Yemen

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Freedom

Traditional Yemeni culture is conservative, proscribing several social freedoms. Warring factions, among them the Houthis, have lately cracked down harshly on freedom of press and expression.

Income distribution

With an economy in near free-fall after eight years of war, most Yemenis can’t even get enough to eat, while a few with connections to tribal and political elites live luxuriously.

Life expectancy

Total life expectancy at birth for Yemenis is 63.7 years, nearly eight years less than the global average.

Literacy

An estimated 70 per cent of Yemenis aged 15 years and above are able to read and write, but with infrastructure such as schools in total disarray due to war, there may be some time yet before literacy improves.

Politics

Yemen’s politics are neither representative nor functional for ordinary Yemenis. Foreign forces occupy slices of Yemeni territory where they repress any dissent, and the Yemeni Houthi group does the same. A separatist movement fights for rights, resources and freedom. Al-Alimi has no clear popular mandate, and no parliamentary elections have taken place in the last 20 years.

Position of women

Highly restrictive gender norms in Yemen have led to lower participation in economic and public life, high rates of violence against women and forced early marriage. War has only made women more vulnerable.

LGBTQI+

Sexual minorities are shunned in Yemen, as same-sex sexual activity is forbidden under the Penal Code of 1994, and there have been reports of violence, detention and torture of LGBTQI+ people in Yemen in recent years.

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At a glance

Leader:

Chairman, Presidential Leadership Council: Rashad Muhammad al-Alimi

Economy:

GDP $19.53 billion (Jordan $45.74 billion, UK $3.13 trillion in 2021)

Monetary unit:

Yemeni Rial (1 YRI = $0.004)

Main exports:

Crude petroleum, scrap iron, fish, and gold.

Population:

34.4 million. Annual population growth: 2.1% (2021). Population density: 61 people per square kilometre in 2020 (Jordan 115, UK 281).

Health:

Under-5 mortality rate: 62 per 1,000 live births in 2021 (Jordan 15, UK 4.2). Maternal mortality per 100,000 live births: 183 (Jordan: 41, UK 10). Since the outbreak of war, Yemen faces frequent disease outbreaks of cholera, diphtheria, and chicken pox. Half of health facilities are damaged, destroyed, or not functioning.

Environment:

From highlands to deserts, Yemen’s landscape is varied. The weather reflects this, with mountainous regions seeing moderate temperatures and rainy seasons. The country remains arid overall, but once rare weather events, such as cyclones and flash flooding, are becoming increasingly commonplace thanks to climate change. The Socotra archipelago, a UNESCO World Heritage Site in the Arabian Sea, was badly damaged by Cyclone Mekunu in 2018.

Culture:

Yemenis overwhelmingly consider themselves Arabs, but tend to divide themselves between northern and southern groups. On the Red Sea coastal plain, migrations from Ethiopia and Somalia have left a mixed Arab-African population. In the southeast and on the islands of Socotra, there are groups who speak ancient pre-Arabic South Arabian languages.

Religion:

Shafa’i Sunni (65%), Zaydi Shi’a (35%) and Isma’ili Islam (estimated 15,000 people). Yemeni Jews once numbered 50,000–60,000 people, but most were flown to Israel after its establishment in 1948.

Language:

Modern Standard Arabic (Official) Yemeni Arabic, Razhihi, Soqotri, Mehri, Bathari, and Hobyot.

Human development index:

0.455 (Jordan 0.72, UK 0.921), rank 183 of 191 countries.

Students inspect their destroyed school in Taiz, Yemen. ANAS ALHAJJ/SHUTTERSTOCK
Students inspect their destroyed school in Taiz, Yemen. ANAS ALHAJJ/SHUTTERSTOCK

‘Helloooo, helloooo’ – Abu Mohammed’s usual greeting, in Arabic, when he sends a message to my phone. Our exchanges are usually short, catching up on news, but also covering power outages and bombs from Saudi jets. In May: ‘There’s no work here anymore. This is why I want to register my son for adoption in America. Help me to do this.’

Abu Mohammed’s entreaties are a sign of the suffering that has been happening on an almost industrial scale in Yemen since the Saudi-led coalition – heavily supported by the US and UK governments – began bombing in 2015.

Most Yemenis can’t even get enough to eat, while a few with connections to tribal and political elites live luxuriously

The country has suffered, at various times, periods of high unemployment and, in some places, devastating poverty, poor national health outcomes and frail health infrastructure, bouts of armed conflict and, since the 2011 Arab Spring revolution, dashed hopes for genuine democracy.

But it hasn’t always been this way. Despite its peripheral position, the territory that now forms Yemen has served as a linchpin for important struggles. It once controlled the supply of important commodities like frankincense, myrrh and spices. Because of its fertility as well as its commercial prosperity, Yemen was known to the ancient Romans as Arabia Felix (Fortunate Arabia).

The mountain village of Al Hajjarah, Yemen. SERGEY-73/SHUTTERSTOCK
The mountain village of Al Hajjarah. SERGEY-73/SHUTTERSTOCK

Later, the north was controlled by the Ottoman Empire, and on its collapse in 1918, Imam Yahya Muhammad Hamid ed-Din established North Yemen as a clerical monarchy. From 1958 to 1961 this area was confederated with the United Arab Republic – Egypt and Syria – to form the United Arab States. Army officers then deposed the monarchy, sparking a civil war in which foreign powers like Egypt and Saudi Arabia fought until 1970.

Meanwhile, the south was colonized by the British from 1839 to 1967, as part of the Aden Protectorate, until Britain was forced to withdraw in 1967. The new revolutionary government was led by moderates until radical Marxists took charge in the 1969 ‘Corrective Step’, which led to the establishment of the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen (PDRY).

The two Yemens were unified in 1990, though infighting and declining economic conditions sparked a north-south civil war in 1994. Yemen’s then-President Ali Abdullah Saleh became a fully-fledged US ally after an American naval vessel was damaged in an Al Qaeda attack in Aden, and the 11 September 2001 attacks. The Saleh regime was flooded with American funding in the years following.

A man shops at a Sanaa, Yemen market ahead of Ramadan. MOHAMMED MOHAMMED/XINHUA/ALAMY
A man shops at a Sanaa market ahead of Ramadan. MOHAMMED MOHAMMED/XINHUA/ALAMY

In 2011, inspired by the revolutionary uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt, a peaceful protest movement broke out in Yemen demanding that Saleh step down. Restrictive gender roles, tribal divisions, and regional inequalities were fundamentally challenged. Yet the government cracked down brutally on protesters, splitting the army and radicalizing the protest movement’s demands.

In the ensuing instability and reacting to austerity measures, an insurgent Houthi-based and nationalist movement known as ‘Ansar Allah’ emerged in Yemen’s violently repressed north, and took over the capital Sana’a in 2014. The following year, Saudi Arabia, nervous about Ansar Allah on its borders – reportedly supported by its arch-enemy Iran – began a bombing campaign, supported by massive US and British arms sales, and a blockade. Left without food, medicine and fuel, Yemen has suffered famine and epidemics. In 2023, 21.6 million Yemenis require humanitarian assistance, according to the UN.

Despite extreme suffering there are signs of hope on the horizon: the Saudis gaining nothing from the war, and China recently brokered a peace deal between Saudi Arabia and Iran. And in June, pilgrims traveled on the first commercial flight from Yemen to Saudi Arabia since 2016, signaling an easing of tensions and a loosening of the blockade.

Yemeni men push a vehicle to a petrol station in Sanaa amid severe fuel shortages. HANI AL-ANSI/DPA/ALAMY
Yemeni men push a vehicle to a petrol station in Sanaa amid severe fuel shortages. HANI AL-ANSI/DPA/ALAMY

A map of Yemen