Geography and History of Yemen

Important Information About the Middle Eastern Country

Flag of Yemen blowing in the breeze

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Introduction to Yemen

The Republic of Yemen is one of the oldest areas of human civilization in the Near East. Therefore, it has a long history, but like many similar nations, its history features years of political instability. In addition, Yemen's economy is relatively weak and most recently, Yemen has become a center for terrorist groups such as al-Qaeda, making it an important country in the international community.

Fast Facts: Yemen

  • Official Name: Republic of Yemen
  • Capital: Sanaa
  • Population: 28,667,230 (2018)
  • Official Language: Arabic
  • Currency: Yemeni rial (YER)
  • Form of Government: In transition
  • Climate: Mostly desert; hot and humid along west coast; temperate in western mountains affected by seasonal monsoon; extraordinarily hot, dry, harsh desert in east
  • Total Area: 203,849 square miles (527,968 square kilometers)
  • Highest Point: Jabal an Nabi Shu'ayb at 12,027 feet (3,666 meters) 
  • Lowest Point: Arabian Sea at 0 feet (0 meters)

History of Yemen

Yemen's history dates back to 1200 BCE to 650 BCE and 750 BCE to 115 BCE with the Minaean and Sabaean kingdoms. During this time, society in Yemen centered around trade. In the first century, it was invaded by the Romans, followed by Persia and Ethiopia in the sixth century. Yemen then converted to Islam in 628 CE, and in the 10th century it became controlled by the Rassite dynasty, a part of the Zaidi sect, which remained powerful in Yemen's politics until the 1960s.

The Ottoman Empire also spread into Yemen from 1538 to 1918 but because of separate allegiances in terms of political power, Yemen was divided into North and South Yemen. In 1918, North Yemen became independent of the Ottoman Empire and followed a religious-led or theocratic political structure until a military overthrow took place in 1962, at which time the area became the Yemen Arab Republic (YAR). South Yemen was colonized by Britain in 1839 and in 1937 it became known as the Aden Protectorate. In the 1960s though, the Nationalist Liberation Front fought Britain's rule and the People's Republic of Southern Yemen was established on November 30, 1967.

In 1979, the former Soviet Union began to influence South Yemen and it became the only Marxist nation of the Arab countries. With the beginning of the Soviet Union's collapse in 1989 however, South Yemen joined the Yemen Arab Republic and on May 20, 1990, the two formed the Republic of Yemen. Cooperation between the two former nations in Yemen lasted only a short time though and in 1994 a civil war between the north and the south began. Shortly after the civil war's start and an attempted succession by the south, the north won the war.

In the years following Yemen's civil war, instability for Yemen itself and militant actions by terrorist groups in the country have continued. For example, in the late 1990s, a militant Islamic group, the Aden-Abyan Islamic Army, kidnapped several groups of Western tourists and in 2000 suicide bombers attacked the United States Navy ship, the USS Cole. Throughout the 2000s, several other terrorist attacks have occurred in or near Yemen's coast.

In the late 2000s, in addition to terrorist actions, various radical groups have emerged in Yemen and have further increased the country's instability. Most recently, members of al-Qaeda have begun to settle in Yemen and in January 2009, the al-Qaeda groups in Saudi Arabia and Yemen joined to create a group called al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.

Government of Yemen

Today, Yemen's government is a republic with a bicameral legislative body composed of the House of Representatives and the Shura Council. Its executive branch features its chief of state and head of government. Yemen's chief of state is its president, while the head of government is its prime minister. Suffrage is universal at 18 years of age and the country is divided into 21 governorates for local administration.

Economics and Land Use in Yemen

Yemen is considered one of the poorest Arab countries and most recently its economy has declined due to dropping oil prices, a commodity on which most of its economy is based. Since 2006, however, Yemen has been attempting to strengthen its economy by reforming non-oil segments via foreign investments. Outside of crude oil production, Yemen's chief products include such items as cement, commercial ship repair, and food processing. Agriculture is also significant in the country as most citizens are employed in agriculture and herding. Yemen's agricultural products include grains, fruits, vegetables, coffee, livestock, and poultry.

Geography and Climate of Yemen

Yemen is located south of Saudi Arabia and west of Oman with borders on the Red Sea, the Gulf of Aden, and the Arabian Sea. It is specifically located on the strait of Bab el Mandeb which links the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden and is one of the world's busiest shipping areas. For reference, Yemen's area is near twice the size of the state of Wyoming. Yemen's topography is varied with coastal plains adjacent to hills and mountains. In addition, Yemen also has desert plains that stretch into the interior of the Arabian Peninsula and into Saudi Arabia.

Yemen's climate is also varied but much of it is desert, the hottest of which is in the eastern portion of the country. There are also hot and humid areas along Yemen's western coast and its western mountains are temperate with a seasonal monsoon.

More Facts About Yemen

  • Yemen has several UNESCO World Heritage Sites within its borders such as the Old Walled City of Shibam as well as its capital Sana'a.
  • Yemen's people are predominantly Arab but there are small mixed African-Arab and Indian minority groups.
  • Arabic is Yemen's official language, but ancient languages such as those from the Sabaean Kingdom are spoken as modern dialects.
  • Life expectancy in Yemen is 61.8 years.
  • Yemen's literacy rate is 50.2%, most of which consists of only males.


  • “The World Factbook: Yemen.” Central Intelligence Agency.
  • Yemen.” Infoplease.
  • “Yemen.” US Department of State.
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Briney, Amanda. "Geography and History of Yemen." ThoughtCo, Feb. 16, 2021, Briney, Amanda. (2021, February 16). Geography and History of Yemen. Retrieved from Briney, Amanda. "Geography and History of Yemen." ThoughtCo. (accessed May 29, 2023).