Yemen is located on the southwest corner of the Arabian Peninsula south of Saudi Arabia and west of Oman, with 1,200 miles of strategically valuable coastline along the Red Sea and the Arabian Sea. In ancient times, it was home to the Sabaeans, who founded the kingdom of Saba’ in 1200 BCE, the biblical land of Sheba.
The name Yemen is thought to come from “yamn” or “yumn,” meaning felicity or blessed. The Romans called it “Arabia felix” — fertile Arabia.
Yemen was divided and controlled by imperial and regional powers from the turn of the 20th century until two separate countries coalesced in the 1960s. North and South Yemen were united in 1990 under the first president of the new Republic of Yemen, a former army officer named Ali Abdullah Saleh.
Protests against President Saleh’s 21-year rule began in 2011 with the advent of the Arab Spring. Saleh stepped down and Vice President Abd Rabbuh Mansour Hadi was elected president in February 2012 in a one-candidate election.
The chaotic transition created an opportunity for insurgent groups such as the Houthi rebels of Ansar Allah, the al-Islah militia and Al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula.
The Houthi rebels, officially called Ansar Allah (“Supporters of God”) but known simply as Houthi, are a largely Shia Islamist political movement backed by Iran that began in northern Yemen in the 1990s. Its founder is from the Houthi tribe. Al-Islah (“Congregation for Reform”) is a loose coalition of Sunni tribal and religious groups supported by Saudi Arabia.
In September 2014, the Houthis took over the capital of Sana’a with the help of former president Saleh and set up a new government. Saleh broke away from the Houthis and was assassinated by them in December 2017, setting off a Saudi-led military intervention to return President Hadi to power. The United Arab Emirates joined Saudi Arabia’s fight against the Houthis in the north but also supported a separatist movement fighting Hadi in the south with the goal of restoring an independent South Yemen.
Six years on, the United Nations reported that Yemen, already one of the poorest nations on the planet, is suffering the worst humanitarian crisis in the world, with 80 percent of the population — 24.1 million people — in need. The fighting has killed 100,000 people since 2015, according to the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data project, including 12,000 civilian deaths in directly targeted attacks, largely destroying the country’s infrastructure and creating a famine. A lack of safe drinking water caused the largest cholera outbreak in modern history, with the number of suspected cases approaching 1 million. Over 2,000 people have died of the disease since April 2017.
In August 2019, UAE-backed southern separatists took control of Aden, the home of the UN-recognized Hadi government.
In November, Saudi Arabia brokered a power-sharing agreement between President Hadi and the separatists to halt fighting in south Yemen and concentrate on the Iranian-backed Houthi forces that control Sana’a and the north where the Houthi have consolidated their power and launched missile attacks against targets inside Saudi Arabia.