Classical geographers divided Arabia into three regions: Arabia Petraea ("rocky"), Arabia Deserta ("deserted"), and Arabia Felix ("fortunate"). The last, the southwestern corner, included the territory now occupied by Yemen. The region was the site of a series of rich kingdoms that dominated world trade. The wealthy kingdom of Sheba (or Saba), with its capital at Ma'rib, is the best known of the South Arabian kingdoms. The prosperity of this kingdom (10th to 2d centuries BC ) was based on the spice and incense trade. Competition from new trade routes undermined Sabaean prosperity and caused the kingdom to decline. From the 2d century BC to the 6th century AD , the Himyarite dynasty, of ethnic stock similar to that of the Sabaeans, ruled in Arabia Felix, and paganism gradually gave way to Christianity and Judaism.
The Himyarite hegemony was ended in 525 by invading Christian Ethiopians, whose rule lasted until 575, when they were driven out by Persian invaders. Islam was accepted in the next century, and Yemen became the battleground of Muslim religious factions. The coastline (Tihama) was held by the Sunnis of the Shafi'i School, while the highlands were controlled by the Zaydis, a Shi'a sect.
In the 9th century, a Zaydi ruler, Yahya al-Hadi ila'l Haqq, founded a line of imams that survived until the second half of the 20th century. Nevertheless, Yemen's medieval history is a tangled chronicle of contesting local imams. The Fatimids of Egypt helped the Isma'ilis maintain dominance in the 11th century. Saladin (Salah ad-Din) annexed Yemen in 1173. The Rasulid dynasty (Kurdish and Turkish in origin) ruled Yemen, with Zabid as its capital, from about 1230 to the 15th century. In 1516, the Mamluks of Egypt annexed Yemen; but in the following year, the Mamluk governor surrendered to the Ottoman Turks, and Turkish armies subsequently overran the country. They were challenged by the Zaydi imam Qasim the Great (r.1597–1620) and expelled from the interior around 1630. From then until the 19th century, the Ottomans retained control only of the coastal area, while the highlands generally were ruled by the Zaydi imams.
Early in the 19th century, Yemen was overrun by Wahhabis, but in 1818, Ibrahim Pasha, the son of Muhammad 'Ali of Egypt, drove them out of Yemen and reestablished Zaydi control. Egyptian troops occupied the main ports of Yemen until 1840, when they were withdrawn. The Zaydi imams recognized Ottoman suzerainty and paid a large annual subsidy to the Ottoman sultan. After 1840 the situation was anarchic, and law and order in any form was not reestablished until 1872, when the Ottomans again occupied Sana and consolidated their control. The northern mountains remained under the control of Zaydi imams from the Hamid ad-Din family. The Ottomans kept a large force in Yemen during World War I, but under the armistice terms evacuated it in 1918 and Yemen became independent.
In 1834 the British had occupied Aden as a coaling station on the route to India; the importance of the territory was substantially increased with the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869.
To protect its foothold in Aden the United Kingdom had signed a treaty of "protection and advice" with rulers of the tribes and states in the hinterland, leading to the adoption of the names Western Aden Protectorate (WAP) and Eastern Aden Protectorate (EAP). As long as northern Yemen remained at least nominally a part of the Ottoman Empire, relations on the frontier between the United Kingdom (in the WAP and EAP) and the Turks (in Yemen) were relatively peaceful.
During World War I the British supported the Idrisi tribe's attempt to establish itself in Yemen. In 1919 the United Kingdom occupied Al-Hudaydah, which came into Idrisi hands when the British withdrew in 1921. The Zaydis, now led by Imam Yahya ibn Muhammad Hamid ad-Din, who had become imam in 1891, waged an armed struggle against the Idrisis that ended when Imam Yahya seized Al-Hudaydah in 1925. The imam also sought to move into the states of the Western Aden Protectorate in an attempt to reestablish his suzerainty in these territories formerly held by the Yemenis. The Idrisis came under the protection of King Ibn Sa'ud, and in 1934, a war broke out between the Sa'udis and Yemenis. By the Treaty of Ta'if (May 1934), Yemen lost 'Asir to Sa'udi Arabia but won British and Sa'udi recognition of its independence. However, incursions by the imams against the UK protectorate in Aden continued until 1962.
In 1959 the United Kingdom formed the six WAP states into the Federation of Arab Emirates of the South, with others joining later. The inhabitants of Aden, who were more politically and economically advanced than those of the protectorates, opposed adherence to the federation. Nevertheless, Aden in 1963 was merged into the federation, which then became known as the Federation of South Arabia.
The dispute over the future form and direction of this new political entity, as well as over which other states would join it, resulted in several years of factional violence, as various political parties, labor organizations, and other groups struggled for political ascendancy. Finally, in 1967, the National Liberation Front (NLF) emerged as the strongest political group, and the United Kingdom agreed to negotiate with it concerning future independence. On 30 November 1967 all the states of the WAP and EAP were amalgamated, the last British soldiers withdrew, and the NLF declared the independence of the People's Republic of South Yemen. On 22 June 1969 the head of the NLF, Qahtan ash-Sha'bi, was deposed by a group of young leftists of the NLF. The new regime, headed by a five-man council, renamed the country the People's Democratic Republic of Yemen (PDRY), developed close ties with the USSR, and secured economic aid from it and China. A further political alignment occurred in 1971, when Salim Rubaya 'Ali became head of state and 'Abd al-Fattah Isma'il was named head of the party, in an uneasy rivalry. In 1978 Isma'il, the head of the Yemen Socialist Party (YSP), formerly the NLF, overthrew and executed President 'Ali and assumed the presidency. Isma'il resigned his position in 1980, ostensibly for reasons of health, and went into exile. 'Ali Nasir Muhammad al-Hasani, the prime minister, assumed the presidency.
Meanwhile, Yemen joined the League of Arab States in 1945, and in 1958, it formed a federation, the United Arab States, with the newly established United Arab Republic (UAR). In December 1961 however, the pro forma federal connection with Egypt was severed, and in September 1962 the government of Imam Muhammad al-Badr, only a few days old, was overthrown by revolutionary forces led by Brigadier (later Marshal) 'Abdallah as-Sallal. He proclaimed himself president and commander-in-chief of the army and declared the establishment of the Yemen Arab Republic. Badr escaped to the northern regions of the YAR, where he organized a counterrevolutionary force.
A civil war between the royalists (defenders of the imamate) and the republican government broke out, and appeals by both sides for support brought about the active intervention of other Arab states. Sa'udi Arabia supported the royalist cause, and the UAR came to the assistance of the republic, dispatching up to 70,000 troops to the YAR; fighting was particularly bitter during the winter of 1963-64. Eventually the conflict subsided, as the Sa'udis curtailed their aid to the royalists and the Egyptians to the republicans. Sallal was deposed in November 1967 and replaced by a Republican Council. Talks between republican leaders and Sa'udi Arabia in March 1970 at Jiddah concluded with an agreement that ended the civil war and left the republicans in control.
In June 1974 'Abd ar-Rahman al-Iryani (who had been president since 1967) resigned, thrusting the country into a state of political confusion. By the end of the year Lieutenant Colonel Ibrahim Muhammad al-Hamdi had emerged as president, heading a government with powers of centralized control that were progressively strengthened. Hamdi was assassinated by unknown assailants in October 1977. His successor, Colonel Ahmad ibn Hussein al-Ghashmi, who formed a civilian government and established the Constituent People's Assembly, met a similar fate in June 1978, in a bomb blast in which PDRY involvement was suspected. Lieutenant Colonel 'Ali 'Abdallah Saleh thereupon became president. In 1982, he inaugurated the General People's Congress as an instrument for popular political mobilization.
Since independence, the PDRY was embroiled in conflicts with all three of its neighbors. A separatist movement was supported in Oman; there were border skirmishes with Sa'udi forces in 1969 and 1973; and the PDRY fought a brief war with the YAR in February–March 1979. The war ended with a truce, mediated by the Arab League, and with an agreement in principle to seek unification of the two Yemens.On 13 January 1986 PDRY President Muhammad attempted to eliminate his rivals within the YSP. A number of officials were killed, including Isma'il, and Muhammad was forced into exile, along with thousands of his followers. A civil war ensued during the following two weeks, in which about 4,200 died and the supporters of Muhammad were defeated. Haydar Abn Bakr al-'Attas, the prime minister, took over as acting president; Dr. Yasin Sa'id Nu'man was appointed prime minister, and 'Ali Salim al-Bayd was chosen as the new head of the YSP. President al-'Attas was officially elected in November 1986.
In late 1981 a constitution for the two Yemens was drafted. However, implementation was hampered by the continuing insurgency against President Saleh by the leftist National Democratic Front (NDF), which was based in, and reportedly aided by, the PDRY. Saleh was able to defeat the NDF militarily in 1982. Movement toward unification was maintained in repeated declarations and meetings through 1985, but no real progress was achieved. The January 1986 civil war in the PDRY set back relations between the two countries, particularly since 50,000 refugees fled the YAR, but both governments subsequently reaffirmed their commitment to unity.
In 1989 the leaders of the YAR and PDRY approved the 1981 draft constitution and their legislatures ratified it on 21 May 1990. The unified Republic of Yemen was proclaimed the following day. In the May 1990 election, 121 seats were won by the northern General People's Congress, sixty-two by Islaah (an Islamist and tribalist party), fifty-six by the southern Yemeni Socialist Party, forty-seven by independents, and fifteen by five other parties. On 22 May 1990 Ali Abdullah Saleh became the president of Yemen and Haidar Abu Bakr al-Attas the first prime minister, serving until 9 May 1994. A 30-month transition period was set for unifying the different political and economic systems. The army, police, and civil service were not integrated as planned, however. Meanwhile, the economy was hard hit by the consequences of Yemen's support for Iraq after the Kuwait invasion. It is estimated that Saudi Arabia expelled between 800,000 and 1 million Yemeni workers, thus depriving Yemen of some $3 billion in foreign exchange. In addition, the Sa'udis and Gulf states ended $2 billion in foreign aid. Unemployment in Yemen reached 30%.
Free and fair parliamentary elections were held in April 1992 with President Saleh's General People's Congress (GPC) barely missing a majority victory. A three-party coalition was formed but foundered in late 1993 when Vice President Ali al-Beidh of the Yemen Socialist Party boycotted meetings. Although the quarrel appeared to be patched up with an agreement in February 1994, fighting broke out in May of that year. In a few months, thousands of casualties had been suffered; tribes, clans, and militias were engaged in seeking their own selfish goals and the city of Aden was under siege. Some observers attributed the civil conflict to the recent discovery of massive oil reserves in the south and to Saudi Arabia's interest in weakening Yemen by promoting the breakup of the union. The future looked bleak, despite efforts of the UN and some Arab states to promote peace. Meanwhile, on 9 May 1994 Muhammed Said al Attar became acting prime minister until 6 October 1994 when Abdel Aziz Abdel Ghani took office.
Although bloody, the civil war was short-lived, with the north having subdued the rebellious south by July. Restoring civil order was difficult, especially in light of the dire economic straits faced by the country, which in 1995 had 70–90% inflation and a deficit of 17% of GDP. The IMF and World Bank stepped in after the war and instituted structural adjustment programs which brought inflation down below 10%, with further reduction to 6% expected in 1997 (for the non-oil sector).
In 1997 parliamentary elections were scheduled for May and it was expected that Saleh's GPC would retain its sizable majority. The international community expressed skepticism as to the fairness of the elections but, in the context of the Persian Gulf, they were expected to be reasonably fair. Notably, the YSP, representing the defeated south, announced that it would boycott the elections in protest of the GPC's collusion with Islaah, a tribal and Islamist party, to rig the elections. Saleh maintained the presidency and on 14 May 1997 Faraj Said Bin Ghanem became the new prime minister. On 29 April 1998 Bin Ghanem resigned and Abdel Karim al-Iriani became acting prime minister. In September 1999 President Ali Abdullah Saleh was reelected in Yemen's first direct presidential election. The YSP boycotted the election. Charges of fraud were made by the opposition with allegations of underage voting, multiple balloting, and unauthorized submission of ballots by absentee voters.
Yemen's history of kidnappings, over 100 Westerners the first six years of the 1990s, continued through 2000. In the past the kidnappings were economically motivated, i.e., Yemeni tribesmen asking for money. However, the more recent ones appeared ideological—Muslims demanding the release of prisoners held by another Muslim group. Kidnappings damaged Yemen's economy by their impact on its tourist industry. Falling world oil prices also hit Yemen hard since oil accounts for over 80% of Yemen's exports. Yemen attempted to increase economic productivity with a campaign against qat (khat) chewing. Qat is a mild indigenous narcotic plant customarily chewed by some 75% of the Yemeni population. In August 1999 the government led by President Saleh, himself a qat user, launched a campaign to reduce qat usage by swearing off qat and encouraging others to follow his example. Anti-qat campaigns have been politically treacherous as former prime minister Mohsin al-Aini was ousted in 1972 after attempting to stamp out qat-chewing.
On 12 October 2000, two suicide bombers detonated a small boat containing explosives alongside the USS Cole as it was refueling in Aden harbor. Seventeen US sailors were killed and 39 others were wounded. In remarks broadcast on Qatar's al-Jazeerah satellite channel in March 2001, al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden praised the attack. Bin Laden, whose father was of Yemeni origin, had been indicted by the United States for the 1998 bombings of the US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania that killed 224 people. In the aftermath of the 11 September 2001 terrorist attacks on the United States, attributed to al-Qaeda, the United States focused attention on governments in the world responsible for harboring and supporting terrorists. Since 1992, the United States has alleged that bin Laden and al-Qaeda targeted US military forces in Yemen, and that al-Qaeda has formed alliances with jihad groups in Yemen. In June 2001, Yemeni officials arrested 9 men believed to be affiliated with the Islamic Army of Aden, a fundamentalist group linked to bin Laden, for the 2000 attack on the Cole . The group was responsible for kidnapping 16 Western tourists in December 1998; four of the hostages were killed in a gun battle between the group and Yemeni government troops. The Islamic Army of Aden apparently advocates the imposition of Islamic law in Yemen, is against the United States or other Western states using Yemeni ports or bases, and supports the lifting of international sanctions against Iraq.
In November 2001, President Saleh met with President Bush, assuring him that Yemen was a partner in the war on terrorism. In December, Yemen detained some 80 foreign students and teachers from an Islamic fundamentalist institute in the Marib province, where Yemeni special forces were searching for al-Qaeda suspects. In February 2002, Yemen expelled more than 100 foreign Islamic scholars, including British and French nationals, in an effort to curb the spread of terrorism. Scores of prisoners being held by the United States as a result of its 2001– 2002 campaign in Afghanistan are natives of Yemen. In March 2002, the United States was finishing plans to send hundreds of US Special Forces to Yemen, to "advise and assist" Yemeni forces combating armed groups affiliated with al-Qaeda. No combat role for the US forces was envisioned.
On 6 October 2002, the French oil tanker Limburg was the target of a terrorist attack in the Gulf of Aden, which killed one crewmember and released 90,000 barrels of oil. An explosives-laden boat hit the tanker, in an attack that was similar to the one on the USS Cole . On 3 November, a US CIA-controlled unmanned Predator surveillance plane fired a Hellfire missile into a car in northwest Yemen, killing 6 al-Qaeda operatives, including Qaed Salim Sunian al-Harethi, considered to be Osama bin Laden's chief operator in Yemen. Al-Harethi was also a suspect in the 2000 bombing of the Cole. President Saleh called on al-Qaeda members to renounce violence and turn themselves in to face trial in Yemen, as opposed to being turned over to the United States.
In December 2002, a North Korean freighter disguised as a Cambodian ship was intercepted in the Arabian Sea and seized at gun point by the US Navy and Spanish marines; the vessel was carrying a shipment bound for Yemen of 15 Scud missiles, warheads, and an agent used in Scud fuel. President Bush ordered the shipment released after concluding the Yemen-North Korean deal was concluded on a legal basis. Also in December, a Yemeni Muslim extremist killed three American doctors and wounded a pharmacist by opening fire in a Baptist hospital in the town of Jibla.
Domestically, on 20 February 2001, Yemen amended its constitution to extend the presidential term of office from 5 to 7 years, and to reorganize the bicameral parliament. The referendum was passed by 73% of the voting population. Also in February, municipal elections were held for the first time.