Despite recent discoveries of oil, Yemen remains poor—and could become a failed state
Yemen has three main regions. It has narrow desert coastal plains along both the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden. These plains rise steeply to highlands that reach 1,500 metres. Then to the north the highlands descend to a desert area that covers half the country and merges with the ‘empty quarter’ of Saudi Arabia.
Almost everyone is Arab but the mountainous terrain has dispersed the population so there can be differences in dialects of Arabic, heightened by historical divisions between north and south. In the 1830s, the territory had been carved up between the Ottoman empire in the north and the British empire in the south. After independence, the government in the north remained more conservative while the government in the south pursued Soviet-style socialism that diluted some aspects of Islam—particularly the restrictions it imposed on women. The two countries united in 1990 but the social and political differences remain.
As a whole, Yemen is one of the world's poorest countries. Literacy is low and around half of children are malnourished. Population growth is high at over 3% annually.
Around three-quarters of people rely on agriculture. Most of the rainfall is in the mountain areas, so farmers have had to build elaborate systems of terracing, growing basic subsistence crops such as sorghum and potatoes, as well as some cash crops, including fruit and high-quality ‘mocha’ coffee for export. But around one-third of irrigated land is used to grow ‘qat’—a plant whose chewable leaves contain a mild amphetamine. In addition, the mountains support large numbers of sheep and goats.
With little land to spare and few other opportunities for employment, more than one million Yemenis have left to work in richer neighbouring countries. Their remittances are worth around $1.5 billion—6% of GDP.
Some respite from the country's poverty came from the discovery of oil in the 1980s. Oil now accounts for 85% of export earning and 70% of government revenue. Yemen also has natural gas reserves, and there are plans with the French company Total to expand liquefaction plants to enable more gas to be exported.
The government wants to capitalize on the country's strategic location by establishing a new Aden Free Zone. Although the first project collapsed due to corruption there have been attempts to revive the idea.
Adventure holidays in Yemen
Another important source of foreign exchange has been tourism for the hardier travellers—around 80,000 of whom visit each year to explore the country's rich historical heritage. The industry was badly hit by a spate of kidnapping of tourists in 1999 by tribesmen wanting to draw attention to a lack of amenities. Although tourists have rapidly been released unharmed, Yemen now has a reputation as an overly adventurous destination.
Yemen's unification in 1990 joined the Yemen Arab Republic in the north and the People's Democratic Republic of Yemen in the south. President Ali Abdullah Saleh from the north—which had three-quarters of the total population—became president of a united Yemen, and his counterpart in the south, Ali Salim al-Bidh, became vice-president.