Pop-Up Map
Afghanistan’s Civil Unrest
Young Refugees
Pakistan’s Dilemma
Nervous Neighbors
The Taliban
Afghanistan Time Line
Famous Figures
Grolier Online
Lesson Helpers
Grolier Online
Back to
Scholastic News

Republic of Yemen

The People: Way of Life
The Land: Physical Features | Climate | Cities
The Economy: Agriculture | Trade | Oil and Natural Gas
History and Government: Early History | Two Yemens | Unification

Map of Yemen
Map of Yemen. (Grolier Interactive Inc.)

Copyright © 2002 Grolier Incorporated. All Rights Reserved.


Republic of Yemen is the official name of the country.

Location: Southwestern corner of the Arabian Peninsula in Southwest Asia.

Area: 203,849 sq mi (527,969 km2).

Population: 12,000,000 (estimate).

Capital and Largest City: Sana.

Major Language(s): Arabic.

Major Religious Group(s): Muslim.

Government: Republic. Head of state—president. Head of government—prime minister. Legislature—House of Representatives.

Chief Products—Coffee, cotton, qat, wheat and other grains, fruits and vegetables, oil and natural gas.

Monetary Unit: Riyal (1 riyal = 100 fils).
The Republic of Yemen came into being in 1990. It was created by the union of two former independent Yemeni states: the Yemen Arab Republic (often called North Yemen) and the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen (also known as South Yemen).

Yemen is located in the southwestern corner of the Arabian Peninsula. Although present-day Yemen is a new country, it is one of the earliest known centers of civilization. It lies astride one of the world’s oldest trade routes, with towns whose origins date back more than 3,000 years. Because of its fertile land, Yemen was known in ancient times as Arabia Felix (Latin for “happy” or “fortunate” Arabia). This distinguished it from Arabia Deserta, the vast area of empty desert that makes up most of the Arabian Peninsula.

Back to Top

The People

Most Yemenis are Arabs. Their language is Arabic and almost all are Muslims, followers of the religion of Islam. Most Yemenis in the northern mountains belong to the Zaidi (or Zaydi) sect of the Shi'i branch of Islam. Those in the northern and southern lowlands are mainly Sunnis. Jews, who have lived in Yemen for some 2,000 years, are the largest minority group, although many have emigrated to Israel.

Way of Life. Historically, most of the peoples of the Arabian Peninsula were nomads or semi-nomads, who followed centuries-old trails seeking water and pasture for their camels and goats. The Yemenis, however, maintained a more settled way of life, earning their livelihood from trade, farming, and raising livestock.

Yemen’s population is widely dispersed. There are only about four cities of any significant size. The great majority of the people live in thousands of small villages, averaging a few hundred inhabitants each.

Back to Top

The Land

Yemen borders the Red Sea on the west, the Gulf of Aden and the Arabian Sea on the south, Saudi Arabia on the north, and Oman on the east. However, Yemen does not have internationally recognized frontiers with its neighbors on the north and northeast. The area involved has been a source of dispute, especially so because of its oil and natural gas deposits. Yemen’s territory also includes several islands. The largest is Socotra, in the Arabian Sea. In the Red Sea the major islands are Kamaran and Perim.

Physical Features. Geographically, Yemen has several distinct regions. Along the coastline is a low sandy plain averaging about 20 miles (32 kilometers) in width. Behind the coastal strip a range of foothills and low mountains rises to about 3,500 feet (1,100 meters). The central massif is characterized by wide plateaus with fertile soil, and mountain peaks that reach a height of 12,336 feet (3,760 meters), the highest in the Arabian Peninsula. Beyond the mountains, the land gradually slopes off into the Rub ’al Khali, or Empty Quarter, the great desert of southern Saudi Arabia.

A number of wadis, or valleys, cut across the landscape. The most important in the south is the Hadhramaut, due to the presence of the fertile soil of the former South Yemen.

Climate. Yemen has a varied climate. The coastal plain is extremely hot and humid the year round, while the highlands have a temperate climate, with generally mild summers and cool winters. The moisture-laden monsoon winds provide Yemen with most of its rainfall. Areas of central and south-central Yemen receive an average of 40 inches (1,000 millimeters) of rain a year. It is these rains that make extensive agriculture possible.

Cities. Sana (or San’a) is the capital of Yemen and its largest city, with an estimated population of more than 500,000. Believed to be one of the world’s oldest continually inhabited places, Sana has landmarks of great antiquity and beauty. It was the capital of the former North Yemen. Aden was the capital of the former South Yemen. It is a major seaport on the Gulf of Aden and the economic capital of the country. Other cities and towns of note are Taizz, situated inland, and Hodeida (or Hudaydah), a leading Red Sea port.

Back to Top

The Economy

Agriculture. Agriculture has been Yemen’s most important economic activity since earliest times. The wide range of climate and geographical features makes it possible to grow nearly any crop. Tropical fruits, for example, can be grown in the northern coastal area, while such temperate zone fruits as pears and grapes thrive on the highland plateaus. The main food crops are grains, such as sorghum, millet, barley, and wheat, together with fruits and vegetables. The qat (or kat) shrub is also widely cultivated. Its leaves when chewed provide a mild stimulant that Yemenis prize.

Trade. Coffee, cotton, and qat have traditionally been the chief export crops. (The use of coffee as a beverage probably originated in Yemen, in the 1400’s.) But the economy was radically altered by a civil war, from 1962 to 1970, which led to the massive emigration of Yemenis seeking employment elsewhere. It became cheaper to import commodities, including most basic foodstuffs. Yemen was renowned in the past for its handicrafts, particularly the manufacture of fine knives, textiles, and jewelry. However, these have also been largely replaced by cheaper imports.

Oil and Natural Gas. The most important economic development in recent years was the discovery of oil in both North and South Yemen in the mid-1980’s. Continuing exploration and development of the oil and natural gas deposits are expected to contribute substantially to Yemen’s economic growth.

Back to Top

History and Government

Early History. In ancient times, what is now Yemen was the site of a number of wealthy kingdoms. These kingdoms played an important economic role in the ancient world, particularly through their control over the trade in frankincense and myrrh (fragrant tree resins), spices, and other luxury goods. Yemen’s economy declined sharply, however, when the Romans took over the trade in these products. It did not revive until the 1500’s, when coffee first became an important export.

Yemen twice fell under the rule of the Turkish Ottoman Empire, from 1538 to 1630 and again from 1872 to 1918. European powers also began to take an interest in the region, especially Britain. In 1839 the British seized the city of Aden. They later added extensive surrounding territories, making up the Aden Protectorate.

Two Yemens. orth Yemen gained its independence in 1918, when the Ottoman Empire withdrew after its defeat in World War I. The country was governed by imams, who were religious as well as political leaders, until 1962, when the imamate was overthrown in a revolution led by the military. An eight-year civil war ended in compromise in 1972.

The south had won independence in 1967, after a violent struggle against the British and within the independence movement itself. South Yemen adopted a form of government based on Marxist-Leninist, or Communist, principles. Relations between the two states were generally poor. Twice, in 1972 and 1979, they went to war against each other.

Unification. During the 1980’s it seemed as if the two Yemens might again come into conflict, this time over disputed areas where oil and natural gas deposits were located. Instead, they began serious discussions on a union of the two Yemens. Unification took place officially on May 22, 1990.

The country is headed by a president, who is chairman of the 5-member Presidential Council. The day-to-day operations of the government are handled by a prime minister, who heads the Council of Ministers. The legislative body is the House of Representatives, with 301 members. The first legislative elections were held in 1993. But Yemen’s hard-won unity was disrupted by disputes between northern and southern leaders, which resulted in a short but bloody civil war in 1994. An attempt by the south to secede (break away) was repulsed by northern forces.

In 2000, 17 American sailors were killed when a Navy destroyer, the USS Cole, was bombed while refueling in Yemen. No one claimed responsibility for the crime, but several Islamic terrorist groups were suspected.

Manfred W. Wenner
Northern Illinois University
Author, The Yemen Arab Republic

Back to top