Chronicle of the Middle East and North Africa

Yemen Sunni and Zaidi Rulers

Zaidi Shiite community
Yemeni boys gather around an elderly man as he recites the Koran, Islam’s holy book, at the Grand Mosque, the main mosque for Yemen’s Zaidi Shiite community, in the old city of Sanaa on the first day of the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan on August 22, 2009. (Photo by KHALED FAZAA / AFP)

Sunni Rulers of Southern Yemen

It was not until the 12th century that Yemen was again invaded. Under the command of Turan-Shah, brother of Saladin, and supported by a powerful army of Turks and Kurds, the Ayyubids from Syria pacified Yemen. The Ayyubids ruled and united southern Yemen as far north as Dhamar but never reached Sanaa.

They were succeeded by the local Rasulid dynasty, who ruled southern Yemen for two centuries and, at times, even controlled Sanaa. Zabid was the governing capital of Yemen throughout Rasulid times and has remained an important religious and academic centre ever since.

The Rasulids was succeeded by the Tahirids, originating in Rada, east of the mountains. The Tahirids were not as ambitious or successful as the Rasulids, although they did leave Yemen the Amiriya school in Rada, famous for its architecture; it has recently been renovated.

In 1517 the Ottoman Turks ended Tahirid rule and ruled more or less nominally for 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 Ottoman Turks remained in the coastal areas, where they subsequently tried to control the maritime superpowers Portugal, Holland, and Britain. The Ottomans would return briefly to Yemen in the 19th century.

The Zaidi stronghold and the Crown Colony of Aden

The Zaidi imams ruled northern Yemen from 873 until 1962, after local tribes invited the first Zaidi imam to come and settle tribal disputes. The Zaidi imam heads a Shia sect, referred to as ‘Fivers’, followers of Imam Zayd. They briefly established states in northern Iran, but their stronghold was in Yemen. From the 9th century onwards, the Zaidi imams were a constant factor in Yemeni politics, at times extending their rule as far as Taizz.

The Zaidi imams, who were theocrats rather than military leaders, never fully controlled the northern Yemeni tribes. During the eleven centuries of their rule –during which they moved the capital back and forth from Saada to Sanaa and on to Taizz – tribal revolts broke out frequently across the country. In the south and in distant Hadramawt, smaller dynasties, tribes, and sheikhs contested Zaidi rulership.

In the 19th century, the Ottomans returned briefly to power, but they too failed to rule the entire country. In the north, Zaidi tribes easily held out against the Ottomans, while the Crown Colony of Aden and its protectorates, in southern Yemen, had, since 1839, been in the hands of Great Britain. The British controlled Aden and its immediate surroundings in order to secure strategically located Perim island in the Bab al-Mandab – the entrance to the Red Sea –and with it the important sea route to Asia. Aden also possessed a natural port, where long-haul ships could refuel. British rule did not extend much beyond Aden, where they entered into an alliance with local sheikhs, called Ingram’s Peace.

The Ottoman Empire perished after its defeat in World War I. Yemen was then already governed by a Zaidi imam, Yahya, with the exception of the Crown Colony of Aden, which was controlled by the British. He and his successors ruled the country under the name of the internationally recognized Mutawakkilite Kingdom of Yemen.

In 1934, Yemen lost the northern province of Asir to Saudi Arabia. Imam Yahya and his son and successor Imam Ahmad cut off Yemen from external influence for nearly fifty years. By abducting tribal sons as a short-term means of enforcing obedience, Imam Yahya alienated the tribes on whom his military rule was based. There were several revolts, but the imams always prevailed.

In 1962, however, a republican revolt – aided by the Egyptian army and aggrieved tribes – drove out the fourth imam, al-Badr, to Saudi Arabia. Imam al-Badr died in 1996 in Great Britain, to which he had emigrated on Saudi Arabia’s official recognition of the Yemen Arab Republic (YAR; commonly referred to as North Yemen before unification) in 1972. His eldest son, Ageel bin Muhammad al-Badr, who bears the title ‘King (Malik) of Yemen’, lives in exile in London.