People, it seems, are everywhere. The narrow streets of Sana’a teem with them – mostly men, of course. Nearly all the men carry a janbiya, a large curved dagger in their belt. And almost all of them either owns or has ready access to a gun in this, the capital of the Arab world’s second-poorest country.

A short distance away, President Ali Abdullah Saleh addresses delegates at an Arab democracy conference. ‘Democracy is the choice of the age for all peoples, and it is the lifeboat for political regimes, especially in the Third World,’ he tells them.

Indeed, ‘democracy’, or at least the widespread perception of it, has served the former soldier, who has ruled in Sana’a since 1978, well. When he took his Yemen Arab Republic (commonly known as North Yemen) into a unification process with the People’s Democratic Republic (South Yemen) in 1990, it must have seemed to many in the country that the new state was set to enjoy a rosy future: peaceful integration, political pluralism, press freedom, guarantees of local autonomy, nearly all political prisoners freed, swiftly improving relations with many of its Arab neighbours and the West, and the prospect of prosperity from newly discovered oilfields.

By the time the first multiparty elections took place in April 1993, however, the country had already begun to fall apart. Exactly one year later, civil war began. The Socialist Party which had ruled South Yemen until reunification took up arms in a bid to secede and restore the old two-state set-up.

The rebels were easily crushed in the end when Washington intervened to dissuade the Gulf Co-operation Council states from continuing their support. President Saleh’s regime – once in America’s bad books for failing to back the first military operation in Iraq in 1991 – has been seen on Capitol Hill as a trusted ally ever since.

John Miles / Panos /

As Sana’a has grown closer to Washington, so has the prospect of a rosy future. The Socialist Party’s defeat in the civil war soon led to its decline and the erosion of many of the social and civil liberties the southern provinces were promised would be maintained after unification. The rise in importance of Islah, an Islamist party which is now the principal opposition to Saleh’s General People’s Congress, saw Shari’a become the ‘only source’ of the country’s legislation. As the 1990s progressed, press freedom was reduced, the conduct of subsequent elections was characterized as ‘pork-barrel politics’ by an American NGO, the country’s jails again filled up with political prisoners and, as the IMF took hold of the country’s economic management, prices rose and people got poorer.

Two other developments characterized the 1990s: the increased kidnapping of foreigners, usually by people using them as bargaining chips to get what they wanted from the Government; and the presence of ever-larger numbers of men who had either fought in Afghanistan against Soviet forces or who came to study at one of the country’s many Islamic schools. The Yemeni countryside, over much of which central government held little control, proved an attractive venue for jihadis (holy warriors) from all over the Muslim world.

By 11 September 2001 the jihadis, in co-operation with local extremist groups, who had begun to use the kidnapping tactic themselves to further political demands, were reportedly using Yemen as a major base of operations, resulting most spectacularly in the sinking of an American warship in Aden harbour. But the events of that day brought a sharp increase in American pressure on the Government to crack down on their presence. A long-threatened measure to shut down the Qur’anic schools, a stronghold of Islah, began to be carried out, and security co-operation with Washington grew to the extent that Yemen is now described as a principal ally in the ‘war on terror’. US security advisers and intelligence agents are allowed to operate in the country and Yemen boasts one of the Majority World’s most sophisticated (and expensive) electronic surveillance networks at its ports and key installations. More sinister was the assassination by US undercover forces of six suspected al-Qa’ida fugitives in Marib in October 2002.

But there is a danger all this could backfire on the Government. Despite its oil, Yemen remains a poor country, with one of the fastest-growing populations, and fastest depletion of water reserves, in the world. And there are believed to be three guns for every one of its 19 million inhabitants.

Fact file

Monetary unit
Main exports
Human Development Index
Last profiled September 1993

At a glance

Country profile: Star rating: 

  • Income distribution
  • Life expectancy
  • Position of women
  • Freedom
  • Literacy
  • Sexual minorities
  • NI Assessment (Politics)