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Yemen: The Southern Gates of Arabia

A culturally rich country with influences from many early civilizations, such as the Kingdom of Sheba

Sana’a, Yemen’s bustling capital, sits on a small plain in the centre of these mountains. After a tenfold increase in population in the past 40 years, the city laps at the slopes of the stony mountains that surround it

I consider myself very fortunate to have lived and travelled in the Middle East at a time when the way of life there was much the same as it had always been, little changed since its place names first began to appear on scantily-filled maps.


Its harsh environment was supportive of only a small population, ranking as one of the lowest densities in the world and surviving at little more than a minimum subsistence level. From the air, much of the region resembled a moonscape, forsaken and seemingly devoid of life. But civilized life there was.


Once famous for its lucrative coffee trade and the strategically crucial port of Aden, Yemen – the dark horse of the Middle East – is making headlines today for its links with radical Islam.

For centuries a thorn in the side of any foreign power seeking to exploit its valuable location, the most beautiful but also the poorest state in the Arab world is dominated by its tribal make-up, increasingly fractious and an ideal haven for Jihadists.

Nevertheless, Yemen is a culturally rich country with influences from many early civilizations, such as the biblical Kingdom of Sheba, the ancient Semitic civilization of Saba in Southern Arabia. It was recently my good fortune to pay a return visit to Yemen as a guest of the Netherlands Embassy.

This is a country where passengers arriving at Sana’a International Airport are met by friends and relatives inside the customs area and where the government habitually switches off the mobile phone system to prevent its use by restive tribes for battlefield communications. Little wonder that there is a free market in justice.

Tucked away at the bottom of the Arabian Peninsula, south of Saudi Arabia and west of Oman, Yemen, officially known as the Republic of Yemen, has largely escaped the outside attention directed at other Middle Eastern states that are richer in oil or periodically involved in regional wars. “Yemen is 16th century Europe,” said the Dutch Ambassador, Jeroen Verheul, proffering an ice-cold can of Grolsch, a welcome relief in this strictly Muslim country where alcohol-free beer is king.

We were sitting on the roof of his residence in Sana’a as a huge pale moon rose from behind the mountains that circle the city. “You have dukes and counts and wars, blood feuds and ghosts.” The ghost reference arose in connection with a widely circulated story that a modern apartment building on the road from the airport could not be rented because it had been taken over by Jinn – spirits that Yemenis consider a third group of rational beings, along with men and angels.

Though Yemenis are overwhelmingly Muslim and Arab, the dark faces and low, thatched houses of the searingly hot western coastal plain, the Tihamah, show closer connections with Africa, a few miles away across the Red Sea. Just behind the Tihamah rise the highlands, the heart of tribal Yemen. They extend all the way from the Saudi border in the north down to the Gulf of Aden washing Yemen’s south coast.

This is a starkly beautiful region of rugged peaks and narrow green valleys. Graceful castles and villages built of stone crown peaks and promontories fringed with terraces, testimony to the farmers’ unending efforts to contain and channel the precious seasonal downpours. Sana’a, Yemen’s bustling capital, sits on a small plain in the centre of these mountains. After a tenfold increase in population in the past 40 years, the city laps at the slopes of the stony mountains that surround it.

The ancient ‘Old City’ of Sana’a, at an altitude of more than 2,100 metres (7,000 ft), has been inhabited for over two and a half millennia and was inscribed by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site in 1986. Sana’a became a major Islamic centre in the 7th century, and the 103 mosques, 14 hammams (traditional bath houses), and more than 6,000 houses that survive all date from before the 11th century.

Southward, the road from Sana’a leads through mountain passes toward the ocean and the great natural harbour of Aden. To the east the road emerges from the highlands onto a high desert steppe that thereafter stretches across Yemen and into Oman. On the northern side this desert slopes gently down across the undefined (and much disputed) border and merges with the trackless desert of Saudi Arabia. Far to the southeast a very deep canyon carpeted with green oases, the Wadi Hadhramaut, cuts across the desert floor in a grand sweep carved by ancient rivers. Like the villages of the highlands, the towns on the floor of the wadi appear part of a different, isolated world.

But appearances are misleading. Yemenis have been wandering far afield ever since the Queen of Sheba set off to visit King Solomon in the tenth century BC; Yemeni armies were in the forefront of the initial Arab conquests – one of them briefly occupied Bordeaux in France. Yemen’s current national hero is the former world featherweight boxing champion “Prince” Naseem Hamed, born and raised in Sheffield from a family that emigrated from the highland village of Malah a generation ago.

In the towns of the Hadhramaut I saw faces that would seem more at home on the streets of Jakarta or Kuala Lumpur or Manila. These people are descendants of the Hadhrami diaspora,

traders who climbed the vertical walls of the canyon and made their way over the high, rocky desert to the sea. From there they ranged the Indian Ocean and beyond before returning with foreign wives to settle down amid the palm trees of the wadi.

Divided by the forces of nature into three distinct geographical regions – coastal plains, highlands, and desert – Yemen has for much of its long history been no less divided politically by the shifting fortunes of its fiercely independent inhabitants. Kingdoms and empires have risen and fallen here for more than 3,000 years. The Republic of Yemen itself, however, is a younger country, founded on 22 May 1990.

Under the rule of President Ali Abdullah Saleh, the unification of Yemen was achieved when the Yemen Arab Republic that occupied the mountains and the western coast merged with the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen (the Arab world’s first and only communist state), which had controlled, from Aden, the south and east of the country since the expulsion of the British colonial rulers in 1967. The unified republic, dominated by tribes from the north, adopted a democratic constitution with an elected parliament and a (comparatively) free press – not an entirely welcome innovation in the eyes of its ever-watchful neighbours.

Two and a half months after unification Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait. The Saudi government, angered at Yemen’s failure to join the anti-Iraq coalition and dismayed, perhaps, at the sudden unity of its southern neighbours, exacted a summary of revenge by expelling as many as a million Yemeni residents. The sudden return of these émigrés, some of whom had been gone for decades, brought Yemen to the brink of total economic and social disaster. But the young state survived, partly because so many of the impoverished returnees found a ready-made support system in their tribes.

In the Sana’a Military Museum, next to an enormous bullet-riddled 1950’s Cadillac (a memento of an assassination attempt on a former president), lies a section of a Scud missile, one of several launched at Sana’a during the 1994 Yemeni civil war ignited by former leaders of the south, actively aided by Saudi Arabia in an effort to regain their independence.

One of the consequences of the short but bitter war was a flood of ordnance to augment the already well-stocked armouries of domestic consumers. The extensive area devoted to weapons in the labyrinth of streets around the Suq al-Talh, a huge weekly market outside Sada’a, features an astonishing array of firepower ranging from the popular Kalashnikov (gleaming nickel-plated versions are advertised as “Michael Jackson’s”) to the 19th century, single-shot German Mauser.

The cacophony of merchants touting their lethal wares and arguing over prices is punctuated by the rattle of automatic fire as shoppers squeeze off a few test rounds before closing their deals. One merchant, Abdullah Al Awsa, has decorated the front of his stall with a high-level endorsement: “The Prophet, God’s Blessings on him, said “Teach your children to swim, to shoot, and to ride”. No doubt the Prophet had bows and arrows in mind! It is hard to conceive what he would have thought about the shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missile and launcher I was offered for only $750 three stalls down or even the hand grenades retailing for the equivalent of $3.50 apiece.

The net effect makes Yemenis appear to be a very violent people. But even at such bargain prices there were few takers for the grenades. “There’s no demand”, said Faisel, another gun dealer, busily sticking “Made in the USA” labels on his stock of Brazilian pistols to impress credulous customers from across the Saudi border. “The tribesmen don’t want them”. A customer shopping for ammunition at Faisel’s stall supplied an explanation: “Grenades are just for killing people”, he declared dismissively. Hence the lack of customer interest.

Guns on the other hand, usually Kalashnikovs, are as much part of the dress code for the highland male as his chequered headcloth, ‘jambiya’ dagger, and ankle-length shirt or wraparound ‘futah’ skirt. Guns are often used in anger but with less lethal effect than might be imagined. While I was in Sana’a, a property dispute close to the outskirts of the city on Haddah Road led to a four-hour firefight. Hundreds of automatic rounds were fired at close range – without anyone suffering so much as a scratch. Honour satisfied, the parties submitted their dispute to arbitration.

The traditional laissez-faire attitude toward tribal contentiousness and customs such as the kidnapping of foreigners as a means of pressuring the government suffered a rude shock in December 1998. During a shoot-out between their captors and the military, four foreign tourists were killed. Yemenis, appalled by the carnage, were quick to explain that the kidnappers were a fanatical Islamic group directed from abroad, not at all representative of traditionally “hospitable” native kidnappers, who almost always release their captives unharmed. “If you get kidnapped”, said a friend as I set off on a trip through a fractious tribal area in the vast Rub’ al Khali, or Empty Quarter, “the worst that will happen will be that they’ll feed you boiled mutton for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, and you’ll come home with a stomach ache. But,” he hastened to reassure me, “they will give you plenty of ‘Qat’ – a leafy narcotic popular in certain areas of the Middle East and Africa.

It is hard for outsiders to understand how an entire culture can be so fixated on chewing the leaves of a plant, even though it does induce a pleasantly uplifted mood.

Up to 80 percent of the adult population uses Qat,

and much of the daily rhythm of life in Yemen revolves around the “chew” and its attendant rituals.

I eventually developed the ability to appreciate high-quality Qat, such as the very expensive varieties sold at the Kuwait market on Agriculture Street in Sana’a. This emporium, where a bundle sufficient for an afternoon’s enjoyment can cost as much as $40 or $50, is exclusively patronized by the rich and therefore known to the congenitally irreverent general populace as the ‘Suq al-Waratha wa al-saraq’ – loosely translated as the “market of trust-fund babies and thieves”. An army chauffeur standing outside the market by the line of military staff cars, BMW’s, and “Monicas” (as Yemenis, inspired by its curvaceous lines, have dubbed the Toyota Land Cruiser) cheerfully agreed that “they are all thieves here”.

Life in this region appears to move at a slower pace. Sana’anis consider it stultifying, but there is an atmosphere here of timeless serenity – nowhere more striking than in the old walled city of Shibam, now a UNESCO World Heritage Site where the slim, towering, mud-brick high-rises stand in compact isolation in the middle of the wadi.

Late in the afternoon, flocks of tourists laden with cameras perch on a steep promontory opposite the town to capture on film the magical moment when the setting sun turns the town to gold. Their shots are marred, however, because the house in their immediate foreground has collapsed in an untidy heap of mud, like a sand castle overcome by the tide. “The family that owned it went off to Saudi Arabia sixteen years ago and left a tap dripping”, said a local resident. “The whole house melted”.

Reflecting on this, the ultimate in dripping-tap horror stories, I climbed seven storeys up one day to a roof on the edge of Shibam to watch the sun sink over the walls of the canyon. The noise of Shibamis talking and laughing in the cool of the evening down below receded to a distant murmur, as did the shouts from energetic soccer players who had marked out an impromptu field in the soft sand that borders the town. “They are all unemployed, back from the Persian Gulf because there is no work there this year”, remarked Abdullah, my guide, who was sharing my vigil and whose own last employment, two years before, had been on an archaeological dig at the site of an ancient temple a few miles away. “It’s the times we live in”.

As we gazed over the town, I had to be careful not to peer down into the windows of nearby houses for fear that I might intrude on the sequestered privacy of local women who, like Abdullah’s mother and aunts, have spent so much of their lives solely in the company of their own sex that they have developed a female dialect barely comprehensible to outsiders. They have never shown their faces to men beyond the immediate family, never been allowed to have a job, never driven a car.

At first glance it might appear that almost all women in the country lead similarly cloistered lives. The overwhelming majority are covered in black from head to toe, with only a narrow open slit for their huge, dark eyes. In Aden, thanks to Marxists precepts on women’s emancipation encouraged by the now vanished southern regime, women once burned their veils. But following unification, faces, hair, and other visible female flesh (apart from that of a few principled die-hards) have gradually disappeared again.

Yet, this being Yemen, things are not quite what they seem. Women in the big cities drive as a matter of course. They hold senior jobs in government. Influenced by television and education, their private language is dying out.

Abdullah himself had worked happily at the ancient temple site under the orders of a woman named Selma Al Radi, an indefatigable Iraqi-born archaeologist who has spent much of the past 20 years in Yemen. Observing her in forceful command of her team of artisans in the restoration of a historic mosque in the mountain town of Rida, her principal labour for 18 years, or listening as she conferred with her friends among the tribesmen demonstrated to my satisfaction that male Yemenis will accept a woman on her own terms.

Those who tried to assert traditional prerogatives soon came up against the rough edge of her tongue. As we strolled the dusty backstreets of Tarim, a very conservative Hadhrami town, a dignitary standing at the door of a religious school made the mistake of assuming, from her lack of a veil, that Al Radi was a Westerner and imperiously waved her away. “How dare you treat people like cattle”, she remonstrated in Arabic. “You have no right. Now get back in your school and stay there” He stood in shock, his mouth open, gazing after us with baffled, mute hostility.

The modern world has in any case transformed the lives of even the most unambitious Yemeni homemakers. In the museum in the Hadhrami town of Saywun I found veiled women thronging an exhibition of traditional cooking implements, common in Yemeni houses only 30 years ago but now mementos of a seemingly remote past. A local youth, recently graduated from Cambridge, was electronically cataloguing the items for display on the museum’s future website.

In some places the pace of change is even more swift. For miles around the outskirts of Al Mukalla, the main sea port and the capital city of the Hadhramaut coastal region, rows of newly built but unoccupied houses attest to a speculative property boom fuelled by returnee investment and the high hopes sparked by significant oil and gas reserves discovered some years ago by the Canadian Occidental Petroleum Corporation. As older fields exploited by the Hunt Oil Company near Marib in the centre of Yemen run out, Canadian Oxy has emerged at the forefront of Yemeni oil production, now pumping 310,000 barrels a day, an amount that is set to increase.

However, in common with any “failed state”, fools rush in where angels fear to tread. As a result of the 2011 Yemeni revolution, the constitution of Yemen is expected to be rewritten, with new elections scheduled to be held in 2014. The national government administers the capital and largest cities, but some other regions are outside of its grasp, governed by armed militant groups which expanded their control during the chaos of the 2011-2012 uprising. The two major groups are Ansar al-Sharia (a branch or affiliate of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula), which has declared several “Islamic emirates” in the southern provinces of Abyan and Shabwah, and the Houthis, a hostile Shia insurgent group centered in the Saada Governorate.

The Yemeni army launched a fresh offensive against the Shia insurgents in 2012, assisted by Saudi forces, but tens of thousands of people were displaced by the fighting. Nevertheless, following the election of new President Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi, the military was able to push Ansar al-Sharia back and recapture the Shabwah Governorate. As a consequence, the country has returned to some level of normality and it is once again relatively safe to travel there.

I therefore urge you to find time to visit this most beautiful and enchanting, but also opaque and unstable, corner of the Arabian Peninsula before the corruptive influences of the west change Yemen forever.


- Peter Holthusen


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