New Internationalist

Yemen

Issue 247

new internationalist
issue 247 - September 1993

Country profile: Yemen

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This ancient realm, rich with incense and alabaster and gold, gave the legendary Queen of Sheba the right to stand before King Solomon as his equal. Almost 3,000 years later, the Yemen is still a land of many gifts, including the independent spirit of its people.

Yemen moved hesitantly out of the medieval period when it threw off despotism in North Yemen in 1962 and colonialism in South Yemen in 1967. But now, thanks to oil and unification, the momentum towards modernization has picked up dramatically. Yemen has climbed from being one of the world's poorest countries to the middle-income bracket. Oil strikes on the border between North and South Yemen pushed forward a long-standing agenda for the unification of the two states. The collapse of Soviet-supported socialism in the south removed the ideological barrier. On 22 May 1990, North and South Yemen reunited as the Republic of Yemen, after a century and a half of artificial separation carved out by the Ottomans and British in the 1830s.

Unification swept away a fiction of history and replaced it with a parcel of impracticalities. Two social norms now co-exist. In the south where socialism dismantled the strictures of Islam, women today go unveiled, hold jobs on an equal basis and alcohol is for sale. In the north, conservatism reigns and Islamic fundamentalism is on the upsurge. The traditional power base in the Zaydi north is resisting the headlong rush to secularism.

One binding factor is pride that Yemen chose a parliament in multi-party democratic elections on 27 April this year, heartening democratic movements elsewhere in the Arab world.

Throughout Yemen the lucrative qat trade continues to flourish. This stimulant leaf chewed by men and women is the largest household expense, estimated at $500 per capita annually.

Today, Yemen's fragile ecosystem is severely stressed; water reserves are being depleted by over-extraction and the country is almost irretrievably denuded of woodland.

Efforts to reduce the external debt, which currently stands at $6,236 million, suffered a calamitous setback during the Gulf War. Although the former North Yemen remained officially neutral there was open sympathy toward Saddam Hussein. As a result, the Gulf States rescinded the visas of more than a million Yemenis, who were repatriated without compensation for goods and businesses. An estimated one billion dollars a year in remittances has been lost. Many of the returnees are still enduring hardship in tent cities on the coastal plain. Western nations penalized Yemen by withdrawing aid.

Yemen is unique in Arabia. Its people evolved a settled civilization at least three millennia ago and terraced a landscape that now supports grain, cotton, fruit, vegetables and coffee. Its independent spirit now sets the pace for democracy in the Arab world.

Francine Stone

AT A GLANCE

LEADER: President General Ali Abdullah Saleh.

ECONOMY: GNP per capita US$650 per year (1990)
Monetary units: Rial and Dinar.
Main Exports: Oil, coffee, fish & seafood, grapes, oranges, lemons & soft fruits.
Main Imports: Textiles, all high technology/ electrical appliances, electronics, medical supplies, cereals, rice.
Debt-service payments 28.4% of export earnings (1989).
Rate of inflation: 47% annually (1991)

PEOPLE: 14 million (UN Census). Population growth is 3.5% per annum.

HEALTH: Infant mortality 124 per 1,000 live births (US 9 per 1,000).

CULTURE: Arab majority with some Yemenis of Ethiopian, Indonesian, Turkish and Indian origin.
Religion: Sunni Muslims of the Shafi sect and Shi'a Muslims of the Zaydi sect which is now unique to Yemen. There is also a minority Isma'ili sect in the western highlands and a small Jewish community.
Language: Yemeni Arabic. Mahri and Socotri in isolated areas. English is spoken in commerce and government circles.

Sources: World Development Report - World Bank 1991 & 1992, Trends in Developing Economies - World Bank 1991, State of the World's Children - UNICEF 1992, 1993/4 Third World Guide - ITeM, Uruguay.

Last profiled separately as Democratic Yemen in July 1981 and North Yemen in December 1983.

 

STAR RATINGS

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INCOME DISTRIBUTION [image, unknown] [image, unknown] [image, unknown]
Severe cash-flow problems due to the Gulf War affect all sectors.

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LITERACY [image, unknown] [image, unknown]
38.6% (53% male, 26% female) but great progress is being made at primary level. Men can teach as a partial substitute for military service.

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SELF-RELIANCE [image, unknown] [image, unknown] [image, unknown]
Culture of political freedom but imports exceed exports by a factor of three.

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FREEDOM [image, unknown] [image, unknown] [image, unknown]
Newly forged press and political freedoms have brought widespread participation in the democratic process. Over 70 journals, over 20 political parties. Public executions still occur.

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POSITION OF WOMEN [image, unknown] [image, unknown]
Women may vote and drive. Socializing outside the home is chaperoned. Access to birth control and general health facilities is limited.

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LIFE EXPECTANCY [image, unknown] [image, unknown]
52 years (US 76 years). Medical facilities inadequate, water scarce and disease- ridden, malaria endemic, nutrition improving.

 

POLITICS

Politics now
Democratically elected parliament with civilian government headed by a General. The People's General Congress party leads a coalition government.

 

NI star rating

EXCELLENT
GOOD
FAIR
POOR
APPALLING
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