There are an estimated 18 million people and 60 million firearms within the borders of Yemen; many of those are automatic weapons brought back by Yemeni muhajjadeen who fought against the Soviets during their occupation of Afghanistan. After September 11, Yemen found itself the center of some uncomfortable attention, thanks to one of its most notorious sons: Osama Bin Laden's mother is Yemenite. Like Afghanistan and Lebanon, Yemen has been wracked by decades of brutal and bloody civil war. Once home to some of the mightiest city-states of the ancient world, today Yemen struggles to rise from the ashes and awaken from a long historical nightmare.
From the beginning there has been tension between those who live in Yemen's coastal plains and the residents of the highlands. The Sabean town of Sana'a, located in the Yemen Mountains was considered one of the jewels of the ancient world; many believe the Queen of Sheba came from Sana'a. Later, after mariners discovered they could journey to India by travelling around the Arabian Peninsula, the port cities of Yemen grew wealthy at Sana'a's expense. By the 7th century the Persian Empire commanded the region; when the Persian governor converted to the new religion of Islam which was sweeping the peninsula, his subjects followed suit, and within the Prophet Muhammed's lifetime Yemen was an Islamic stronghold. Still the split between north and south Yemen continued. By the 10th century Zaidi Shi'ite Imans had established a theocracy which ruled over the towns and tribes of the northern highlands. In the south and in the coastal lowlands the Sha'afi school of Sunni Islam was more prominent. This division would continue until the 17th century, when the Zaidis drove out the Ottoman occupiers and established a united Yemen under their rule. During that period Yemen's ports would become famous, as would its coffee industry: its port of Al-Mukha gave the world the word "Mocha." The northern highlands benefitted little from this: they remained as isolated, inaccessible and devoutly religious as ever.
In the 19th century Yemen would meet yet another occupier; the British. By 1839 the British commanded the southern port city of Aden, while the Ottoman Empire reoccupied northern Yemen in 1849. For the next fifty years each would strive to expand their influence, until ultimately a dividing line was drawn between "North Yemen" and "South Yemen." By 1918 the Ottomans had been forced out of Yemen by Zaidi forces: the British would remain in South Yemen until 1967, when they were driven out by the Marxist National Liberation Front.
Alas, liberation did not lead to stability. The Imans of North Yemen had presided over an isolationist kingdom which had little contact with the modern world; the Marxists of South Yemen, on the other hand, actively sought ties with the Soviet Union. Soon North Yemen was caught up in its own civil war, with pro-modernism forces ruling the cities and devoutly religious pro-Iman forces ruling the countryside, while South Yemen faced coups and revolutions in 1969, 1978 and 1986… not to mention border wars with North Yemen forces in 1972 and 1979. With the collapse of the Soviet Union, and a corresponding collapse in subsidies for South Yemen's Marxist government, there was a greater incentive toward unification: on May 22, 1990 North and South Yemen merged to become the Republic of Yemen. By the summer of 1990 foreign aid and rising oil revenues made it look like Yemen might actually achieve some degree of stability.
Alas, Iraq's invasion of Kuwait changed everything. When Yemeni government officials criticized Saudi Arabia for allowing foreign troops on its soil, the Saudis retaliated by expelling some 850,000 Yemenite workers. The blow to Yemen's economy resulted in widespread unemployment and rioting in several major cities; by 1994 the country was once again embroiled in civil war.
Today Yemen is ruled by President Field Marshall Ali Abdallah Salah, president of North Yemen since 1978 and leader of unified Yemen since 1990. He has come under fire for his strongman tactics and disregard for human rights, but has still managed to remain in power. Despite the discovery of oil in North Yemen, Yemen remains one of the poorest countries in the Arab world, with an average income of $820 and an estimated unemployment rate of 30%. This had led to widespread internal discontent and has provided a fertile breeding ground for radicalism of every stripe. The 2001 bombing of the USS Cole and the recent American strike which killed several Yemenis suspected of Al-Qaeda involvement suggests that Yemen will play an increasingly important role, for better or for worse, as the "War on Terrorism" continues