Last Update: 02.09.2013


Source: The World Factbook


Yemen borders Saudi Arabia to the north and Oman to the east. It faces the Indian Ocean to the south and the Red Sea to the west, as the country’s south-western ‘elbow’ lies on the eastern side of the Aden Strait, with a narrow 30-km water-channel separating it from Djibuti. The island of Socotra, some 350 km off the south-east coast, is also part of the country. The territory is largely covered by a desert or semi-desert flatland (Hadramaut), with a highland chain along the western coast. The capital is Sanaaa.


The country’s economy has traditionally heavily relied on the oil sector. The increasing scarcity of the raw material, however, has been forcing the government to find new alternative income sources and boost already existing ones such as fishery and sheep-farming. In 2012, overall exports (mostly consisting of crude oil, variously processed fish, coffee and natural gas) accounted for some 7,600 bn. US$, while imports (food, live animals, machinery and equipment) totalled a 10% higher 8,890 bn. The national budget also showed a negative trend, with revenues (7,360 bn. US$) significantly surpassed by expenditures (11,200 bn.). While the national GDP amounted to 35 bn., the per-person indicator was extremely low 2,300 (188th in world ranking), leaving also a quite marked gap between the richer and the poorer (Gini coefficient: 37,7). Unemployment is nearly 36%, while 45% of the people live below poverty line.


Yemen has a population of 25,4 million people. Ethnically, over 90% of them have an Arab or other Semitic-Arab background. The official as well as national language is Arabic, spoken natively by the overwhelming majority of the population in its local colloquial variety, but also widely known in its modern standard one. Yemen is also still home to some other, elsewhere extinct, Semitic languages, belonging to the South Arabian group, such as Mehri and Soqotri. The official as well as by far most practiced, virtually universal religion is Islam (99%). Some 55% of Yemenis, mostly in the eastern and south-eastern part of the country, adhere to the Sunni doctrine in general and predominantly the Shafii school in particular, while some other 45%, mainly in the north and the north-west, follow the (prevailingly Zaydi) Shiite one.

The country shows a very young demographic structure, with the median age being 18,5 years and an overwhelming 63% of the population being no more or less than 24. Life expectancy is however relatively low – 64,5 years (62,4 for males; 66,7 for females). The literacy rate is 63,5%, with males and females ranking at 81,1% and 48,5% respectively.

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The Sanaaa-capitaled so-called «Northern Yemen» established itself as an independent state following the collapse of the Ottoman Empire in 1918, with the name of Mutawakkilite Kingdom of Yemen. In 1967, the monarchy was overthrown by a Nasserist-inspired coup that led to the creation of the Yemen Arab Republic (YAR). The Aden-capitaled «South Yemen» gained its independence form the United Kingdom in 1967, who had been occupying the Protectorate of Aden since 1839. In 1937, following its detachment from British India, the territory became a Crown colony with her own administrative status. The need for appeasement of growing indigenous dissatisfaction led to her re-organization into the Protectorate of Arab States and the Federation of South Arabia. However, the increasingly violent armed resistance fuelled by Egypt-supported National Liberation Front and Saudi Arabia-sponsored National Front of Liberation of Southern Federation pushed the British to their eventual withdrawal, and the NLF-headed independent People’s Republic of South Yemen was officially proclaimed. Three years later, a Communist-inspired coup d’état to the creation of the Democratic People’s Republic of Yemen (DPRY). In 1990, YAR president Ali Abdullah Saleh and his DPRY counterpart Ali Salim Al-Beydh took the decision to unify their two countries, with the former becoming head of state and the latter head of government of the newly-created Republic of Yemen, which officially came into existence on May 22, 1990 with its capital in Sanaaa.

Many people, particularly in the south, have however been feeling increasingly dissatisfied with, when not openly resentful to, the new political status quo. They have not forgotten, nor forgiven, the fact the unification process has been carried out under (not always violence-free) northern leadership, and they have often been accusing the central, Sanaa government of monopolizing power at the expense of the former southern territories, as well as of being unwilling to share its economic wealth with the rest of the country.

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Recent developments

On the wave of the regional turmoil brought by the so-called «Arab Spring», popular protests against President Saleh erupted in Sanaa and other Yemeni cities in January 2011. A large part of the participants were young people and university students. The deteriorating economic situation in what is described as the poorest country of the Arab World, alongside with the circulating news that the president was preparing to put forward a Constitution modification scheme that would allow his son to succeed him on power, were the main triggers of the uprising. Protests were violent and went on for more than one year.

In Febraury, Saleh declared he would not try to extend his office or pass power his son after the expiration of his mandate.

At the conclusion of a GCC summit in Riyadh the following November, Saleh signed an agreement for the handover of his power within the upcoming 30 days to vice-president Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi, who formally took presidency in February 2012 after his overwhelming victory with 98% of consensus in uncontested elections (referendum), due to take place with 90 days from the agreement’s signing, in which he was the only candidate. A unity government with cabinet posts equally divided among ruling and opposition party members and headed by new vice-president Mohammed Basindwa had already been formed in December, starting its activity in the framework of a «National Dialogue» for the drafting of a new Constitution and the preparation of the 2014 elections.

Saleh, to whom the agreement had also provided immunity from prosecution, returned to Yemen immediately after the referendum. As no new parliament elections have so far taken place, 238 out the 301 seats are still held by his General Popular Congress party.

A series of US army-led air drone-carried targeted strikes against terrorist group bases and members have been taking place in the inner parts of Yemen since mid-2011, and have increased their intensity during 2012. Final remarks

Two years after the Saleh’s formal step-down, the results of the political transition process appear ambiguous. While the president is officially no longer in power, he and his clan still remain a very influential actor in the political scenario, enjoying the sympathy of a wide part of the military (his son Ahmed was commander-in-chief of the elite unit of the Republican Guard until April 2013) and the loyalty of a wide portion of parliament representatives as well as a high number of key cabinet figures. As a result, the new government’s relationship with the opposition has so far been characterized more by co-operation than by competition, or, to put it as its critics would argue, more by a complicit, assertive alliance than by a genuine, healthy rivalry. Meanwhile, the never fully by a complicit, assertive alliance than by a genuine, healthy rivalry. Meanwhile, the never fully cicatrized divide* between former North and South Yemen has seen a new deepening both as a result of the increase rather than narrowing of the gap in the economic conditions between the more affluent northern part of the country and the less fortunate southern one, and as a consequence of Mansur Hadi’s high unpopularity in and beyond Aden. Law enforcement and force monopoly have also not ceased to be a major challenge, with many parts of the country remaining effectively beyond government control, and with traditional local tribal groups as well as newly-organized armed religious militias acting as a sort of state within the state.

Saleh’s decision to step down has been largely influenced by the loss of the support of the Hashid tribal federation, one of the most prominent in the country (particularly the Ahmar family), alongside with the military operations led by Al-Qaida in the Arab Peninsula (AQAP) and the southern secessionist Al-Hirak movement. The unclear path of the post-2011 transition, however, makes it not impossible that the former president (or his son) may run for a new mandate at the 2014 elections. In the meanwhile, the depleted economic situation is likely to lead to an even further exacerbation of general mistrust, if not open anger, towards political institutions. At least unless the people will start to feel, and until they will not begin to perceive, that such institutions are or have been delivering concrete measures in order to address their immediate material needs. Besides tactical manoeuvring, serious long-term political and economic reforms are therefore to be put within the priorities list of president Hadi, if Yemen does not want to exit this political phase (whatever its final outcome may look like) with more challenges than it stepped into it.

* Literally speaking, one may easily notice how the former North-South Yemeni border is still visible along the lines of modern-day Yemen’s central provinces, which used to neighbour each other as part of their two respective states when the division was still in place. As no territorial-cum-administrative modification has taken place since 1990, the shape of the ‘external’ sections of the borders of these provinces, which used to be North Yemen’s eastern-most and South Yemen’s western-most ones, do still follow, and exactly coincide with, the old international boundary.



Text (Economy) (People and Society)