Yemen, its geopolitical position and history

(Posted on October 5, 2011)

Courtesy Ferdinand Reus
Courtesy Ferdinand Reus

The photo shows the old city of Sanna, the capital of Yemen before the latest civil war.


I first visited Aden, at that time the capital of South Yemen, in the late 1980s, just a few years before the unification of North and South Yemen that took place in 1990.


Aden, a main sea port as well, struck me in two ways. First, it was a Soviet-style socialist country, in fact the only one in the Middle East then. I had noticed a good example of that status when I saw school children, boys and girls, walking in groups downtown wearing modest but clean western-style uniforms and red scarves around their necks, a trait of socialist nations.


Second, it was my entry at the Aden airport. As I was requested by a business partner beforehand, I went into a tax free liquor shop and bought some cartons of beer and vodka. Off course, I was refunded when I handed them over to the partner. Alcoholic drinks were served in many places downtown which was quite exceptional when considering other liquor-strict Muslim countries.


After that, I visited Yemen on a regular basis as part of a telecommunications project in Aden. Today’s Yemen has a population of around 23.5million (as of 2008) and is striving for national development with the help of oil exports that started relatively late in the 1980s, and just recently embarked on LNG shipments. Yet the country still remains the lowest income country among the surrounding Arab nations with a per capita GDP being around a meager US$800 (as of 2003).


With this background, I would like to focus on the history and geopolitical aspects of Yemen, in particular to the emergence of two “Yemens” and the later reunification. First, let’s have a quick run-down of Yemeni geopolitical aspects.


Yemen is located in the south western part of the Arabian Peninsula. To the north, it borders with Saudi Arabia, to the east with Oman, to the south it faces the Indian Ocean and to the west the Red Sea. Sea lanes from Asia, the Indian subcontinent, Oceania and the eastern part of the Middle East going to the Suez Canal have to pass through the Indian Ocean into a narrow strait, only about 40 kilometers wide, between Yemen and Djibouti in Africa, the area now infamous for rampant pirates, before entering the Red Sea. It covers a vast mostly desert area of some 530 thousand square kilometers that is about 1.4 times as large as Japan.


Here is a brief history of Yemen. Going back to ancient Greek and Roman times, Yemen thrived through trade and being a hub for commodities, best highlighted by the “Queen of Shiba” in the 7th century BC. A tidal wave of Islamic way of life dominated the area in the 7th century AD. An Islamic kingdom was established in the 9th century AD and lasted as late as the 18th century.


Then, the British came. In 1839, they occupied and colonized south Yemen, as a strategically important stop-over between India, which was probably the most important British colony at the time, and the Suez Canal en route to Britain. So, this was the beginning of a divided Yemen.


Rulers of northern Yemen changed hands from Yemeni kings to Ottomans, and back to the Yemenis who reigned until 1962 when the last king was overthrown by a military coup d'etat, creating the “Yemen Arab Republic”.


South Yemen gained independence from Britain in 1967 after years of a fierce war for independence. A new country was proclaimed as the “Peoples’ Republic of South Yemen”. Hereafter, the two countries coexisted although having different political systems, one adhering to secular Pan-Arabism and the other to Stalinism. What prompted the unification of North and South Yemen in no less than four decades?


It was mentioned that South Yemen depended on receiving economic assistance from the Soviet Union and its affiliated Eastern European countries. When this vulnerable mechanism came to a sudden halt as a result of the collapse of the eastern bloc, culminating in the destruction of the Berlin Wall in 1989, South Yemen had no choice but to seek the help of its brothers in the north who were at least under a market oriented economy however small in scale.


North Yemen, having its population three times as big as the south, always wanted to “take back” the south as its legitimate territory. Thus the unification was achieved in 1990 in haste but without much difficulty. Sanaa became the capitol of the new nation.


Here too, an irony of history pops up. It was one of the imperialistic powers that initiated the divide of Yemen. It was the cold war tension that sustained this division. It was the collapse of one power block that eliminated the division. Yemen is facing the “Arab Spring” right now and its outcome is yet to be determined. Let’s hope for the best.


PS: I only wish for the earliest possible ceasefire of the latest civil war and peace in Yemen.  


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