Yemen has a changeable history as a modern state formation. Today’s Yemen Republic came into being in May 1990, when the two neighboring states (northern) Yemen and southern Yemen merged into one state. The merger failed to integrate the two parts, and it resulted in both a civil war for detachment in the south and continued demands for independence.
Yemen’s location at the entrance to the Red Sea has given ancient and modern times an important strategic position. The Cold War expanded in this area because Marxist South Yemen was closely associated with the Soviet Union, while North Yemen turned to the West. One dimension was also the political rivalry between Arab states. In Yemen, it was expressed during the civil war in the early 1960s, when radical Egypt intervened militarily, and was indirectly in conflict with conservative Saudi Arabia. The UN deployed a peacekeeping force – the United Nations Yemen Observation Mission (UNYOM) – which Norway also participated in. See abbreviationfinder for geography, history, society, politics, and economy of Yemen.
Yemen’s recent history includes the post-World War I period, with the decolonization of South Yemen, civil war and the merger of one state in 1990, with a new civil war.
Also read the articles: Yemen’s contemporary history, the uprising in Yemen 2011–2012, and the war in Yemen, 2015.
Division into two states
Yemen’s modern history is largely marked by the fact that the country was long divided into what became an independent state in the north and a British protectorate in the south (which then became its own state) – and disputes associated with this division.
Yemen Arab Republic
When the Ottoman forces were withdrawn from Yemen after World War I, zaidi imam Yahya secured control of the country, challenging the UK’s right to contact the tribes of the South Yemen Protectorate, which he also considered his subjects. In 1934, however, the Imam accepted the border demarcation between the British and the Turks, which laid the groundwork for the later division of the country into the two independent states.
Yahya remained neutral during World War II despite an established relationship with fascist Italy. Imam Yahya was killed in a coup in 1948, and his son Ahmad took power. He ruled just as autocratic, but opened Yemen to the outside world. Ahmad was suspicious of Egypt under President Gamal Abdel Nasser, which approximates the United Kingdom. (Northern) Yemen made demands on Aden, and there were military clashes in 1953 and 1958. Yemen (northern Yemen) entered a federation with the United Arab Republic (Union of Egypt and Syria) in 1958, but this became dissolved again in 1961 without being realized.
In 1955 and 1961 there were attempts to overthrow Imam Ahmad bin Yahya. When he died in 1962, an officer rebellion, later known as the Revolution, erupted and Ahmad’s successor, Mohammed al-Badr, was overthrown. The rebellion was backed by Egypt and led to the establishment of the Arab Republic of Yemen.
The revolution led the monarchists to mobilize, with financial and military support from Saudi Arabia. Egypt entered the conflict to defend a radical Arab regime and to secure a foothold in the Arabian Peninsula. Around 70,000 Egyptian soldiers came to the rescue of the Yemeni military regime in the ensuing civil war. A United Nations Yemen Observation Mission (UNYOM) was deployed in 1963-1964 to monitor the border with Saudi Arabia. Norway participated with a small number of observers in the force. Following the defeat of Israel in the Six Day War in 1967, Egypt withdrew from Yemen.
Fighting between Republicans and royalists continued until 1969, until the war ended in 1970 after costing around 200,000 lives. That same year, the royal family returned to Yemen. After an unstable period with several leaders, Ali Abdullah Saleh took over as head of state in 1978. In 1979, the country was attacked by Marxist South Yemen. The United States sent military forces to (northern) Yemen and supplied the country with weapons. The fighting ended with an agreement to unite the two states.
The government in Sanaa was also destabilized by the left-wing National Democratic Front (NDF), which was beaten after a major offensive in 1982. At the same time, South Yemen ended its support for the North Yemeni armed opposition, and a period of political stability began. Saleh founded a ruling party, the General People’s Congress (GPC), the first of its kind in (northern) Yemen. Saleh was elected president in 1983.
While North Yemen was an independent Imamate, South Yemen was a British protectorate, while Aden had a colony status. It had the largest British military base outside Europe, with a high standard of living and extensive political freedom.
After World War II, an Egyptian-backed nationalist movement, the National Liberation Front (NLF), emerged, demanding independence and advocating the creation of a socialist state in southern Yemen. In 1961, Aden joined the Federation of Southern Arabia, however, not an independent state formation but a loose association. In 1963, NLF started an armed resistance struggle against the British regime. In Aden, another group operated, Front for the Liberation of Occupied South Yemen (FLOSY). In 1967, NLF took control of Aden from FLOSY after a brief civil war, and then established control of the interior.
In 1966, the United Kingdom began decolonization, and withdrew from Aden on November 30, 1967. Thus, South Yemen became an independent state. The country’s first president was Qahtan al-Shaabi from the NLF.
The new state expelled British military advisers and replaced them with Soviet; The Soviet Union also supplied South Yemen with weapons. After internal contradictions in the NLF, Shaabi was deposed in a coup in 1969 and replaced by a presidential council, led by Salim Rubai Ali. The change of power meant a left turn, and in 1970 the country’s name was changed to the Democratic People’s Republic of Yemen.
Political instability characterized the 1970s. A quarter of the population fled the country, which was in constant crisis and sustained through Soviet assistance. The relationship with Northern Yemen was conflict-ridden, and there was fighting at the border in 1972. In 1978, the NLF was transformed into a Marxist-Leninist party, the Yemen Socialist Party (YSP). The internal disputes led to a brief civil war in 1986.
Collection in one state
Despite strong contradictions, battles on the border in 1973 and 1979 and mutual interference in the other state’s internal affairs, both countries were ready for a merger. Already in 1972, the two states signed the first of several agreements to merge, which, however, did not occur until 1990.
In addition to historical and cultural conditions, with a common Yemenite identity, economic development in particular was crucial. South Yemen could no longer count on support from the Soviet Union, and the state’s existence was threatened. An important factor was also the discovery of oil and natural gas in both states; partly in disputed border areas. One reason why a rally was difficult was ideological contradictions, and the fact that states were not equal partners and one of them (the northern one) would become the dominant one.
On May 21, 1990, both countries’ parliament approved the merger; unanimously in the south, against some opposition from Islamists in the north. The next day, the two national assemblies met for a joint session and elected a five-man presidency. (Northern) Yemen, by virtue of its size and economy, was the strongest party in the new state formation, and President Ali Abdullah Saleh became the new Republic’s president; the leader of the South Yemenite state-bearing party, Ali Salem al-Baid, vice president. Sana became the capital; Aden the new financial center. The parliament of the two former states was merged, and a liberal constitution was passed after a 1991 referendum.
The first parliamentary elections were held in 1993; the first democratic, general multiparty election on the Arabian Peninsula.