Friends of South Yemen

Pattern strip


The history of the Yemen stretches back over 3,000 years, and its unique culture is still in evidence today in the architecture of its towns and villages. From about 1000 BC this region of the Southern Arabian Peninsula was ruled by three successive civilisations -- Minean, Sabaean and Himyarite. These three kingdoms all depended for their wealth on the spice trade. Aromatics such as myrrh and frankincense were greatly prized in the ancient civilised world and were used as part of various rituals in many cultures, including Egyptian, Greek and Roman.

Ancient Yemen

In the 11th century BC, land routes through Arabia were greatly improved by using the camel as a beast of burden, and frankincense was carried from its production centre at Qana (now known as Bir ’Ali) to Gaza in Egypt. The camel caravans also carried gold and other precious goods which arrived in Qana by sea from India.

Antique illustration shows a view of Aden

The chief incense traders were the Minaeans, who established their capital at Karna (now known as Sadah), before they were superseded by the Sabaeans in 950 BC. The Sabaean capital was Ma’rib, where a large temple was built. The mighty Sabaean civilisation endured for about 14 centuries and was based not only on the spice trade, but also on agriculture. The impressive dam, built at Ma’rib in the 8th century, provided irrigation for farmland and stood for over a millennium. Some Sabaean carved inscriptions from this period are still extant.

The Himyarites established their capital at Dhafar (now just a small village in the Ibb region) and gradually absorbed the Sabaean kingdom. They were culturally inferior to the Sabaeans and traded from the port of al-Muza on the Red Sea. By the first century BC, the area had been conquered by the Romans.

With the rise of the great ancient civilizations in Egypt, Mesopotamia, and along the Mediterranean Sea, historic Yemen became an important overland trade link between these civilizations and the highly prized luxury goods of South Arabia and points east and south. As a result, several pre-Islamic trading kingdoms grew up astride an incense trading route that ran northwest between the foothills and the edge of the desert. First, there was the Minaean kingdom, which lasted from about 1200 to 650 BC, and whose prosperity was due mainly to the trade of frankincense and spices. The large and prosperous kingdom of Saba’ (Sheba), founded in the 10th century BC and ruled by Bilqis, the queen of Sheba, among others, was known for its efficient farming and extensive irrigation system built around a large dam constructed at Ma’rib.

Farther south and east, in the region that would later become South Yemen, were the Qataban and Hadhramaut kingdoms, which also participated in the incense trade. The last of the great pre-Islamic kingdoms was that of Himyar, which lasted from about the 1st century BC until the 500s AD. At their heights, the Sabaean and Himyarite kingdoms encompassed most of historic Yemen.

Because of their prominence and prosperity, the states and societies of ancient Yemen were collectively called Arabia Felix in Latin, meaning "Happy Arabia." However, when the Romans occupied Egypt in the 1st century BC they made the Red Sea their primary avenue of commerce. With the decline of the caravan routes, the kingdoms of southern Arabia lost much of their wealth and fell into obscurity. Red Sea traffic sailed past Yemen, and what seaborne commerce Yemen engaged in had little impact on the country’s interior.

The Tihamah region, which was hot, humid, swept by sandstorms, and clouded in haze, isolated the comparatively well-watered and populous highlands. The weakened Yemeni regimes that followed the trading kingdoms were unable to prevent the occupation of Yemen by the Christian Abyssinian kingdom (modern Ethiopia) in the 4th and early 6th centuries AD and by the Sassanids of Persia in the later 6th century, just before the rise of Islam.

The Rise of Islam

The Islamic era, which began in the 7th century, contains many events critical to the formation of Yemen and the Yemeni people. The force with which Islam spread from its origins in Mecca and Medina in the nearby region of Al Hijaz (the Hejaz) led to Yemen’s rapid and thorough conversion to Islam. Yemenis were well-represented among the first soldiers of Islam who marched north, west, and east of Arabia to expand Muslim territory.

Yemen was ruled by a series of Muslim caliphs, beginning with the Umayyad dynasty, which ruled from Damascus in the latter part of the 7th century; Umayyad rule was followed by the Abbasid caliphs in the early 8th century. The founding of a local Yemeni dynasty in the 9th century effectively ended both Abbasid rule from Baghdad and the authority of the Arab caliphate. This allowed Yemen to develop its own variant of Arab-Islamic culture and society in relative isolation.

In the 10th century, the establishment of the Zaydi imamate, essentially a theocracy, in the far north of Yemen forged a deep, lasting link between the towns and tribes of the northern highlands and the Zaydi Shiite sect of Islam. By contrast, the two-century-long rule of the Rasulids, beginning in the 1200s and initially based in Aden, identified the coastal regions and the southern uplands with Shafi’i Islam. The Rasulids, one of the major dynasties in the history of Yemen, broke from the Egyptian Ayyubid dynasty to rule independently. Their capital, later located at Ta’izz, was famous for its diverse artistic and intellectual achievements.

Ottoman rule

In the early 16th century Portuguese merchants came to Arabia and took over the Red Sea trade routes between Egypt and India. The Portuguese annexed the island of Socotra in the Indian Ocean, and from that vantage point tried unsuccessfully to take control of Aden. Following the Portuguese, the Egyptian Mamelukes attempted to take power in Yemen, successfully capturing Sanaa but failing to take Aden. Armies of the Ottoman Empire conquered Egypt in 1517, and in 1538 brought most of Yemen under their control. The Ottomans were expelled nearly a century later, after a long struggle led by the Zaydi imamate that united and strengthened Yemeni identity and ushered in a long period of Zaydi rule.

Old abandoned ruins in the desert in Mocha

Yemen developed an extensive coffee trade under Ottoman rule, with the coastal town of Mocha (Al Mukha) becoming a coffee port of international importance; despite this, the highlands of Yemen remained economically and culturally isolated from the outside world from the mid-17th century to nearly the mid-19th century, a period during which Western Europe was greatly influenced by modern thought and technology.

British occupation and national division

The process by which Yemen and the Yemeni people were divided into two countries began with the British seizure of Aden in 1839 and the reoccupation of North Yemen by the Ottomans in 1849. Throughout the second half of the 19th century, both the Ottomans and the British expanded their control of Yemeni lands. In the early 20th century, the two powers drew a border between their territories, which came to be called North and South Yemen, respectively. This boundary remained intact for most of the 20th century.

In North Yemen, Ottoman rule met with significant opposition during the early 1900s. Under the leadership of the Zaydi imam, Yemenis staged many uprisings. After years of rebellion, in 1911 the Ottomans finally granted the imam autonomy over much of North Yemen. Defeat in World War I forced the Ottomans to evacuate Yemen in 1918.

The last of the imams

Yahya Muhammad Hamid ed-Din

For the next 44 years North Yemen was ruled by two powerful imams. Imam Yahya ibn Muhammad and his son Ahmad created a king-state there much as the kings of England and France had done centuries earlier. The two imams strengthened the state and secured its borders. They used the imamate to insulate Yemen and revitalize its Islamic culture and society at a time when traditional societies around the world were declining under imperial rule. While Yemen under the two imams seemed almost frozen in time, a small but increasing number of Yemenis became aware of the contrast between an autocratic society they saw as stagnant and the political and economic modernization occurring in other parts of the world. This produced an important chain of events: the birth of the nationalist Free Yemeni Movement in the mid-1940s, an aborted 1948 revolution in which Imam Yahya was killed, a failed 1955 coup against Imam Ahmad, and finally, the 1962 revolution in which the imam was deposed by a group of nationalist officers and the Yemen Arab Republic (YAR) was proclaimed under the leadership of Abdullah al-Sallal.

Abdul Rahman al-Iryani

The first five years of President Al-Sallal’s rule, from 1962 to 1967, comprised the first chapter in the history of North Yemen. Marked by the revolution that began it, this period witnessed a lengthy civil war between Yemeni republican forces, based in the cities and supported by Egypt, and the royalist supporters of the deposed imam, backed by Saudi Arabia and Jordan. In 1965 Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser met with King Faisal of Saudi Arabia to consider a possible settlement to the civil war. The meeting resulted in an agreement whereby both countries pledged to end their involvement and allow the people of North Yemen to choose their own government. Subsequent peace conferences were ineffectual, however, and fighting flared up again in 1966.

By 1967 the war had reached a stalemate, and the republicans had split into opposing factions concerning relations with Egypt and Saudi Arabia. In late 1967 Al-Sallal’s government was overthrown and he was replaced as president by Abdul Rahman al-Iryani. Fighting continued until 1970, when Saudi Arabia halted its aid to royalists and established diplomatic ties with North Yemen. Al-Iryani effected the long-sought truce between republican and royalist forces, and presided over the adoption of a democratic constitution in 1970.

In June 1974 military officers led by Colonel Ibrahim al-Hamdi staged a bloodless coup, claiming that the government of Al-Iryani had become ineffective. The constitution was suspended, and executive power was vested in a command council, dominated by the military. Al-Hamdi chaired the council and attempted to strengthen and restructure politics in North Yemen. Al-Hamdi was assassinated in 1977, and his successor, former Chief of Staff Ahmed Hussein al-Ghashmi, was killed in June 1978. The lengthy tenure of President Ali Abdullah Saleh, who ruled North Yemen from 1978 until it merged with South Yemen in 1990, proved more stable. Saleh strengthened the political system, while an influx of foreign aid and the discovery of oil in North Yemen held out the prospect of economic expansion and development.

British rule in the south

The history of South Yemen after the British occupation of Aden in 1839 was quite different. After the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869, Aden became a vitally important port along the sea lanes to India. In order to protect Aden from Ottoman takeover, the British signed treaties with tribal leaders in the interior, promising military protection and subsidies in exchange for loyalty; gradually British authority was extended to other mainland areas to the east of Aden. In 1937 the area was designated the Aden Protectorates. In 1958 six small states within the protectorates formed a British-sponsored federation. This federation was later expanded to include Aden and the remaining states of the region, and was renamed the Federation of South Arabia in 1965.

During the 1960s British colonial policy as a whole came under increasing challenge from two groups: the Front for the Liberation of Occupied South Yemen (FLOSY) and the National Liberation Front (NLF). The nationalist movement centred primarily in Aden. Great Britain finally withdrew from the area in 1967, when the dominant opposition group, the National Liberation Front (NLF), forced the collapse of the federation and assumed political control.

Archaeological site in Marib

South Yemen became independent as the People’s Republic of South Yemen in November of that year. The NLF became the only recognized political party and its leader, Qahtan Muhammad al-Shaabi, was installed as president. In 1969 al-Shaabi was ousted and replaced by Salem Ali Rubayi; until 1978, South Yemen was governed under the co-leadership of Rubayi and his rival, Abdel Fattah Ismail, both of whom made efforts to organize the country according to their versions of Marxism.

In 1970 the country was renamed the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen (PDRY). Foreign-owned properties were nationalized, and close ties were established with the USSR. Rubayi was deposed and executed in 1978; under the prevailing authority of Ismail, Soviet influence intensified in South Yemen. Ismail was replaced by Ali Nasser Muhammad al-Hasani in 1980. In 1986 a civil war erupted within the government of South Yemen; the war ended after 12 days, and al-Hasani fled into exile. Former premier Haydar Bakr al-Attas was elected president in October.


Relations between North Yemen and South Yemen grew increasingly conciliatory after 1980. Border wars between the two countries in 1972 and 1979 both had ended surprisingly with agreements for Yemeni unification, though in each case the agreement was quickly shelved. During the 1980s the two countries cooperated increasingly in economic and administrative matters. In December 1989 their respective leaders met and prepared a final unification agreement. On May 22, 1990, North and South Yemen officially merged to become the Republic of Yemen. Ali Abdullah Saleh, then leader of North Yemen, became president of unified Yemen, while Ali Salem al-Beidh and Haydar Bakr al-Attas of South Yemen became vice president and prime minister, respectively. Sanaa was declared the political capital of the Republic of Yemen, and Aden the economic capital. By the summer of 1990 more than 30 new political parties had formed in Yemen. Rising oil revenues and financial assistance from many foreign countries, including Iraq, Saudi Arabia, and the United States, brought hope that Yemen could begin to strengthen and expand its economy.

Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990 and the events that followed in the Persian Gulf took a serious toll on Yemen’s economy and newfound political stability. Yemen’s critical response to the presence of foreign military forces massed in Saudi Arabia led the Saudi government to expel 850,000 Yemeni workers; the return of the workers and the loss of remittance payments produced widespread unemployment and economic upheaval, which led in turn to domestic political unrest. Bomb attacks, political killings, and violent demonstrations occurred throughout 1991 and 1992, and in December 1992 a rise in consumer prices precipitated riots in several of Yemen’s major cities. Concern arose that declining economic and social conditions would give rise to Islamic fundamentalist activities in Yemen.

Political turmoil forced the government to postpone general elections, which were finally held on April 27, 1993, completing the Yemeni unification process begun three years earlier. The General People’s Congress (GPC), the former ruling party in North Yemen, won 121 seats in parliament; the Yemen Socialist party (YSP), the former ruling party of South Yemen, won 56 seats; a new Islamic coalition party, al-Islah, won 62 seats; and the remaining 62 seats were won by minor parties and independents. The president and prime minister remained in office after the election, and the three major parties formed a legislative coalition.

Deteriorating relations between north and south

Ali Abdullah Saleh

In 1990 North and South Yemen united into one state. Ali Abdullah Saleh, who had ruled the North since 1978, became the president and Ali Salem Al-Beidh leader of the Yemeni Socialist Party from the south became the vice-president. The relationship between the two men deteriorated and protracted struggles that resulted in an all-out war in 1994 between the North and South of Yemen ensued.

The southerners felt they were side lined from power claiming that their people were left out of important military and political positions and that investments were concentrated in the capital, Sanaa, while Aden was neglected and the oil resources of the south were exploited by the regime in the North.

During the war, the southerners received no assistance from their previous patron, the Soviet Union, and the northerners emerged victorious in the three-month conflict. Inequalities were exacerbated by the dismantling of the southern army and security services and the setting up of business enterprises in favour of northern regime businessmen and by the distribution of land to the supporters of the regime in the North. Saleh exploited his Southern allies, who included the current president, Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi, against his Southern rivals and the battle was won on military terms against the southern forces.

The National Opposition Front (MOWJ), the group that fought with the socialists against the Northern regime and lost the war of secession, was set up in London in 1998. It was financed by the Saudis who initially supported the southern cause as a way of furthering their own border dispute with the north. MOWJ was dissolved in 2001 when their funds dried up.

The pro-independence movement subsequently went underground but as the political and economic marginalisation continued, a Southern Movement (Al-Hirak Al-Janoubi) was formed in 2007. The protests it organised calling for the return of the South Yemen Republic were brutally suppressed generating a climate of fear, increased bitterness and alienation among southerners. This group has wide political popularity but lacked organisational coherence and leadership and consisted of many splinter groups.

Saleh, following his military victory, became increasingly dictatorial and complacent but managed to cling to power through a Machiavellian divide-and-rule policy. His problems were compounded by the rise to power of jihadist groups and the economic hardship suffered by the majority of Yemenis. His biggest mistake was his disregard of the southern demands for equal opportunity. By behaving like a victor and surrounding himself with yes-men he neglected the Southerners even further. As a consequence, the Southerners became more outspoken and their demands increased significantly. By 2008, they were no longer seeking a resolution to the lack of employment opportunities but became vocal and demanded an independent Southern state.

The Southern Movement was part of the 2011 Arab Spring which brought thousands of Yemenis onto the streets. Saleh who had ruled Yemen for 33 years eventually ceded power to his deputy Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi in February 2012. The international community, in line with other Arab states, could no longer support his dictatorship.

President Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi

The National Dialogue Conference (NDC) was a transitional dialogue process held in Sanaa from March 18, 2013 to January 24, 2014. It was a key part of the agreement brokered by the UN and the Gulf Co-operation Council that saw President Ali Abdullah Saleh hand over power to Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi in November 2011 after an uprising. Hadi was subsequently sworn in for a two-year term as president in February 2012 after an election in which he stood unopposed.

The NDC made an attempt to find some solutions to Yemen’s intractable problems but did not properly address the grievances of the southerners or Ansar Allah, an Iran-backed Islamic political and armed movement, that emerged from Sa’dah in north Yemen in the 1990s. It is colloquially referred to as the Houthis because its founder, Hussein Badreddin Al-Houthi, who was killed by the regime of Ali Abdulla Saleh, is from the Houthi tribe and is closely connected to the Houthi spiritual leader Abdulmalek Al-Houthi. The Houthis had fought six wars against the Yemeni state.

The unpopularity of the so-called legitimate government and the general distrust of its integrity ensured its failure. After Hadi won a show election in which he was the only candidate, he stayed in power beyond the expiration of his two-year mandate triggering Houthi incursions close to the capital. In 2014 they, seized vast swathes of the country, including the capital Sanaa. Their invasion of Sanaa and their relationship with Iran was seen by the Saudis as a danger to their national security.

On 25th March 2015, Saudi Arabia unilaterally launched an attack on Yemen under the name “Operation Decisive Storm,” with the announced aim of restoring the legitimate government of Hadi and preventing the Houthis and their allies from taking control of the country.

After the defeat of the Houthi invasion and their expulsion to their Northern Territory, the Southerners were confident enough to establish the Southern Transitional Council (STC) in 2017. It consisted of 26 members including the governors of five southern governorates. Their initial announcement was to restore the independence of the south. The STC had helped the Saudi-led coalition forces dislodge the Houthis from the south. The UAE intervened to provide the STC with military backing.

Relations between the STC and Hadi’s government soured when Hadi dismissed Aden’s governor Aidarous Al-Zubaidi and the governors of Hadramaut and Shabwa. Repeated reconciliation attempts ended in failure and in January 2018 fighting broke out between the two sides on two occasions and the STC eventually seized Aden.

Aidarous Al-Zubaidi

Recent events

The Riyadh Agreement, an attempt by the Saudis to resolve the conflict between the STC and the legitimate government, provided for power sharing between the two. It was signed on 5th November 2019 between Hadi’s government and the STC. The STC, unhappy with the lack of progress in the implementation of the agreement withdrew from it on 14th April 2020. On 26th April the STC declared self rule in Aden and the areas in the south under its control in order to strengthen its bargaining position with Hadi and the Saudis. On July 29th the STC rescinded its self rule declaration in the hope that talks with the Saudis would result in the implementation of the Riyadh Agreement but this has not happened. A new government has not been formed, the Saudis have not allowed the STC leaders to return to South Yemen and an unhealthy stalemate plagues the country.

The present situation

The conflict has so far claimed 100,000 lives, mostly civilian, and has triggered what the United Nations terms the world’s worst humanitarian crisis. An estimated 4.3 million people have fled from their homes and approximately 3.3 million remain displaced. The worst case scenario is that the country could see 93 percent of its 30 million people infected with COVID-19. Yemenis are also plagued by locusts, floods, drastic aid cuts and a collapse of the health system. The president and his government are mostly living abroad while the rest of the population endures the absence of a state and collapsing services, particularly in the South. Aden has a new governor, Ahmed Lamlis, who has the support of most Adenis and is doing his best to restore and improve essential services.


Abdul Galil Shaif Kasim concludes that Yemeni unity was a noble aim in 1990 but today the Houthis have overthrown the government and have taken over around 70 percent of North Yemen rendering unity a failed project with no hope of achieving democracy or equality. “They are now recognised as a de facto state in the north of Yemen and their ambition is a takeover of the whole country. So long as southern statehood and national boundaries are not formally recognised, the risk of renewed conflicts will prevail and Yemen will end up a pariah state run by militias where power vacuums are filled by terrorists and extremist groups.”