Yemen has been deeply divided since January 2011 due to mass demonstrations against President Ali Abdullah Saleh as part of the regional Arab Spring uprisings. The demonstrations, which began roughly at the same time as those in Egypt, steadily picked up steam as Mr. Saleh employed a heavy-handed response to civilian protests.
What’s Happening Now
On March 18, 2011, thousands of demonstrators were fired upon by Mr. Saleh’s security forces, but the attack failed to disperse the crowd. Mr. Saleh subsequently fired his cabinet, and several Yemeni officials resigned from their posts. Losing ground, Mr. Saleh agreed to leave power at the end of 2011, but protesters rejected the plan and called for his immediate resignation.
In early June, Mr. Saleh was rushed to a medical center in Saudi Arabia to receive medical treatment for wounds sustained during an attack on the presidential compound. Meanwhile, members of the military, police and local officials have fled their posts across southern Yemen as Islamic militants linked to Al Qaeda continue to gain ground in fierce fighting with security forces.
The world is closely watching the political crisis in Yemen, partly because it has gained the reputation as a haven and key training center for Islamic militants. Since the recent demonstrations, jihadists claiming allegiance to Al Qaeda have gained steam, having conducted several assaults on Yemeni army convoys. Anwar al-Awlaki, an American-born cleric now hiding in Yemen, is one of the most sophisticated ideological opponents facing the United States today.
An Abridged History of Yemen
Home of one of the oldest civilizations in the Near East, Yemen was part of a lucrative spice trade between the 12th century BC and the 6th century AD. It has fallen under Ethiopian, Persian, Egyptian and Ottoman rule.
Northern Yemen was controlled by Ottoman forces until 1918, when Imam Yahya Muhammad Hamid al-Din extended his reign from the tribal areas to controlling most of the region. Imam Yahya’s son, Imam Ahmad, and grandson, Muhammad, reigned over the region until 1962, when revolutionary forces deposed him and created the Yemen Arab Republic. The dynasty was shaped by pressures to support the Arab nationalist objectives of Egyptian President Nasser.
Southern Yemen was ruled by British forces until 1967, when two rival nationalist groups took control of the region and established a single-party Marxist system closely aligned with the Soviet Union, China and Cuba.
In 1972, the governments of North and South unified amid simmering tensions that erupted in a civil war lasting until 1994. In 1994, Parliament elected Mr. Saleh to a five-year presidential term where he has served since.
Basic Yemen Facts
- Full Name: Republic of Yemen
- Population: 25,130,000
- Capital: Sanaa
- Area: 527,970 sq. mi. (about the size of California and Pennsylvania combined)
- Major language: Arabic
- Major religions: Islam, including Shaf’i (Sunni), Zaydi (Shia), and a small number of Salafi (Sunni). There is also a small population of Jews, Christians and Hindus.
- Primary exports: crude petroleum, liquefied natural gas, refined oil products, seafood, fruits, vegetables, hides, tobacco products