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Yemen: Country Profile


Yemen: Country Profile



Official country name: Republic of Yemen
Area: 203,850 sq miles (527,970 sq km)
Population: 22.2 million (2007 est.)
Median age: 16.7
Ethnic Groups: Mostly Arabs, along with some South Asians and Europeans (exact figures are not available)
GDP and GDP per capita: $20 billion and $723 (2006 estimates)
Languages: Arabic

Government and Politics:

Yemen is among the relatively freer countries of the Middle East (emphasis on relatively). On paper at least, its president is popularly elected to seven-year terms. But President Ali Abdullah Saleh, in power since 1978, is effectively the nation's dictator. The 301 members of Yemen's lower House of Representatives are popularly elected to six-year terms. The 111 members of its upper Shura Council are appointed, as is the prime minister. Following the 2006 local council elections, international observers judge the process fair, open and competitive.


Islam is the official state religion. Yemenis are overwhelmingly Muslim. About 60 percent are Sunnis, 40 percent Shiites. Yemen has small communities of Christians, Jews and Hindus. According to the U.S. Department of State’s 2006 Religious Freedom Report, “government policy continued to contribute to the generally free practice of religion. Muslims and followers of religious groups other than Islam are free to worship according to their beliefs; however, the Government prohibits conversion from Islam and proselytization of Muslims.”


When North Yemen and South Yemen joined into the current state of Yemen in 1990, both parts of the country had undeveloped economies. The north relied on coffee and agriculture, the south on small deposits of oil. Both sides relied on foreign aid and remittances from substantial communities of Yemenis throughout the world. Oil exports in 2005 accounted for $3.1 billion, or 70% of government revenue. Declining oil production is being offset by high oil prices. Still, almost half the population lives in poverty. In 2006, a World Bank-sponsored international donors conference raised $4.7 billion for Yemen's development.


About 66,000 Yemenis serve in the armed forces. The country spends close to 7 percent of its GDP on its military, drawing criticism from the United Nations for spending almost four times as much on the armed forces as on national health. In 2006, Yemen received $10.7 million in military and anti-terrorism aid from the United States.

Human Rights, Civil Rights and Media:

Yemen is relatively freer than most Middle East countries. Still, Amnesty International reports dozens of arrests and detention without due process in 2007 in the “war on terror,” while political prisoners are tried in special courts that shirk normal standards of law. Thirty people were executed in 2007. Media are relatively free, although in February 2007 three newspapers were briefly closed for publishing the notorious Mohammed cartoons that originated in a Danish newspaper in 2005. The paper’s editors-in-chief were tried and sentenced to suspended prison sentences.


Indigenous and foreign civilizations have seesawed over control of Yemen since ancient times, including the Biblical kingdom of Sheba. Islamic armies conquered Yemen in 631, Ottomoans in 1517 and again in the 19th century, and Britain, in what was called South Yemen, from the 1839 to 1967. North and South Yemen clashed in 1972, as did South Yemen and Saudi Arabia in 1969 and 1973. The two parts joined into Yemen in 1990 and survived a civil war in 1994. Relations with Saudi Arabia remain uneasy, as does the Yemeni government’s relations with Shiite rebels in the north of the country.

Current Issues:

The USS Cole, on a refueling stop in the port of Aden, was attacked by al-Qaeda militants in 2000. But Yemen has remained a U.S. ally, triggering the occasional rebellion among anti-American tribesmen and Shiites. In June 2007, rebel leader Abdul-Malik al-Houthi accepted a ceasefire. The following month, a suicide bomber killed eight Spanish and two Yemeni tourists in the province of Marib. The cease-fire hasn’t been fully implemented. The situation with the rebels remains tense. Writing for worldpress.org in January 2008, Jane Novak wrote that “Yemen is facing instability unseen since its 1994 civil war.”

Notable Facts:

  • Meeting with President Bush in 2001, Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh, an ally of Saddam Hussein at the time, offered to mediate a resolution between the United States and Iraq. There is an Arab proverb, the New York Times reported the Yemeni president as saying. If you put a cat into a cage, it can turn into a lion. Mr. Bush responded that he had no intention of reconciling, a senior administration official said.

    "This cat has rabies," Mr. Bush said, referring to Mr. Hussein, and then added with a bluntness that was said by officials in the room to have shocked Mr. Saleh, "The only way to cure the cat is to cut off its head."

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