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Yemen’s population is the largest of the Arabian Peninsula and has been a primary source of the Arab diaspora since ancient times. Peoples in North Africa and as far away as Indonesia trace their ancestry back to Yemen. Tribal influences remain very strong in Yemen, resulting in a complicated political system. The so-called Akhdam – descendants of immigrants of African origin – form a neglected Yemeni underclass.
Yemen’s population density is 40 per square kilometre. This is twice the population density of Brazil, half of that of Turkey, roughly the same as that of Iran, and slightly higher than that of the United States. A large part of Yemen is virtually uninhabitable, consisting of desert or steeply mountainous terrain, so Yemen gives the impression of a populous and busy country. Yemeni men spend most of their lives outdoors, in each other’s company, and less in the privacy of their own homes. This further strengthens Yemen’s lively image. Women are also increasingly present in public spaces.
Yemen’s population is very young and growing fast. The annual growth rate has dropped from 4.6 percent in the 1990s to 2.7 percent in 2010, but, on a global scale, it is still high. In 2010, the median age was 17.8, up from 14.3 in the 1990s; more than half the Yemeni population was born during the last twenty years. Officially, Yemen counted just over 24.3 million inhabitants in 2010. This may, however, be a conservative estimate. Projected population numbers hover around the alarming figure of 30 million in 2015 and a peak of 40 million in 2025. The growth of the urban population has been slow in Yemen, but it has accelerated, from a low of 14.8 percent in 1975, to 27.3 percent in 2005, and 31.8 percent in 2010.
The average Yemeni family produces many children. In fact, Yemeni women were, for decades, the most fertile in the world, bearing an average of more than seven children. Only since 2005 has this number dropped, to a low of 4.7 in 2010, which still gives a growth rate of 2.7 percent, down from 4.7 percent in 1990. This was achieved after a long and broad national campaign for birth control, supported by tribal elders and influential religious leaders. Today, the average number of children per family in towns is decreasing. However, birth control is still very controversial in remote mountain villages. Because many Yemenis live in isolated rural areas, the population growth rate remains high and will continue so for many years to come.[/fusion_text][/two_third]
Areas of Habitation
As a result, there is sufficient rain to feed a large population. The fertile mountains around the southern town of Ibb are green all year round. Rain-fed agriculture abounds in the mountains, which are adorned with ancient terraces, some laboriously maintained, others neglected. The largest towns are found along the spine of the mountain range, with the capital, Sanaa, in the middle and the third largest town, Taizz, in the south. There are also many medium-sized towns between them and in their vicinities.
The mountains in the north are significantly more arid and consequently much more thinly populated. As few as 25,000 inhabitants live in Saada, the northernmost town of Yemen, which was, like Taizz, once the capital. Beyond the southern end of the mountain range lies hot and humid Aden. Over the centuries, its strategic position and natural port have stimulated its growth, making Aden the second largest city in Yemen.
Ethnic and Religious Groups
The qabila, or tribe, is of major importance in Yemen. Tribes adhere to Sunni (Shafii) Islam or Shiite (Zaidi) Islam. All Yemenis – with the exception of new immigrants and the Akhdam (Yemen studies mention several other terms for these non-tribal people, including duafa, masakin, and mustadafin, meaning weak, poor, and vulnerable people) – are tribal, in varying degrees; southern Yemenis are much less so than northerners. City inhabitants also call themselves tribal, for the qabail (the plural of qabila) are a source of both historical pride and present-day identity. People sometimes find it helpful to refer to their tribe in order to get elected, to be protected, to find a job, or even to get permission to build a house. The tribes therefore dominate Yemeni politics.
Legend has it that Yemen was founded by Qahtan, the father of the southern Arabs. Qahtan is said to be the father of Yemen and the forefather of Saba, eponym of the kingdom of Saba (Sheba). Saba had two sons, Himyar and Kahlan. After the fall of the kingdom of Saba, the tribes spread from the Marib plateau to settle in the western mountains. Yemeni tribes are not nomadic but are sedentary communities of people bound to their agricultural territory. Tribalism has diminished in the southern mountains, where conditions are less harsh than in the north. The south has often been ruled by outsiders, in modern times by the British Empire. Because farming opportunities in the north were far less favourable, northerners have, in the past, often migrated to the south or beyond the Peninsula. Although these migrants retained the memory of their ancestry, many of their tribal practices were lost in the migration.
Some North African Berbers believe they are directly descended from the Yemenis. Many Saharan tribes claim descent from the Banu Sulaym, who originated from Yemen and Saudi Arabia. The Lamtuna, a Berber nomadic tribe of the western Sahara, claims descent from the old South Arabian kingdom of Himyar. Islamic Seville (called Ishbiliya) was governed by Yemeni Arabs descended from the Banu Lakhm.
The Zaidi Stronghold and the Crown Colony of Aden
The Zaidi imams, who were theocrats rather than military leaders, never fully controlled the northern Yemeni tribes. During the eleven centuries of their rule –during which they moved the capital back and forth from Saada to Sanaa and on to Taizz – tribal revolts broke out frequently across the country. In the south and in distant Hadramawt, smaller dynasties, tribes, and sheikhs contested Zaidi rulership.
In the 19th century, the Ottomans returned briefly to power, but they too failed to rule the entire country. In the north, Zaidi tribes easily held out against the Ottomans, while the Crown Colony of Aden and its protectorates, in southern Yemen, had, since 1839, been in the hands of Great Britain. The British controlled Aden and its immediate surroundings in order to secure strategically located Perim island in the Bab al-Mandab – the entrance to the Red Sea –and with it the important sea route to Asia. Aden also possessed a natural port, where long-haul ships could refuel. British rule did not extend much beyond Aden, where they entered into an alliance with local sheikhs, called Ingram’s Peace.
The Ottoman Empire perished after its defeat in World War I. Yemen was then already governed by a Zaidi imam, Yahya, with the exception of the Crown Colony of Aden, which was controlled by the British. He and his successors ruled the country under the name of the internationally recognized Mutawakkilite Kingdom of Yemen. In 1934, Yemen lost the northern province of Asir to Saudi Arabia. Imam Yahya and his son and successor Imam Ahmad cut off Yemen from external influence for nearly fifty years. By abducting tribal sons as a short-term means of enforcing obedience, Imam Yahya alienated the tribes on whom his military rule was based. There were several revolts, but the imams always prevailed. In 1962, however, a republican revolt – aided by the Egyptian army and aggrieved tribes – drove out the fourth imam, al-Badr, to Saudi Arabia. Imam al-Badr died in 1996 in Great Britain, to which he had emigrated on Saudi Arabia’s official recognition of the Yemen Arab Republic (YAR; commonly referred to as North Yemen before unification) in 1972. His eldest son, Ageel bin Muhammad al-Badr, who bears the title ‘King (Malik) of Yemen’, lives in exile in London.
Since the 1970s, Saudi influence has been growing. Many Yemenis have worked in Saudi Arabia, some of them adopting puritanical Wahhabism, or Salafism, the predominant legal school of Sunnism there. Saudi Arabia has financed a large number of Wahhabi schools – called formally ‘scientific centres’ – in Yemen, where young people are educated according to Wahhabi beliefs. Wahhabi Salafism is not tolerant of Shiite Islam, denouncing it as a religion of kafirs (unbelievers).
A growing number of Yemenis now follow Wahhabi Islam. The movement is strong and appealing, as its followers are offered access to schooling, medical services, and business opportunities. Throughout Yemen, mosques are being converted to Wahhabism by the appointment of Wahhabi imams. If a tribal sheikh ‘converts’ to Wahhabism, the whole tribe is converted along with him. The Sunni proportion of the Yemeni population is consequently believed to have increased from half to more than three-quarters.
Ismaili Islam has tended to spread eastwards, to India and parts of Iran, but enclaves can be found also in countries such as Turkey, Syria, and Yemen. Only 1-2 percent of Yemenis consider themselves Ismaili (Yemeni Ismailis call themselves Tayyibis). They are also known as al-Bohra (from a Gujarati word meaning ‘traders’; it is the designation for converts to Ismaili Islam outside Yemen). Al-Bohra are renowned merchants, who have their own market in the vicinity of Bab al-Yaman, the open-air market in Sanaa’s Old City.
Judaism and Jews remained in Yemen. After the arrival of Islam, Jews, who were, like Christians, ‘People of the Book’ – ahl al-kitab; Jews, Christians, and Muslims share many of the revelations of the Old Testament – were granted the status of dhimmis and were protected by Muslim rulers, although they did not enjoy full civil rights: Jews were not allowed to ride horses, wear colourful clothes, or build houses that were taller than Muslim buildings. Instead, they built cellars in which they could store, among other things, their wine, which they were allowed to drink. Orphaned Jews were often converted to Islam. In the 19th century, Jews were given the degrading task of cleaning public baths, toilets, and sewers.
At the beginning of the 20th century, there were some 80,000 Jews in Yemen, spread over 1,050 communities, predominantly in Zaidi areas. As many professions were forbidden to them, Jews in Yemen made a living as artisans and craftsmen: jewellers, weavers, silversmiths, shoemakers. This made first-class Muslim citizens very dependent on second-class Jewish citizens.
By the end of the 19th century, Jewish migration (Hebrew, aliyah) to Palestine began. At first, only a few families left, but when the State of Israel was founded, the interest of Yemeni Jews grew. In 1950, with the consent of the Yemeni imam, the government of Israel mounted Operation Magic Carpet, airlifting (by British and American planes) between 35,000 and 50,000 Jews from Aden to Israel. Many Yemeni Jews saw this as the fulfilment of God’s promise to end their suffering and diaspora, but they have found their reception in modern, secular Israel disappointing. There was little demand for their knowledge and skills, so Yemeni Jews became members of Israel’s lower social classes, along with black Ethiopian Jews.
The Yemeni Jewish migration has continued throughout the years. The remaining Jewish population lived largely in the north, but, as a result of the Houthi war, these last Jews were expelled from the city of Saada and its surroundings. In 2008, after a violent incident in Rayda in which a rabbi was shot in cold blood and his killer escaped prison, the majority of the large Jewish community in Rayda also left for Sanaa. From there, some went on to the United States or Israel.
Another exception to the rule of limited immigration is the Akhdam (literally, ‘servants’), descendants of immigrants of African origin. The Akhdam are believed to be the offspring of Christian Ethiopian warriors who invaded southern Arabia in the 6th century but who were later defeated and forced to serve the Yemeni Arab population. Some studies indicate that the Akhdam may also include indigenous Yemenis from the Tihama and more recent immigrants from the African side of the Red Sea.
The Akhdam, who prefer to be called muhammashin (literally, ‘marginalized ones’) number between 250,000 and 500,000, although estimates by Akhdam activists are much higher, up to three million. In practice, the Akhdam lack many civil rights, including the right to own land, to obtain building permits, or to hold passports. The Akhdam are not entitled to social services, and foreign aid generally passes them by. The Akhdam do not intermarry with Yemeni Arabs, and the Akhdam still perform the most menial jobs in Yemen.
Akhdam can be seen everywhere in Yemen, dressed in orange overalls, sweeping the streets. There are hardly any dustbins on the streets of Yemen, so there is always plenty of rubbish to be collected. Every building block in Sanaa has its own Akhdam to collect the refuse and sweep the streets. According to the local managing director of Sanaa’s waste-collection service, the Akhdam in official jobs are nowadays paid reasonable wages.
Most Yemenis – al-shab (the people) – are tribal. Traditional tribal people may commute to towns and cities during business hours or for longer periods but remain attached and faithful to their territorial power base in tribal areas. Urban tribal people are slowly changing into a large middle class with tribal roots. Urban tribal people are dominant in the south, where some families have become oligarchies rather than tribal groups.
At the bottom of the social pyramid are two groups, the Akhdam and the Mazaina. The Akhdam – of African descent and appearance – form an underclass who spend their days sweeping the streets and working as cleaners throughout Yemen. The number of Akhdam is estimated at between 0.5 and 3 million. The Mazaina are a lesser known small group of tribal Yemenis, numbering perhaps 250,000 to a half-million. Mazaina perform service duties for fellow tribal-village men and earn their livings as hairdressers, butchers, and attendants in the hammams. Although the status of Mazaina is much higher than that of Akhdam, both groups can be categorized as lower castes. Escape from their social position, through intermarriage with other groups or otherwise, is nearly impossible.