Yemen is a geopolitically important country and has been ever since a spice trade post in South Arabia evolved into a crucial biblical city we know today as Sanaa. The name Yemen is believed to come from its proximity to Mecca and Medina and is derived from the Arabic word “yamin.” Yamin means “to the right” and Yemen is to the right of Mecca and Medina. The port city of Aden is perhaps the most storied place in Yemen because of its location at the mouth of the Red Sea (Asher, 2021). The first mention of Aden in the historical record comes from Greek traders who encountered a village with natural harbors in the 1st century. Aden was a pivotal midway point for the oceanic spice trade and is thought to be one of the fabled 13 pre-Islamic markets of Arabia. In the Middle Ages Aden was a neutral maritime base under the Rasulid and Ayyubid dynasties (1128-1454).
In 1538 the Ottoman Empire tried to seize the port city of Aden, and admiral Suleiman Pasha took over Aden for a brief period with plans to use Aden as a base to launch attacks against Portugal. Pasha’s victory in Aden was short-lived as the people of Aden attacked the Ottomans, forced them out, and invited the Portuguese into Aden. It is important to highlight this part of Yemen’s history because it will help explain the tensions between Northern Yemenis and Southern Yemenis. Portugal set up trade networks in Aden that made Yemen very prosperous until 1551 when the Ottoman Empire attacked Aden and seized control. The Ottomans continued north to Sanaa in a brutal campaign to force Yemen into a Sunni Ottoman suzerainty. The Shi’ite Zaydis in the mountains of northern Yemen strongly opposed the Ottoman occupation, and their disdain for the Ottomans erupted in a rebellion. The rebellion was inspired by a Zaydi Imam named Qasim ibn Muhammad in 1595. Conflicts between the Zaydi Imamate and Ottoman Sultans split the country in two, and only the northern mountainous regions controlled by the Zaydi Imamate were considered to be Yemen. South Yemen was divided into Ottoman Sultanates, and the ideological differences between the Imamate and the Sultanates left Yemen to be viewed by the British Empire in the late 1800s as a weak, divided nation surrounding a critical port that was a skeleton of what it once was.
The British may have depicted Aden and South Arabia as a whole as a fledgling nation that was ripe for colonization, but the explorations of Lodovico de Varthema and Carsten Niebuhr in the 1500 and 1600s proved that Yemen was a prosperous land. The quests of Lodovico de Varthema were published in his book Itinerario in 1511. The explorations of Carsten Niebuhr in the late 1700s were published in his book, Travels through Arabia and Other Countries in the East in 1792. Carsten Niebuhr’s work is known as the first scientific documentation of South Arabia. Undoubtedly throughout Yemen’s history, coffee has been its number one cash crop, Yemen was once dubbed the Coffee Imamate, and the port city of Mocha has a well-documented history of being a coffee epicenter throughout recorded history. European Empires made their presence in the region well known. By the 1900s, the British were occupying Aden, the French were occupying Djibouti, and the Italians were occupying Eritrea.
The posturing of European powers around South Arabia was the thorn in the side of the Ottoman Empire and set the stage for World War I. On October 30th, 1918, Imam Yahya of the Hamid al-Din family proclaimed North Yemen an independent nation; and the Mutawakkilite Kingdom was born, making Yemen the first independent Arab state in the Middle East. South Yemen remained under British occupation until 1967 when the British finally left Yemen. Immediately after the British left Yemen, the communist National Liberation Front took control of South Yemen, and they will go on to play a monumental role in shaping the future of Yemen.
North Yemen was under the rule of the Hamid al-Din family from 1904 to 1962. Imam Yahya used brutal tactics to maintain power and territory, like kidnapping the sons of local tribesmen and holding them hostage in Sanaa until their families capitulated to the Yahya. When brute tactics wouldn’t work, Imam Yahya corrupted the tribal community with lucrative bribes and land deals. Under Imam Yahya’s rule, North Yemen signed treaties with the Italians in the Treaty of Sanaa in 1926, the Soviets in 1928, and the Britsh and the Saudis in 1934 in the Treaty of Taif, giving validity to Yemen as a nation. The Saudis were able to take territory from North Yemen in the shortlived war in 1933, capturing Jizan, Najran, and Asir. The succession of Jizan, Najran, and Asir led to the creation of Yemen’s first army. Imam Yahya was alarmed by how easily northern tribes were defeated by the Saudis because of the Saudi’s advanced military capabilities.
In the 1950s there was a wave of Arabic nationalism spearheaded by Gamal Abdel Nasser of Egypt that led to widespread revolt and the toppling of colonial dictators and kingdoms. North Yemen was cut off from the world by Imam Yahya, who feared a foreign intervention of any kind, economically or militarily. As a result of this, Yemen did not develop much after World War I, and while the rest of the world was modernizing, Yemen remained a paranoid isolated nation. Imam Yahya is famously quoted as saying: “If I have to choose between being rich but dependent and poor but independent, I will choose the latter”. Imam Yahya commissioned what is known as the Famous Forty, a group of forty military students who were sent abroad to Iraq, the United States, and Egypt to study government and military strategies, but instead the Famous Forty was introduced to widespread Arab Nationalism.
In February of 1948, Imam Yahya’s limousine was traveling on the outer limits of Sanaa when it was ambushed by a gunman killing Imam Yahya, three of his sons, and his grandson. The assassination of Imam Yahya was the start of the Alwaziri coup in which the rival Alwaziri family tried and failed to seize power in Yemen. The tribal hierarchy in Yemen consolidated around Imam Yahya’s son, Ahmad bin Yahya and regional powers like Saudi Arabia and Jordan voiced their support for Ahmad bin Yahya. Ahmad bin Yahya’s rule only lasted from 1948 to 1962, and although Ahmad bin Yahya was more open to the international community than his father, he micromanaged the country to the point where he strangled Yemen’s development. In September of 1962, Ahmad bin Yahya died unexpectedly in his sleep, and his oldest son Muhammad al-Badr assumed the role of Imam and King. One week after Muhammad al-Badr was named Imam and King of Yemen his royal palace was attacked and seized by a coalition of military officers who proclaimed an end to the Imamate and the birth of the Yemen Arab Republic.
The September 26th revolution would become one of Yemen’s most famous holidays because it symbolized the first time Yemen was a nation free from foreign interests and tribal influences. Disdain for Imam Yahya and his Hamid al-Din family started to foment in 1934 when Imam Yahya gave Saudi Arabia the Yemen border towns of Jizan, Najran, and Asir. The succession of these lands was seen as a betrayal to the very region where the Hamid al-Din family has its roots. Imam Yahya sent the Famous Forty to study abroad, but these students must have been shocked to witness how the world was industrializing, and Yemen remained stagnated behind a paranoid leader. The Famous Forty comingled with other people in Yemen who had returned to Yemen after studying abroad, orchestrated the Yemeni Revolution in 1962 and created the Yemen Arab Republic.
The man who emerged from the 1962 revolution as the new president of the Yemen Arab Republic is Abdullah Sallal. Sallal sent a contingent of Yemeni revolutionaries to meet with president Gamal Abdel Nasser of Egypt. Nasser saw the newly established Yemen Arab Republic as a vital partner in the Arab nationalist movement. In return for the Yemen Arab Republic’s support of the Arab Coalition, Nasser agreed to send a battalion of Egyptian soldiers to Yemen. To help the revolutionaries fight off Imam Muhammad al-Badr and tribal groups that had rallied behind al-Badr after he survived the attack on his residence in Sanaa. Saudi Arabia supported Muhammad al-Badr with funds and weaponry fearing that an Egyptian presence on their borders was a risk to their national security. The Egyptians supported Abdullah Sallal and the Yemen Arab Republic with troops, weapons, and funds to support their war effort. Nasser underestimated the power of tribal communities in Yemen as so many powerful invaders of Yemen had done in the past. Egypt sent over 70,000 soldiers to Yemen what Nasser referred to as “my Vietnam” because not only had Egypt suffered tremendous casualties, but Nasser was fighting against an endless supply of Saudi oil money.
Nasser decided to use his influence in Yemen to support the Front for the Liberation of South Yemen, which were strongly opposed to the continued British occupation of Aden. Egyptian presence in South Yemen set the stage for an armed revolution against the British led by the Red Wolves of Yemen, an anti-colonial militant group from Radfan. The British left Aden in 1967, but Egyptians were fed up with Nasser’s endless campaign in Yemen and the impact it had on the economy of Egypt. Before Egypt could withdraw from Yemen, Israel invaded the Sanai in June of 1967, forcing Nasser to turn his attention towards the war in the Sanai. During Yemen’s civil war, Israel was covertly assisting Muhammad al-Badr and got a first-hand view of how the Egyptian military operated, which undoubtedly assisted Israel in defeating Egypt. In January of 1967, the Egyptian military used chemical weapons to hit the mountain strongholds of tribal militants in Yemen. The decision by Egypt to use chemical weapons is what alarmed Israel, who feared that their border adversaries would use chemical weapons on them, and Israel bombed Egyptian air bases.
After Egypt left Yemen, the ruling Yemen Arab Republic government was left without any ground troops or air support to fight off Muhammad al-Badr and the tribal militias. Muhammad al-Badr and the tribal militias took over Saana in a bloodless coup while Abdullah Sallal was traveling to Iraq. Abdul Rahman Iryani emerged as the new president of Yemen and Hassan al-Amri as the general of Yemen’s army, but their reign only lasted 70 days. Abdul Rahman Iryani and Hassan al-Amri remained in power during the siege and brought an end to the Yemen Civil War in February of 1968. The Saudis agreed to stop funding Muhammad al-Badr if the Yemen Arab Republic promised to formulate Yemen with an Islamic identity instead of the socialism and Arab Nationalism that plagued Yemen since the 1950s. The Northern Zaydi tribes were happy to accept this new form of religious conservative government.
In 1970 Imam Muhammad al-Badr admitted defeat in a rousing speech where he announced that he would live in exile to “save Yemen.” The Hamid al-Din family left Yemen and settled in England, Saudi Arabia, and other Middle Eastern nations. The fall of the Zaydi Imamate marked the end of the longest-reigning Hashemite dynasty in Yemen. The government that emerged after the civil war was a mixture of republican and northern tribesmen, with Abdul Rahman Iryani leading a coalition government that sought to modernize Yemen. The Yemen Arab Republic received funding from the United States, Saudi Arabia, Germany, the world bank, and other Gulf states to help build infrastructures like roads, housing, and schools. The Yemen Arab Republic’s Central Planning Organization sought to recruit people who had left Yemen to study abroad to come back to Yemen and participate in development projects.
Abdul Rahman Iryani’s reign came to an abrupt end in a bloodless coup in June of 1974. A Command Council was set up that was headed by Ibrahim Muhammad al-Hamdi, Sinan Abu Luhum, and other tribal leaders who had the blessing of Saudi Arabia to remove Abdul Rahman Iryani from power. Just seven years after the Zaydis were forced out of governance in Yemen the northern tribesmen were back in power in Yemen. In 1975 al-Hamdi began to consolidate his power. Al-Hamdi fired the man he used to take orders from the Prime Minister of Yemen, Mohsin al-Aini, and dissolved the Command Council. Al-Hamdi then set his sights on Sinan abu Luhum and the Luthum Bakil Federation by forcing many members of the family to resign from their military positions. When an uprising was launched in the Arhab region of Yemen, al-Hamdi sent armed troops to squash the rebellion and forced the tribal leaders to pledge allegiance to his regime marking the age of centralizing power in Yemen.
The United States helped the Yemen Arab Republic consolidate its power and improve its military. Al-Hamdi created a Yemen that, for the first time, was not divided by what family you came from or what tribe you belonged to and gave Yemen its first taste of national identity. National Tree Day is celebrated in Yemen as a testament to how al-Hamdi inspired a generation of Yemenis to invest in Yemen and make Yemen more prosperous. Al-Hamdi made several trips to Saudi Arabia in 1974 and 1975 to negotiate Yemen’s autonomy from Saudi Arabia and to persuade Saudi Arabia to end tribal subsidies in favor of buying military weapons from the United States to bolster the Yemen Arab Republic’s military. Al-Hamdi and the Saudis agreed to the Saudi-Yemeni Joint Coordinating Council, which involved the Saudis investing 273 million dollars in developing Yemen. Al-Hamdi was the most transformative leader in the history of Yemen, and his government modernized state institutions, orchestrating the construction of roads, schools, and hospitals. Al-Hamdi created the Tihama Development Authority and the Wadi Zabid Project, which led to wide-ranging construction projects in rural Yemen, improving irrigation systems and supplying farmers with vital farming equipment. The legal system in Yemen was also transformed as the country moved away from Sharia religious law to secular state legislative law. Al-Hamdi appointed Yale graduate Dr. Abdul Karim al- Iryani to be the Minster of Education, who modernized the education system in Yemen. Dr. Abdul Karim al-Iryani removed religious teachings in schools and universities and replaced them with math and science.
In 1977 Sinan abu Luhum organized northern Yemeni tribes to rebel against the al-Hamdi regime accusing him of being a communist and atheist. On October 11th of 1977, al-Hamdi was found murdered along with his brother and two unknown French prostitutes in a house on the outskirts of Saana. In the years before his murder, al-Hamdi accumulated a plethora of enemies, and even the Saudis were growing weary of al-Hamdi, comparing him to Nasser of Egypt. Al-Hamdi’s successor was assassinated just one year later with a briefcase bomb, and the Peoples Democratic Republic of Yemen president Salim Rubayya Ali was assassinated just three days later. Emerging from the turmoil in Yemen to be the new president was Ali Abdullah Saleh in 1978, who would become one of the most infamous political figures in the history of Yemen.
Yemen would fall back into decades of corruption and civil war that continue to ravish the country to this day. I fell in love with the country of Yemen while reporting on the war between the Zaydi Houthis and Saudi Arabia, who were propping up a puppet government. I fell in love with the people of Yemen and was amazed by their religious faith and resiliency. I have friends in Yemen who are everything from journalists to qat and coffee farmers and that is what inspired me to write this research paper. Yemen is one the most beautiful places in the world and it is facing one the worst humanitarian crises the world has ever seen, with over half of its population starving. Regardless of the turmoil and famine gripping their country, I have never been greeted by someone from Yemen without a smile. Maybe that is why historians dubbed Yemen Arabia Felix or Happy Arabia.
By Joziah Thayer