Yemen Facts and History Profile

Looking out over Yemen's capital city, Sanaa
View of Sanaa, the capital of Yemen. Glen Allison / Getty Images

The ancient nation of Yemen lies at the southern tip of the Arabian Peninsula. Yemen has one of the oldest civilizations on Earth, with ties to the Semitic lands to its north and to the cultures of the Horn of Africa, just across the Red Sea. According to legend, the Biblical Queen of Sheba, consort of King Solomon, was Yemeni.

Yemen has been colonized at various times by other Arabs, Ethiopians, Persians, Ottoman Turks, and most recently, the British. Through 1989, North and South Yemen were separate nations. Today, however, they are united into the Republic of Yemen — Arabia's only democratic republic.

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 12,028 feet (3,666 meters)
  • Lowest Point: Arabian Sea at 0 feet (0 meters)

Yemeni Government

Yemen is the only republic on the Arabian Peninsula; its neighbors are kingdoms or emirates.

The Yemeni executive branch consists of a president, a prime minister, and a cabinet. The president is directly elected; he appoints the prime minister, with legislative approval. Yemen has a two-part legislature, with a 301-seat lower house, the House of Representatives, and a 111-seat upper house called the Shura Council.

Prior to 1990, North and South Yemen had separate legal codes. The highest court is the Supreme Court in Sanaa. The current President (since 1990) is Ali Abdullah Saleh. Ali Muhammad Mujawar is Prime Minister.

Population of Yemen

Yemen is home to 28.6 million people as of 2018. The overwhelming majority are ethnic Arabs, but 35% have some African blood as well. There are small minorities of Somalis, Ethiopians, Roma (Gypsies), Europeans, and South Asians.

Yemen has the highest birthrate in Arabia, at about 4.45 children per woman. This is probably attributable to early marriages (the marriageable age for girls under Yemeni law is 9), and lack of education for women. The literacy rate among women is only 30%, while 70% of men can read and write.

Infant mortality is almost 60 per 1,000 live births.

Languages of Yemen

Yemen's national language is standard Arabic, but there are several different regional dialects in common use. Southern variants of Arabic spoken in Yemen include Mehri, with about 70,000 speakers; Soqotri, spoken by 43,000 island residents; and Bathari, which has only about 200 surviving speakers in Yemen.

In addition to the Arabic languages, some Yemeni tribes still speak other ancient Semitic languages closely related to the Ethiopian Amharic and Tigrinya languages. These languages are a remnant of the Sabean Empire (9th century BCE to 1st century BCE) and the Axumite Empire (4th century BCE to 1st century CE).

Religion in Yemen

The Constitution of Yemen states that Islam is the official state religion of the country, but it also guarantees freedom of religion. The majority by far of Yemenis are Muslim, with some 42-45% Zaydi Shias, and about 52-55% Shafi Sunnis. A tiny minority, some 3,000 people, are Ismaili Muslims.

Yemen is also home to an indigenous population of Jews, now numbering only about 500. In the mid-20th century, thousands of Yemenite Jews moved to the new state of Israel. A handful of Christians and Hindus also live in Yemen, although most are foreign ex-patriots or refugees.

Geography of Yemen

Yemen has an area of 527,970 square kilometers, or 203,796 square miles, at the tip of the Arabian Peninsula. It borders Saudi Arabia to the north, Oman to the east, the Arabian Sea, the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden.

Eastern, central and northern Yemen are desert areas, part of the Arabian Desert and Rub al Khali (Empty Quarter). Western Yemen is rugged and mountainous. The coast is fringed with sandy lowlands. Yemen also possesses a number of islands, many of which are actively volcanic.

The highest point is the Jabal an Nabi Shu'ayb, at 3,760 m, or 12,336 feet. The lowest point is sea level.

Climate of Yemen

Despite its relatively small size, Yemen includes several different climate zones due to its coastal location and variety of elevations. Yearly average rainfall ranges from essentially none in the inland desert to 20-30 inches in the southern mountains.

Temperatures also range widely. Winter lows in the mountains can approach freezing, while summer in the tropical western coastal areas can see temperatures as high as 129° F (54°C). To make matters worse, the coast is also humid.

Yemen has little arable land; only roughly 3% is suitable for crops. Less than 0.3% is under permanent crops.

Yemen's Economy

Yemen is the poorest nation in Arabia. As of 2003, 45% of the population was living below the poverty line. In part, this poverty stems from gender inequality; 30% of teenage girls between 15 and 19 are married with children, and most are undereducated.

Another key is unemployment, which stands at 35%. The per capita GDP is only about $600 (2006 World Bank estimate).

Yemen imports food, livestock, and machinery. It exports crude oil, qat, coffee, and seafood. The current spike in oil prices may help alleviate Yemen's economic distress.

The currency is the Yemeni rial. The exchange rate is $1 US = 199.3 rials (July 2008).

History of Yemen

Ancient Yemen was a prosperous place; the Romans called it Arabia Felix, "Happy Arabia." Yemen's wealth was based on its trade in frankincense, myrrh, and spices. Many sought to control this rich land over the years.

The earliest known rulers were the descendants of Qahtan (Joktan from the Bible and Koran). The Qahtanis (23rd c. to 8th c. BCE) established the crucial trade routes and built dams to control flash-flooding. The late Qahtani period also witnessed the emergence of written Arabic, and the reign of the legendary Queen Bilqis, sometimes identified as the Queen of Sheba, in the 9th c. BCE.

The height of ancient Yemeni power and wealth came between the 8th c. BCE and 275 CE, when a number of small kingdoms coexisted within the country's modern borders. These included the following: the western Kingdom of Saba, the southeastern Hadramaut Kingdom, the city-state of Awsan, the central trading hub of Qataban, the southwestern Kingdom of Himyar, and the northwestern Kingdom of Ma'in. All of these kingdoms grew prosperous selling spices and incense all around the Mediterranean, to Abyssinia, and as far away as India.

They also regularly launched wars against one another. This squabbling left Yemen vulnerable to manipulation and occupation by a foreign power: Ethiopia's Aksumite Empire. Christian Aksum ruled Yemen from 520 to 570 A.D. Aksum was then pushed out by the Sassanids from Persia.

Sassanid rule of Yemen lasted from 570 to 630 CE. In 628, the Persian satrap of Yemen, Badhan, converted to Islam. The Prophet Muhammad was still living when Yemen converted and became an Islamic province. Yemen followed the Four Rightly-guided Caliphs, the Umayyads, and the Abbasids.

In the 9th century, many Yemenis accepted the teachings of Zayd ibn Ali, who founded a splinter Shia group. Others became Sunni, particularly in south and west Yemen.

Yemen became known in the 14th century for a new crop, coffee. Yemeni Coffee arabica was exported all over the Mediterranean world.

The Ottoman Turks ruled Yemen from 1538 to 1635 and returned to North Yemen between 1872 and 1918. Meanwhile, Britain ruled South Yemen as a protectorate from 1832 on.

In the modern era, North Yemen was ruled by local kings until 1962, when a coup established the Yemen Arab Republic. Britain finally pulled out of South Yemen after a bloody struggle in 1967, and the Marxist People's Republic of South Yemen was founded.

In May of 1990, Yemen reunified after relatively little strife.

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Szczepanski, Kallie. "Yemen Facts and History Profile." ThoughtCo, Oct. 1, 2021, Szczepanski, Kallie. (2021, October 1). Yemen Facts and History Profile. Retrieved from Szczepanski, Kallie. "Yemen Facts and History Profile." ThoughtCo. (accessed April 1, 2023).