New Internationalist

North Yemen

issue 130

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COUNTRY PROFILE

North Yemen

Map of North Yemen

Leader: President Colonel Ali Abdullsh Saleb

Economy: GNP per capita $460 per year
Monetary unit: Rial

People: 7.3 million (1981). nearly 90% living in rural areas

Health: Life expectancy 43 years
Infant mortality: 190 per 1,000 live births (1981)

Culture: Religion: Islam
Language: Arabic
Ethnic Groups: Almost entirely Arab although there are still remnants of the minority Yemeni Jewish community.

Sources: World Development Report 1983

 

AN international reputation for hard work has helped promote a massive exodus of male labour out of North Yemen. Thousands of Yemeni Arabs can be found among the farmworkers of California and factory hands of Britain’s industrial north. But with ever-restrictive immigration policies in the West, most are now in the oil states of the Arabian Peninsula. It is estimated that over a third of the male labour force works outside the country.

North Yemen (officially the Yemen Arab Republic) is largely mountainous, peopled by expert hill farmers and lacking any oil resources. Its fertility and regular rainfall earned from the Romans the title ‘Arabia Felix’, the more fortunate part of Arabia. Over centuries settled communities have created a spectacular terraced agriculture with elaborate irrigation systems.

The glories of the past have long since faded. As part of the Ottoman Empire North Yemen evaded the clutches of Western colonialism, unlike the port of Aden to the south.

But the independence regained after the collapse of Turkey in the First World War condemned Yemenis to isolation from the rest of the world under a succession of despotic ‘Imams’ or religious leaders. The result was economic stagnation leading to large-scale emigration and an appalling lack of the most basic modern infrastructure. A military coup (the ‘September Revolution’) in 1962 deposed the lmam but a bitter civil war ensued between Republicans and Royalists for the next seven years.

The modern state to emerge out of this conflict was an international pauper, its government bedevilled by a continuing necessity for compromise The compromise is reflected in the dual objectives — rapid material progress combined with the preservation of traditional (Islamic) society.

Classified as one of the world’s ‘least developed countries’, North Yemen is unable to eradicate its poverty and backwardness with its own under-developed resources. Not only machinery and equipment are imported, but even basic foodstuffs. In 1980 food constituted more than a quarter of total imports. Exports — a limited range of primitive products — amount to a tiny fraction of these imports.

The growing deficit has had to be made up with foreign aid. Consistent with a geographical position sandwiched between pro-Western Saudi Arabia and pro-Soviet South Yemen, North Yemen has assiduously attracted assistance from both the socialist and non-socialist blocs. The Russians may train and equip the North Yemeni army but it is subsidies from the Saudi exchequer which enable the government to foot the wage bill.

Internally at least the northern government has succeeded in extending its influence through the provision of education and health services. The inflow of remittances and the profitable production of the mildly narcotic leaf ‘qat’ has spread a measure of affluence, though its distribution is uneven.

Paddy Coulter


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Remittances from migrant workers reduce the urban/rural income gap.
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The government is massively dependent on aid from the Soviet bloc, UN and Western agencies, and Arab donors.
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‘Very poor though discrimination is nothing like as intense as Saudi Arabia next door.
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[image, unknown] A centrist military republic contending with strong tribal loyalties and opposition guerrillas.
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Only 20 % of adults literate. Progress made on primary schooling.
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Few political prisoners. The regime, though authoritarian, is weak.

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At 43 years is appaulling.

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