Chronicle of the Middle East and North Africa

History of Yemen

Soldiers search evidence after a roadside blast targeted an army bus in Sanaa, Yemen, on May 5, 2014, Photo Hollandse Hoogte / Xinhua.


For many long years, Yemen is struggling. Once called “The Happy” Yemen, the country is stuck in a prolonged struggle where Yemeni parties became a pawn to territorial and international interests.

The country suffered from tribal confessionalism and internal conflicts between the north, south, and the Houthis during former president Ali Abdullah Saleh. Yet Yemen has been a cradle of civilizations and has been able to defend itself against the Ottomans and other invaders.

Fanack will dive in this section into Yemen’s history from present to past. By this, we attempt to get through the conclusive events which laid out this country’s present and identity from a historian’s perspective.

The Civil War (2020 -2014)

Yemen has been experiencing a huge human tragedy since September 2014. This occurred when the conflict broke out between different Yemeni parties. According to sources, the civil war led by October 2019 to 100,000 fatalities.

The crisis broke out in Yemen in September 2014. The Zaydi-Shiite Houthis took over Sanaa in alliance with the former Yemeni President and their old adversary due to his influence in the Yemeni Army. The Houthis took over control of the capital after clashes with forces loyal to General Ali Mohsen Al-Ahmar – a consultant of President Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi. The Houthi movement came as a consequence of demonstrations organized on the outskirts and inside of Sanaa to protest against the increase in fuel prices.

After announcing Khalid Bahah as a prime minister of a new competent government in November 2014, the Houthis attacked in January 2015 the presidential palace. President Hadi was besieged at his home. They imposed house arrest on the Prime Minister and several other Ministers until both the president and the government resigned.

In February 2015, the Houthis issued a constitutional declaration to dissolve parliament. They established a supreme committee to assume the presidency headed by Muhammad Ali al-Houthi. President Hadi then escaped to Aden to retract his resignation and declare southern Yemen as a temporary capital.

Right before the Houthis were about to tighten their military control over Aden fully, Saudi Arabia led an air military force to deny the city’s Houthis control.
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The Arab Spring (2014 - 2011)

In January 2011, demonstrations broke out, calling to overthrow President Saleh amid the “Arab Spring” uprisings. The confrontations between Saleh’s forces and the dissident army units escalated. Saleh was wounded in an explosion in the presidential palace’s mosque, and he was transferred to Riyadh for surgery.

In September 2011, Saleh returned from Saudi Arabia to take control. However, the UN Security Council adopted a resolution calling for his resignation. With the pressures rising, Saleh signed a power transition agreement in the presence of Saudi King Abdullah. A transitional government headed by Mohamed Basindawa (opposition politician) was formed.

After the presidential election in February 2012, the new President Hadi began a campaign to trim Saleh’s influence and power. The new government set about restructure security and military agencies, proceeding with transitional justice issues, holding a complete national dialogue, and making preparations for a new constitution. However, the Houthis and the southern parties refused to participate in the national dialogue.
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From the Royalty to the Republic (1990 - 1918)

Between 1918 and 1962, Yemen was under the rule of the Mutawakkilite Kingdom. During the Zaidi Imams Yahya and Ahmad’s reign, Yemen was cut off from external influence for nearly fifty years. In 1962, a republican revolt – aided by the Egyptian army – drove Imam al-Badr to Saudi Arabia.
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Only when the Egyptians withdrew in 1968, North Yemen established under the Army’s control and Hashid tribal confederation. On the other hand, Aden – who was then a British colony – was replaced with the People’s Republic of South Yemen, then this state was renamed “People’s Republic of Yemen” in 1970.

In 1990, South Yemen and North Yemen declared their unification. Ali Abdullah Saleh -From North Yemen- became the president. In turn, Ali Salem al Beidh -From North Yemen- was appointed as his Vice President.

However, fighting broke out in 1994 when Ali Salim al-Beidh announced the south’s secession from the new union. The war was ended when the southern army units were isolated from their power base. Afterward, Saleh completely dominated the political life, thanks to the balance that he made between tribes and army units and distributing public positions.
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Saleh’s power did not face huge resistance, except for the conflict that erupted in 2004 with Houthis. By 2011, Saleh’s regime had already gone through 7 wars confronting the Houthis.
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Islam, the Ottomans and the British (1967 - 610)

Traditionally, the Caliphs (Umayyad, Abbasid, and Fatimid) were used to appoint Yemen rulers. None of the rulers succeeded in extending their rule over the whole of Yemen.

The Ayyubids ruled and united southern Yemen but never reached Sanaa. They were succeeded by the local Rasulid dynasty, who ruled southern Yemen for two centuries and even controlled Sanaa. The Rasulids were succeeded by the Tahirids, whose rule came to an end at the Ottomans’ hands in 1517. The Ottomans ruled for over a century, moving the capital from Zabid to Sanaa and back to Zabid after being defeated in Sanaa by Zaidi tribes from the north.

The Ottomans remained in the coastal areas, where they subsequently tried to control the maritime great powers such as Portugal, Holland, and Britain. The Ottomans would return briefly to Yemen in the 19th century. However, they too failed to rule the entire country. In the north, Zaidi tribes easily held out against the Ottomans, while southern Yemen had been in Great Britain’s hands since 1839.

On the other hand, Zaidi imams ruled northern Yemen from 873 until 1962. Their period witnessed several tribal revolts.
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The Minaean and Sabaean dynasties reigned from the 10th century BC until the 2nd century AD. Their power was derived from their control of important trade routes between the south of the Arabian Peninsula and the Middle East.

The strategic position of Marib on the Incense route catalyzed trade and led later to the foundation of the kingdom of Saba.

Christian Abyssinians under the command of Abraha (533 AD) invaded Yemen and ended the Himyarite kingdom. The Himyaris sought the Persian emperor’s help, Khosrau I, who then drove out the Abyssinians and took over the country. In the 7th century, Yemen became an Islamic country.

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