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  • Main languages: Arabic and South Arabian (Mehri, Soqotri, Bathari).

    Main religions: Shafa’i Sunni (65 per cent), Zaydi Shi’a (35 per cent) and Isma’ili Islam (an estimated 15,000 people).

    Main minorities and indigenous peoples: Zaydis (35 per cent), Muhamasheen 440,000-1.1 million (2-5 per cent), Isma’ilis (15,000), Jews (50).

    Demographic statistics for Yemen are unreliable, but nearly all Yemenis are Muslim. Next to a Shafa’i Sunni majority, there is a substantial minority of Zaydi Shi’as, mainly from Dhamar northwards. There are thought to be around 15 thousand Isma’ilis in Yemen, concentrated in Haraz district near Sana’a.

    Yemenis are overwhelmingly ethnic Arab and Afro-Arab. The black al-Muhamasheen ethnic minority does not belong to any of the three main Arab tribes in the country. It has been estimated to comprise 2-5 per cent of the population, though some community estimates put the proportion at closer to 10 per cent.

    Less than 50 Jews remain in Yemen today and their numbers are in steady decline. Once a sizeable minority of 50,000–60,000 people, the majority of Yemeni Jews were flown to Israel after its establishment in 1948 as part of an international airlift known as ‘Operation Magic Carpet’. The lifting of a subsequent travel ban in 1991 prompted about 1,200 Jews to emigrate, mainly to Israel.

    Less than 50 Jews remain in Yemen today and their numbers are in steady decline. Once a sizeable minority of 50,000–60,000 people, the majority of Yemeni Jews were flown to Israel after its establishment in 1948 as part of an international airlift known as ‘Operation Magic Carpet’. The lifting of a subsequent travel ban in 1991 prompted about 1,200 Jews to emigrate, mainly to Israel.

  • Environment

    Yemen lies on the southern tip of the Arabian Peninsula, bordering Saudi Arabia to the north and Oman to the east. Its western coast lies along the Red Sea, and its long southern coast along the Gulf of Aden. Yemen can be very crudely divided between its mountainous interior, its western coastal plain of Tihama, and the Hadramawt region in the south-east. It is an arid state with significant oil and gas reserves which provide the country with 75 per cent of its income, though these resources are fast dwindling and are predicted to run out imminently.


    Yemen was at first only superficially Islamicized. However, in the late ninth century, most of mountainous, interior Yemen became dominated by Zaydi Shi’a imams, who achieved a symbiotic relationship with the mountain tribes. From about the twelfth century the coastal areas and south came to be dominated by the Shafa’i school of Sunni Islam, the Sunni school most tolerant towards Shi’a practice. Britain’s occupation of Aden in 1839 resulted in the de facto partition of Yemen. The Aden Protectorate ended with the establishment of a Marxist-Leninist state in southern Yemen in 1966. In the north, rule by the Zaydi imams, which had intermittently been interrupted by Ottoman rule, came to an end in 1962, when a republic was declared.

    The Republic of Yemen was formed in May 1990 by the union of the Yemen Arab Republic (northern Yemen) and the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen (southern Yemen). Following the 1991 Gulf War, hundreds of thousands of Yemeni expatriates returned from the Gulf states, causing severe unemployment and economic turmoil. A brief civil war in 1994 followed attempts at southern secession. Although Yemen is an oil-producing state, it is the poorest in Arabia, in part due to widespread illiteracy and endemic corruption.

    In 2000, a suicide bomb attack on the US naval vessel ‘USS Cole’ in the port of Aden was blamed on Al Qaeda. Yemen is the ancestral home of Osama bin Laden, the militant group’s leader, and the country has faced sporadic Al Qaeda attacks on oil infrastructure. In subsequent years, armed extremist groups became well-established in the country, despite a government crackdown in the wake of this attack. Al-Qaeda affiliated groups and more recently offshoots of Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS) have profited from the country’s instability since the outbreak of civil war.

    In the early 2000s increased political tensions became evident, reflected in the launch of the Houthi insurgency in 2004 and intermittent protests. As uprising spread across the Arab world in January 2011, mass demonstrations broke out in Yemen and protestors took to the street, calling for President Ali Abdullah Saleh to step down and end his 33-year rule. After months of violent crackdowns, a peace deal was brokered by the six Arab Gulf states that make up the Gulf Co-operation Council. President Saleh agreed to hand over power to a transitional government. Vice-President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi agreed to create a new unity government consisting of an equal number of members from the ruling General Congress Party and the opposition before elections that are scheduled to take place on 21 February 2012. President Saleh signed the deal on 23 November 2011 and officially relinquished office a month later.

    Hadi was formally elected president on 21 February 2012 via an election in which he was the only candidate. Welcomed by many observers as another important milestone in the country’s ongoing transition to democracy, Yemen’s ten-month-long National Dialogue Conference (NDC), was concluded in January 2014. 565 representatives were invited to attend and the final outcomes of the process agreed for inclusion in the country’s new Constitution, scheduled for a referendum one year later. The NDC process failed to fully represent the country’s various minorities but did call for the establishment of ‘fair national policies and procedures to ensure marginalized persons’ access to decent housing, basic public services, free health care, and job opportunities’, including placement in 10 per cent of public jobs. However, the NDC received a fatal blow with the withdrawal of the Houthi movement from the process and the continued spread of its armed insurgency across Yemen.

    In the wake of significant advances during 2014 by rebel Houthi forces, culminating in the capture of the capital Sana’a in September, President Hadi resigned in January 2015 before fleeing south in February to Aden. An international coalition led by Saudi Arabia subsequently launched ‘Operation Decisive Storm’ at the end of March in support of Hadi, including aerial bombings and an extended blockade that prevented essential food, medicine and fuel supplies from entering the country. On one side of the conflict has been the internationally recognized government of President Hadi, backed by the Saudi-led coalition; and on the other, the Houthi movement allied with former President Saleh.

    The Saudi-led coalition has launched thousands of airstrikes on the Houthis but failed to dislodge them from Sana’a and other large swathes of the country under their control. Aerial bombardment by the coalition and ground fighting continue, and while all major parties to the conflict appear responsible for significant violations of human rights and international humanitarian law, most civilian deaths have been at the hands of the Saudi-led coalition. A longstanding southern secessionist movement and insurgencies by al-Qaida and the Yemen-based branch of ISIS have complicated Yemen’s political landscape.

    Another blow to the successive rounds of UN-sponsored peace talks that were derailed in 2016 was the declaration of a National Salvation Government by the Houthi-Saleh alliance on 28 November. At the same time, a deepening humanitarian crisis has consumed the country, with the Yemeni state fractured and unable to care for the country’s population.


    Prior to the Arab Spring uprisings of 2011, Yemen had a powerful presidency and a bicameral parliament, although one of its chambers is appointed by the President. Ali Abdullah Saleh became President of the new republic created by the merger of the two Yemens in 1990. He had led the Yemen Arab Republic – the northern part of present-day Yemen – since 1978 when he came to power in a military coup. The unified country’s first presidential elections were held in 1999, and in 2006 President Ali Abdullah Saleh was easily re-elected to another seven-year term. His rule was marked by numerous conflicts with separatists in the South, corruption, poverty and human rights abuses

    The 2002 Yemeni Constitution declares that Islam is the state religion and that all legislation should be based on Islamic law. The Constitution also provides for freedom of religion, but the government prohibits the proselytisation of Muslims, requires permission for the construction of new places of worship, and permits non-Muslims to vote but not hold elected office.

    More recently, following mass protests in January 2011, President Saleh was forced to hand power over to a transitional government and the creation of a unity government by then Vice-President Hadi. Despite winning elections the next year and overseeing an extended consultation process for the drafting of a new Constitution, talks broke down following the withdrawal of Houthi representatives and the renewal of armed conflict.

    The Houthis consider themselves to champion the Zaydi Shi’a population and its traditions. They had previously fought several rebellions against former President Salah. Since its founding in the early 1990s, the Houthi movement, also known as Ansar Allah, has sought to resist both socio-economic and political marginalization by the central government as well as the growing influence of Salafism in their northern heartland. Fighting between government forces and Houthi rebels began in 2004. First in the north and from 2011 spreading elsewhere across the country, support for their armed revolt and political rise have been made possible by tapping into grievances broadly shared with other Yemenis towards the government.

    A series of military successes by the rebels saw many cities, including Sana’a in September 2014, fall into their hands. In February 2015 Hadi fled the capital and from there fled to Riyadh, from where he launched his campaign to retake the country, using Aden as the de facto capital for his government. Since then, conflict has been ongoing and large areas of the country are now without rule of law or basic services.

    Yemen’s long history as a tribal society continues to govern its social structures to this day, presenting a parallel system of governance and traditions in many parts of the country alongside the formal Yemeni state. This in turn permeates the country’s social order, creating a form of social hierarchy. But, in addition to these social dynamics, there are groups that suffer from caste-based discrimination, such as the Muhamasheen.

  • With no end in sight, and against the backdrop of the world’s worst humanitarian disaster, the war in Yemen has entered its fifth year. Fierce fighting has resumed several months after a fragile UN-backed ceasefire deal in December between Houthi rebels and the internationally recognized government of Abd-Rabbo Mansour Hadi. Civilians have suffered airstrikes and shelling from all sides of the conflict, but the Saudi-led coalition – supporting Hadi and itself backed by the US, UK, and France – has been responsible for a disproportionate number of civilians. Around 70,000 people – five times more than commonly reported – may have been killed in Yemen since January 2016, according to new statistics. There has also been an escalation of clashes between southern secessionist fighters and Hadi-aligned forces, as well as unprecedented violence between ISIS and al-Qaeda factions in Bayda province.  

    On one side has been the internationally recognized government of President Hadi; and on the other, the Houthi movement, now allied with former President SalehHadi’s ouster and exile early in 2015 prompted military intervention in March of that year by an international coalition led by Saudi Arabia. Hadi was able to return to Aden after six months in exile in September 2015. The coalition has launched thousands of airstrikes on the Houthis but has failed to dislodge them from Sana’a and other large swathes of the country under their control. Aerial bombardment by the coalition and ground fighting have continued, and while all major parties to the conflict appear responsible for significant violations of human rights and international humanitarian law, most civilian deaths have been at the hands of the Saudi-led coalition. A deepening humanitarian crisis now consumes the country: around 2 million are currently internally displaced and UNICEF estimates that more than 24 million people – some 80 per cent of the population – are in need of humanitarian assistance.  

    While the Houthis are largely but not exclusively comprised of Zaydi Shi’a, who make up around a third of Yemen’s population, the movement presents its aims as political. However, with Saudi military intervention in support of the Sunni-dominated government-in-exile against the Iran-backed Houthis, regional geopolitics have increasingly framed the conflict in sectarian terms. Furthermore, as the conflict has progressed, rising religious extremism and sectarian rhetoric from all sides of the conflict has heightened heightening the prospect of targeted violence between Sunni and Zaydi Shi’a Muslims. Violence and upheaval resulting from the conflict, including the movement of internally displaced to new areas, have inflamed communal tensions. This has played into the hands of militant sectarian ideologues such as those of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and the Yemen-based branch of ISIS, who have seized ground and claimed responsibility for numerous attacks, primarily on state security personnel in the south, throughout 2016. 

    The Yemeni armed conflict exacerbated and had indiscriminate outcomes on the population, with organizations such as Human Rights Watch documenting numerous unlawful coalition airstrikes which have killed civilians and destroyed homes, markets, hospitals, schools and mosques in attacks that can be defined as war crimes. In addition, Houthi-Saleh forces have used cluster munitions or antipersonnel landmines, both weapons banned by international treaties. These repeated attacks into Yemeni cities and southern Saudi Arabia, have killed hundreds of civilians and will pose a serious threat long after the conflict ends: Yemen suffers from a shortage of equipped personnel able to systematically clear mines and explosive remnants of war. Further human rights violations include forced detentions of people (including children), abuses on detainees, the disappearance of people perceived as political dangers, violence against women and forced marriages (including child marriages). 

    Unfortunately, none of the states involved in the Saudi-led coalition have credibly inquired into the alleged violations. Nor has the US, despite being a party to the conflict, conducted investigations into any alleged unlawful attacks in which it took part. Within the Yemeni context, other international actors played an important role: the UK has provided diplomatic support, training, and weaponry to members of the coalition; the US, UK, and France continued to provide arms to Saudi Arabia and other coalition states, despite the coalition’s use of US and UK-supplied weapons in apparently unlawful attacks. Airstrikes have resulted in numerous civilian deaths, including the bombing of a wedding that killed 22 people and an attack that hit a school bus, killing 26 children.  

    Ongoing conflict has further embattled Yemen’s disappearing Jewish community. Reaching a population of around 50,000 in the 1940s, the community now numbers less than 50 people.  Across large segments of Yemeni society there persists a widespread conflation of the Jewish faith with Zionism, which engenders hostility towards Jews. Due to the lack of protection and possibility of harassment which is said to have become more acute since the civil war began in 2014, individuals when in public have sought to conceal their Jewish identity and have refrained from practicing religious rituals outside the privacy of their homes. The country’s deteriorating economic situation has put even greater pressure on the community, and in March 2016, in what was thereafter deemed the final operation of its kind, 17 Jews were secretly airlifted from Yemen by the Israeli government. The country’s remaining Jewish population resides near the northern town of Raida, still home to members of the el-Na’ati family, as well as in a compound in Sana’a, to which many families fled with government assistance in 2007. 

    Antipathy towards Israel has also played role in the persecution of Yemen’s 1,000-strong Bahá’i community, whose global spiritual headquarters is located in Israel. Bahá’i are seen by authorities as posing an ideological threat to national security and have also been targeted by Houthi security personnel. Hamed Kamal bin Haydara, detained in 2013 and facing the death penalty for allegedly attempting to convert Muslims on behalf of Israel, was still detained as of April 2019. 

    As conflict has raged on, deep-seated racism in Yemeni society has exacerbated the vulnerabilities of al-Muhamasheen (‘the marginalized’). The community is estimated to comprise 2-5 per cent of the population, though some community estimates put the figure closer to 10 per cent. For many, survival has become a daily challenge. A visible minority of African descent and known in Arabic also as ‘Akhdam’ (‘servants’), they have long remained at the bottom of Yemen’s social hierarchy, facing pervasive caste-based discrimination, social exclusion and poverty. Largely residing in makeshift housing on the peripheries of urban centres, Muhamasheen have been in cities hardest hit by the conflict, with high population concentrations in Sana’a and Taiz 

    The experience of conflict and displacement by Muhamasheen has differed considerably from other Yemenis. Lacking access to tribal or other informal networks of patronage, the worsening humanitarian crisis has caused Muhamasheen – and particularly the most vulnerable among them, such as women and girls – to struggle in accessing basic services or other support mechanisms. Internally displaced Muhamasheen endure poorer living conditions than other uprooted Yemenis with greater economic and social capital, while also facing discrimination and sometimes denial of access to aid, usually distributed through local sheikhs. Internally displaced Muhamasheen have had to find shelter in damaged or disused buildings, or on open ground. 

    • Organization for the Defence of Human Rights and Democratic Freedoms

Updated June 2019

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