. It adopted a democratic constitution that allowed for political parties, but its divisions remained. Saudi influence began to alter the sectarian balance between the Sunnis and the Zaydis and, more important, gave rise to Salafism, an ultra-conservative branch of Sunni Islam, and jihadism. Al-Qaida made deep inroads into the country; founder Osama bin Laden’s family was from Yemen.
Salafism expanded. Saleh and his tribe, which was originally Zaydi and therefore Shia, converted to Sunni Islam. Salafists gained influence in Saleh’s ruling General People’s Congress and in the main opposition party, al-Islah (Yemen’s Muslim Brotherhood). Salafism also grew in the formerly Marxist south, where had al-Qaida established a presence. The U.S. response to the 9/11 attacks – and Saudi Arabia’s own efforts to fight an internal but short-lived al-Qaeda insurgency from 2003 to 2005 – galvanized the jihadist movement, adding more complexity to country’s historical fragmentation. In its efforts to manage its southern neighbor, Saudi Arabia tried to play various Yemeni tribal and other factions off one another but only made the divisions worse.
The Zaydi’s opposed the rise of Salafism. In 2004, their opposition soon became an insurgency, which would be led by a clan known as the Houthis, who are still at the helm today. Saleh’s government tried and failed to crush the Houthis. In 2007, a new southern secessionist move took shape.
This was the context in which the Arab Spring reached Yemen in 2011. Saleh, who had overseen the establishment of modern Yemen, was forced to resign and transfer power to his vice president, Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, as part of a Saudi-brokered deal later that year.
With Saleh gone and the resulting regime split into many factions, the Houthi movement, called Ansarallah and backed by Iran, became the single-largest political force in Yemen. The Houthis made a secret deal with Saleh to seize power in early 2015 and took control of most of the country. Over the past three years, the Yemeni civil war has morphed into a proxy conflict between the Saudi-backed internationally recognized Hade government and the Iranian-backed opposition led by the Houthis. Earlier this month, the war took an unexpected turn when the Houthis assassinated Saleh, who had defected to the Saudi side.
Yemen has been devastated by war, and war is likely to be the natural state of things for the foreseeable future. A settlement will come eventually, but so long as Yemen is fragmented, it will be only an intermission in the fighting.