Aside from legend, a shroud of mystery still envelops the early origins of southern Arabia. The area now known as Yemen came to light during the 1st millennium BC, when a sweet-smelling substance called frankincense first hit the world’s markets. Carefully controlling the production and trade of this highly lucrative commodity were the Sabaeans, initially based in eastern Yemen.
Over the ensuing centuries, the Sabaean Empire expanded and came to dominate almost all the rest of modern-day Yemen. The temples and Great Dam at Ma’rib date from this period.
As Sabaean power waned, new powers and empires began to rise in its wake. The greatest of these was the Himyar empire. Initially based in the central highlands, the Himyarites’ power grew, and by the late 3rd century AD they had seized control of nearly all the remaining country.
Over the succeeding centuries Yemen was invaded many times by hungry regional powers looking for expansion.
Among the powers that passed through its portals – but never managed to fully contain the country – were the Ptolemaic dynasties, the Abyssinians and the Persians (from modern-day Egypt, Ethiopia and Iran respectively). Today Yemenis are still proud of the fact that no foreign power has ever managed to conquer the country completely.
In the early 7th century AD there came a new invasion. It was to prove far more significant than any that had come before: it was the arrival of Islam.
Initially most Yemenis converted to Sunnism, but over the next few centuries individual Shiite sects, such as the Zaydis, were born. During this time, various mini-states grew, ruled by such dynasties as the Sulayhids and Rasulids.
From the 15th century onwards foreign powers, including the Egyptians and Portuguese, vied again for control of the Red Sea coast. But it was the Ottomans (from modern-day Turkey) who made the greatest impact. Occupying parts of Yemen from 1535 to 1638, and again from 1872 to 1918, they ignored, or failed to capture, the remote inland areas ruled by local imams (prayer leaders). During the 17th century the Qassimi dynasty ruled over much of this region, but its power declined with the demise of coffee trading, upon which it had relied.
In the middle of the 19th century a new power rocked up. From 1839 to 1967 the British occupied and controlled parts of southern Yemen, including the port of Aden, which was declared a British protectorate. Strategically valuable to Britain’s maritime ambitions, the port soon grew into a major staging post.
Meanwhile in the north, after WWI and the defeat of Germany (with whom the Ottomans were allied), a new royal Zaydi dynasty, the Hamid al-Din, rose up to take the place of the former occupiers.
Until 1962 central and northern Yemen had been ruled by a series of local imams. However, on the death of the influential imam, Ahmad, a dispute over succession broke out, embroiling the whole region in a war that dragged on for the next eight years.
On the one side, army officers supported by Egypt proclaimed the Yemen Arab Republic (YAR), while on the other, the royalists based in the north, and backed by Britain and Saudi Arabia, were loyal to Ahmad’s son and successor. The YAR forces eventually won.
Following the National Liberation Front’s victories in the guerrilla campaign against the British, the colonialists were forced to withdraw from southern Yemen in 1967. Three years later the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen (PDRY) was born. It became the first and only Marxist state in the Arab world.
In the north of the country, meanwhile, Field Marshall Ali Abdullah Saleh had instituted a progressive rule of the YAR with his General People’s Congress (GPC). Conflicts between tribes were contained, and the constitution vowed to respect both Islamic principles and Western values, such as personal freedom and private property.
In the PDRY, however, there was turmoil. Power struggles within the Yemen Socialist Party (YSP) had led to rising tension. Finally, in Aden in January 1986, a two-week civil war broke out. The situation was aggravated by the collapse of the Soviet Union, previously the major benefactor of the PDRY. As a result, the south was thrown into a state of bankruptcy.
Additionally, border disagreements between the two states had led to short conflicts in 1972, 1978 and 1979. Yet, despite the political differences, most Yemenis hated having a divided country.
On 22 May 1990 a reunified Republic of Yemen was declared and in 1991 Yemen made regional history. The country became the very first multi-party parliamentary democracy on the Arabian Peninsula. Saleh took the position of president and Ali Salim al-Bidh (the leader of YSP, the ruling party of the former PDRY) became vice-president.
Things didn’t get off to a good start for the new nation. During the 1990–91 Gulf War, Yemen appeared to side with Iraq (by choosing not to support UN economic sanctions against the country), and in doing so managed to alienate not only the US and its allies, but also its Gulf neighbours, in particular Saudi Arabia and Kuwait. This led to the expulsion of over one million Yemeni emigrant workers from Saudi Arabia and devastated the economy.
On the home front things also began to sour and the YSP and its members started to feel increasingly marginalised by the GPC and its coalition partner Islah.
Eventually tensions came to a head, and in 1994 civil war again broke out between the north and the south. Bidh’s attempts to secede from the north were quashed, and he fled the country.
The country was reunified shortly afterwards. But the path towards democracy was still not smooth. In 1997 the YSP, predicting vote rigging, boycotted the elections. As a result, the GPC swept into power and Islah became the main opposition party.
In September 1999 the country held its first-ever presidential election, and Saleh was re-elected as the country’s president.
In June 2000 a border agreement was signed with Saudi Arabia. Due to come into force in 2007, it has finally settled a decades-old dispute over the two countries frontiers and, the Saudis’ hope, will prevent the smuggling of weapons and qat.
Following the attacks of 11 September 2001, Yemen was viewed with suspicion by the US. With its remote, unruly and little-policed interior, Yemen was suspected of providing – even unwittingly – a refuge for Al-Qaeda members and supporters, as well as supplying a bolt-hole for militant Islamists. A number of incidents encouraged this perception. In October 2000 the US warship the USS Cole was bombed in Aden harbour, killing 17 US servicemen. Following this the French supertanker, the Limburg, was bombed in 2002.
Prior to the 2006 presidential elections, Saleh announced his retirement from politics, though at the last moment, and under pressure from his party, he opted to stand again. In an election that was seen as largely free and fair he was re-elected by a large margin. The general consensus was that after so many years under his rule it was a case of better the devil you know. This view was not to last.
Yemen today is a country with many problems. The mass demonstrations of 2011 may have finally removed President Saleh from power after three decades, but thriving on the chaos Al-Qaeda have established a significant and dangerous presence. The new incumbent President Hadi must deal with this, as well as improving the economy of the poorest country in the Arab World and building a democratic future for this most challenged of nations.