All you need to know about Yemen, from its tribal and often bloody politics to its coffee and qat culture
guardian.co.uk, Tuesday 5 April 2011
1 The happy land: In ancient times Yemen was known as Arabia Felix, Latin for "happy" or "fortunate". Today, Yemen is neither happy nor fortunate but it acquired the name because its high mountains attracted rain, making it more fertile than most of the Arabian peninsula. In 26BC the Roman general, Aelius Gallus, led a military expedition to Yemen that ended in disaster, a cautionary tale for the modern age.
2 President for life? Yemen's embattled president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, who rose through the military, has held power in Sana'a since 1978. He is officially due to leave office in 2013, unless he changes the constitution.
3 Coffee country: Mocha (al-Mukha), on Yemen's Red Sea coast, was once the centre of the world's coffee trade. Coffee was especially popular with Sufis who drank it to stay alert during their rituals. Today, coffee (along with qat) is still one of Yemen's most important crops. Haqq al-qahwa ("the right of coffee") is a Yemeni expression for a kickback or bribe.
4 End of the monarchy: Northern Yemen was established as a republic in 1970 following an eight-year civil war in which Saudi Arabia supported the royalists and Egypt supported the republicans.
5 United States of Yemen: In 1990, the Marxists who ruled southern Yemen agreed to merge with Saleh's northern republic. Four years later, unhappy with his domineering ways, they fought a brief war of secession, and lost.
6 Yemeni democracy: In 1993, Yemen became the first country in the Arabian peninsula to hold multiparty elections under universal suffrage. Fifty women competed and two won seats. Since then President Saleh's party, the General People's Congress, has come to dominate the political scene. The next parliamentary elections, which were due in 2009, have been postponed twice. In 1999, Saleh was directly elected as president for the first time. He competed against an obscure member of his own party, paid his opponent's election expenses, and won with 96.3% of the vote.
7 Chewing it over: Qat is the most popular drug in Yemen, with effects similar to amphetamine. Chewing starts after lunch, with men and women in separate rooms. Leaves are plucked and gently crushed between the teeth until a wad builds up in the cheek. It's a social activity and chewers' conversation often centres on politics. Qat is a stimulant, so chewers without religious scruples often wash it down with whisky in order to sleep.
8 A weak state: The state has little control outside Yemen's cities, with tribal areas largely self-governing. Tribes apply their own traditional law ('urf) and some have militias capable of keeping the national army at bay. Large numbers of civilians are armed - Yemen is said to have three times as many guns as people - and from time to time the government launches a crackdown.
9 Men in skirts: By tradition, Yemeni men wear a long robe or a striped skirt (futa) with a curved dagger (jambiyya) at the front, attached to a decorative belt. Jambiyyas are unsheathed and brandished above the head when dancing.
10 Tribal politics: The most important tribal groupings are the Hashid and the Bakil. Both are influential in politics. Sheikh Abdullah al-Ahmar, the supreme chief of the Hashid, who died in 2007, was also speaker of the Yemeni parliament and leader of the Islah opposition party. President Saleh belongs to the Sanhan tribe, part of the Hashid federation.
11 Opposition parties: The official opposition is an alliance known as the Joint Meeting Parties (JMP). Its most important members are the Yemeni Congregation for Reform (or Islah) which has Islamist and traditionalist wings, and the Yemen Socialist party which ruled the south before unification with the north.
12 The Houthi rebellion: Since 2004, the government has intermittently fought a Zaidi (Shia) rebellion based in Saada province in the far north, adjacent to the Saudi border. The most recent outbreak occurred in August 2009 when the government launched Operation Scorched Earth. Both sides agreed a ceasefire in February 2010 but the underlying problems of poverty, marginalisation, etc, have not been addressed and trouble could flare again. The rebels are known as Houthis, from the name of the leading family involved.
13 The Southern Movement: Following the 1994 war of secession, grievances built up in the south, with claims that the area was becoming marginalised and dominated by northerners. A rebellion erupted in 2009 which is continuing. There has been large-scale civil disobedience and many have died in clashes with security forces. Militants linked to al-Qaida are active in the same area, which often makes it difficult to distinguish who is responsible for attacks.
14 The Bin Laden connection: Osama bin Laden's family lived in Wadi Doan in southern Yemen before emigrating to Saudi Arabia and making its fortune in the construction industry. In the early 1990s, Muslim volunteers who had fought against Soviet troops in Afghanistan moved to Yemen and the country has had a jihadist presence ever since. Early in 2009, the Saudi and Yemeni arms of al-Qaida merged to form al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and made Yemen their operational base, mainly because of the Saudis' effective campaign against them. President Saleh also fights al-Qaida but since he receives foreign aid for doing so he has little incentive to eliminate the problem entirely.
15 Running dry: With a rapidly growing population (currently estimated at around 23 million with 43% under the age of 15), Yemen faces a looming water crisis. There are complaints about unauthorised drilling of wells and the squandering of water to irrigate qat crops. Wells in the capital could run dry within the next 10 years.
16 Yemen at prayer: Traditional Muslim values hold sway. Most Yemenis are either Sunni or Zaidi Shia (President Saleh is a Zaidi). During the last 20 years salafi ideas from Saudi Arabia have become increasingly influential. There is a tiny Jewish community and Aden has had an Anglican church since 1863.
17 A safe haven? Despite its own poverty, Yemen has faced an influx of migrants fleeing conflict, poverty and drought in the Horn of Africa - mostly Somalis and Ethiopians. In 2009, 74,000 arrived. Most arrive in small boats and many have drowned during the perilous Red Sea crossing.
18 Britain and Yemen: Aden, at the south-western tip of Yemen, was colonised by Britain in the 19th century. It became an important staging post on the sea route to India and at one point is said to have been the world's third-busiest port, after New York and Liverpool. British forces pulled out in 1967 amid an insurgency.
19 Skyscrapers of mud: Shibam, in Hadramaut province, is an extraordinary city, sometimes known as "the Manhattan of the desert". It consists of some 500 mud-built tower houses resembling skyscrapers, some of them as many as 11 storeys high. Shibam is a Unesco world heritage site, as is the old city of Sana'a.
20 Queen of Sheba: Yemen claims to be the ancient homeland of the Queen of Sheba (Balqis or Bilqis in Arabic). Her dealings with the Jewish king Solomon are mentioned in the Bible and the Qur'an.