In ancient history, the area we know as Yemen today was home to the Kingdom of the Sabaeans. This people group might be familiar to some as they are mentioned several times in the Old Testament. In the book of Job, some of his livestock is stolen away and his servants killed by a raiding band of Sabaeans. A Sabaean kingdom stretched from Yemen to the lands of modern Eritrea and Ethiopia. The Queen of Sheba (or Saba) is believed to have been Sabaean.
The Ancient History of Yemen
The land of Yemen differs from that of Saudi Arabia in that it is much more fertile. The Romans included Yemen as part of Arabia but called it Arabia Felix (Arabia Fertile) versus Arabia Deserta (Arabia Deserted).
Multiple Religions in the Ancient History of Yemen
A strong Jewish influence dominated Yemen throughout much of the early Christian era and created great hostility between the expansionary efforts of Roman and Byzantine Christians. Famous Jewish warlords in Yemen served as a frequent thorn in the sides of the Byzantine emperors up until the time of Muhammad and the rise of Islam in the 7th century.
During the time of Muhammed, the cities of Yemen were among the most advanced within Arabia. They were also among the first to convert to Islam. The early centuries of Islam were dominated by wars of expansion to which the lands of Yemen became part of. Different rulers and dynasties rose and fell in Yemen as part of the changing times occurring all around them.
After the fall of Baghdad to the Mongols in the 13th century, the ruler of Yemen proclaimed himself Caliph. Greater trade relations with India and the Far East were set up at this point. This period of the Rasulid Dynasty was the high point of Yemen’s power and influence. After the fall of the Rasulids a new, less powerful dynasty was established in Yemen. The Tahiride found themselves less capable than their predecessors but still in control of assets that caught the attention of powers from Egypt, to Portugal, to the Mamluks, to the rising Ottoman power.
The Portuguese threatened the Yemen trade with India. The Egyptians considered Yemen a vassal state. The Mamluks wanted to secure Yemen’s trade with the east while fending off the Portuguese. In the mid 16th century the Ottomans occupied Yemen. They did so as part of an effort to defend access to the Islamic holy cities in Arabia and also to defend trade routes with the east.
Ottoman occupation of Yemen was not easy. The arrival of gunpowder technology created new forms of resistance for the locals in Yemen and they expelled the Ottomans for some time. A series of wars and fights between Ottoman forces and Yemeni forces persisted for a century.
The Modern History of Yemen
The crown of the British empire was India but the passage from Europe to India required a great amount of coal. That also meant coal refilling stations. This was what set British sights on Yemen in the mid 19th century. Britain invaded and occupied the port of Aden establishing relationships with tribal leaders. While many other parts of the country returned to ruler and warfare with the Ottomans until the end of the Ottoman Empire at World War I, Aden prospered. By 1920 Aden was one of the busiest ports in the world. The British colony of Aden consisted of the port city of Aden and surrounding areas in the southern part of Yemen.
Meanwhile, Arab nationalism was forming in other parts of Yemen. To counter this the British set up a Federation of South Arabia to organize, consolidate and ingratiate local power toward the British. The lands of Yemen were effectively being divided into two groups. One was more colonial and westward leaning. The other was more nationalistic and Arabian leaning. These differences were inflamed in the post-war period.
Civil War in Yemen
In the 1960s the North Yemen Civil War erupted. Gamal Abdul Nasser of Egypt sent forces and weapons to finance the powers on one side of the fighting. The Israelis and the British supported the other side. This was effectively a small scale proxy war to keep Nasser and the Egyptians busy and out of the hair of the Israelis and European interests.
Around this same time period, a call for independence rose from the Colony of Aden. The British withdrew in 1967. Now there were officially two Yemeni states, North Yemen and South Yemen. The south, thanks to the effects of colonialism held a largely anti-western outlook. This pushed them toward the Soviets during the Cold War era. North Yemen lacked this type of connection and support. In the 1970s wars erupted between North Yemen and South Yemen. The end of each war came with the expectation and promise of one day uniting Yemen into one nation. The pathway to that unity was difficult to achieve.
In the 1980s a civil war erupted in South Yemen as various socialist parties began striking out against one another. The Soviet Union was collapsing and with its collapse, the aid going to Soviet client states like South Yemen was also failing. These weaknesses finally opened the door for uniting North Yemen and South Yemen into one nation.
Short-Lived Unity in Yemen
In 1990 Yemen was united into one nation, but maintaining that unity was another matter altogether. In the first democratic elections of the new nation, the division and differences previously held by the different nations were integrated into the new nation’s political system. The election results appeared as there had never been a unification of Yemen. The people of former South Yemen voted for their interests. The people of former North Yemen voted for their interests. Civil war broke out within months.
Leading political figures from the south declared a new nation in the south, the Democratic Republic of Yemen. From the north, Ali Abdullah Saleh declared a state of emergency and quickly crushed the rebellion. The fighting may have stopped but the resentment did not. For the next decade and a half as Yemen grew and stabilized those benefits were localized primarily in the north. The south declined. Supporters loyal to Ali Abdullah Saleh grew in power and prosperity.
This was the setting for the onset of the Arab Spring and the resulting Yemen War.