Thursday, January 07, 2010

Physical, Ethnic, and Political Geography You Should Know of Yemen

Yemen is all over the news since the attempted bombing of an airplane by the Yemen-based al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. In the spirit of ethnic groups you need to know of Afghanistan and Southern Russia, I present the Physical, Ethnic, and Political Geography You Should Know of Yemen.

CIA World Factbook Map of Yemen

Yemen occupies the southwest end of the Arabian Peninsula and is bordered by Saudi Arabia to the north, Oman to the east, the Red Sea to the west, and Gulf of Aden to the south. Though it is geographical close to East Africa and has historic ties to that region, the last 100 years-plus have seen considerable mental map distance between the two.

Physical Geography

There are several physical geographic regions of Yemen.

Along the Red Sea coast is the Tihmarra which is a sand dune region about 50 miles (80 kilometers) across. There is some irrigation that is feed by wadi wash, water that comes from mountain rains through dry riverbeds.

The central highlands dominate most of the former Yemeni Arab Republic (North Yemen). Here lives the core of the population. The major cities like Sadah, Amran, and Sanaa are located in the highlands and so are remote hill top villages that use terraced agriculture.

The immediate coastal region by Aden in the south is a low flat land with high temperatures. Aden is a natural port and has long been a cosmopolitan trade city.

The Empty Quarter is one of the world’s largest deserts and dominates eastern Yemen as well as parts of Oman and Saudi Arabia. The population is very sparse. Until 2000, the Empty Quarter borders for Yemen, Oman, and Saudi Arabia were undefined.

There are no permanent rivers in Yemen.

Ethnic and Religious Geography

Arab is the overall dominating ethnic group of Yemen but within the country there are many subdivision among tribes, clans, and ethnoreligious groups. Almost all the population is Muslim but there is a near even split between Sunni and Sevener Shia (Zaydi) with the Sunnis having a slightly larger population. The Zaydis differ with Twlever Shias, who mostly are Iranian and Iraqi, over leadership, history, and rituals. Zaydi Islam is very close to Sunni Islam. Most Zaydis live in the north between Sanaa and up into Sadah. There is a rebellion going on by the Zaydi Huthi tribal group but the religious nature of the rebellion can be questioned because many in the current government including the president are Zaydis as well.

There once was a strong Christian and Jewish presence in Yemen. Jews were in Yemen since perhaps during the reign of King Solomon around 950 BC. Up until after AD 500 a series of Jewish kingdoms dominated the region. The kingdoms looked out for Jewish interests in Arabia and even mounted persecution campaigns against Christians because of Christian Roman treatment of Jews. Christian Ethiopia responded and waged wars against the Yemeni Jews and took over part of the country. During the rise of Islam most Christians and Jews eventually moved into mountains and island regions. Up until the 1500s the island of Socotra was majority Nestorian Christian. Most of the Jews left after the establishment of Israel and the following anti-Semitic feelings by Arabs. The last large wave left during Operation Magic Carpet. Today there are perhaps 120 Jews left in Yemen and these live in a protected compound in the capital. At the start of 2009 there were 260 Jews left. There are about 4,000 Catholics, with Aden being the capital of the see, and slightly these Ethiopian Orthodox and Protestants. The Nestorians are completely gone.

Political Geography

Politically there is a north/south divide. The north, really northwest, has long been part of a Zaydi Imamate, Shia religious theocracy. Control went back-and-forth between the Zaydi Imams and later Ottoman Turk rulers. After the Turks finally left at the end of World War I the Mutawakkilite Kingdom of Yemen was established and its king was also the Zaydi Imam. A civil war broke out in 1962 between socialist republicans backed by Egypt and the monarchy backed by Jordan and Saudi Arabia. The war so violent and focused on combined regular and guerrilla tactics that many historians equate the Yemeni civil war with the Vietnam War. The conflict lasted until 1970 with the republicans winning but at such a cost that many elements of the monarchy like tribal independence were kept in order that peace could finally be achieved.

The south on the other hand had a much different history. The British took Aden and the rest of south Yemen from Turkish oversight control between the 1830s and 1880s. In 1866 the British established the Aden Protectorate which was considered part of their Indian colony. The tribes had a fair amount of independence and a sort of “Egyptian relationship” existed between the United Kingdom and the people of Yemen. In the 1960s a nationalist uprising occurred with the British fleeing in 1967. A Marxist wing of rebels eventually took control of the former British zone and declared it People's Democratic Republic of Yemen. South Yemen established ties with other Communist powers, centralized the state, and did much to diminish tribal power except in the Empty Quarter.

As the Marxist south gravitated towards the Soviet Union, the nominal socialist north slowly started favoring the United States. North and South Yemen both realized that reunification was the preferred option but neither one wanted to take real steps towards that goal. A love/hate relationship formed between the two. In 1990 reunification happened with the creation of the Republic of Yemen but the North quickly proved the dominate one with leadership, under the current president since 1978 Ali Abdullah Saleh, and bureaucracy staying in place as many Southern leaders were dismissed. The south tried to declare independence in 1994 but a quick civil war crushed the movement.


In the north is the on-again, off-again, on-again Zaydi Huthi rebellion. Rebels are fighting the government. Saudi Arabia recently intervened with troops and aircraft to support the Yemeni forces. Both Yemen and Saudi Arabia claim Iran is helping the rebels.

In the Empty Quarter tribes still exist. Al Qaeda has significant support here and uses various networks to survive and train in the region. Al Qaeda’s reach now stretches to the capital region. The group’s presence started after the Soviet-Afghan War when Osama Bin Laden started funding groups to overthrow the mostly secular republican government. It is because Yemeni complaints of Bin Laden’s activities that the Saudi government revoked his citizenship and he was forced into exile in Sudan.

The south is experiencing another revival of nationalism. This movement is centered in Aden. Aden is more secular, progressive, and less tribal than the rest of Yemen. The movement is so far political and the vast majority of violence has been on the part

The country on a hole is running out of water. Some estimates say that because of lack of desalinization efforts and rivers, the capital Sanaa may run out of water by 2020. A years-long drought is not helping matters with some provincial capitals already running out of water. On top of it all, many Yemeni farmers grow khat. Khat is an addictive plant that is chewed which relaxes the body while keeping the person alert (think supper coffee). Khat is needs lots of water to grow and Yemeni farmers are choosing khat growing over letting the wells and aquifers replenish.

Finally oil is presenting a problem. The oil region is a fairly quiet part of the country between the highlands and the full openness of the Empty Quarter. Over two-thirds of the economy is based on oil. However, oil reserves are rapidly running out and Yemen will have to be the first Arab petrostate to face the end of its oil run. It is estimated this will occur in only ten to fifteen years.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Thanks, very topical!