Yemen’s population is the largest of the Arabian Peninsula, and has been a prime source of Arab diaspora since ancient times. Peoples from North Africa to Indonesia trace their ancestry back to Yemen. Tribal influences remain very strong in Yemen, resulting in a sometimes puzzling political system. The people of the Akhdam make up a neglected Yemeni underclass, and have no rights.
Numbers and Growth
Yemen’s population is very young and thus fast growing. The growth rate (3,2%) is dropping, but is still globally exceeded only by that of four African nations and the peoples of Gaza and the West Bank. In 2007, the average age was fourteen years. More than half the Yemeni population was born during the last fifteen years. Officially, Yemen counted just over twenty-two million inhabitants in 2007. However, this may be a conservative estimate. Projected population numbers hover around an alarming figure of thirty million in 2015 and a peak of fourty million in 2025.
The average Yemeni family has a lot of children. In fact, for decades, Yemeni woman proved to be the most fertile in the world, with an average of over seven births during their sexually productive lifetime. Only since 2005 has this number dropped to below seven. This was achieved after a long and broad national campaign on birth control, supported by tribal elders and influential religious leaders. Today, townspeople give birth to a much lower average of children, approaching modern values committed to the nuclear family. However, birth control is still a much disputed solution in remote mountain villages. Given that many Yemenis live in isolated, rural areas, the population growth rate remains high and will continue to do so for many years to come.
Yemen’s population density is fourty per square kilometre. This is twice the population density in Brazil, half of that in Turkey, roughly the same as in Iran and slightly higher than the US. However, we have to take into account that a large part of Yemen is virtually uninhabitable, made up of desert, arid or steeply mountainous terrain. As a result, Yemen seems a rather populous and busy country. Yemeni men spend most of their lives outdoors, in each others company, instead of within the privacy of their own homes, which further intensifies Yemen’s lively image. Women are also increasingly present in public spaces.
Arabs and Tribes
The Yemeni population is to a high degree homogeneous. Nearly all Yemenis are believed to be ethnically of southern Arab origin, descendants of Qahtan, son of S(h)em, son of Noah. Southern Arabs are considered to be ‘purer’ Arabs. Qahtan’s brother Adnan is regarded as the father of the northern Arabs. Northern Arabs are considered to be slightly less pure, of mixed blood with amongst others Egyptians, Nabateans, Arameses, and Byzantines. Many Arabs – as far away as the Berbers of North Africa – regard Yemen as their distant land of origin.
Legend has it that Yemen was founded by the father of the southern Arabs, Qahtan. Qahtan was the father of Yemen and the forefather of Saba, eponym of the kingdom of Saba, or 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 sedentary communities of people belonging to a tribe and bound to their agricultural territory. Tribalism has dwindled in the southern mountains, where conditions are less harsh in comparison to the northern mountains. As a consequence, in the past, the south was often ruled by outsiders, such as the Ottoman Turks. Opportunities for farming in the north are far less favourable. As a result, northerners have always migrated to the south. These migrants did not forget their ancestry. However, many of their tribal practices were lost in the process.
The qabila, or tribe, is of major importance in Yemen. All Yemenis are tribal, but not every Yemeni perceives himself as predominantly tribal. Southern Yemenis are a lot less tribal then northerners. City inhabitants – or civilians – also call themselves tribal, for the qaba’il – the plural of qabila – are both a source of distant pride and of present-day identity, fostering a sense of righteousness. If necessary, people refer to their tribe in order to get elected, to get protection, to find a job or to get permission to build a house. The tribes therefore dominate Yemeni politics.
In ancient times the Hadhramawt – a chain of oases at a great distance from mountainous Yemen – was a kingdom alongside ancient Saba. But unlike Saba, the Hadhrami culture never perished, as the oases of the Hadhramawt continued to support life. The people of the Hadhramawt have since been largely independent from the rest of Yemen, the Hadhramawt being a mostly self-supporting and self-governing island in the eastern desert of Yemen. Nevertheless, throughout the centuries, many Hadhramis have left the region, as the Hadhramawt offers little room for expansion. Trade has also always been an important factor in the economy of Hadhramawt.
The Hadhrami migration was at its height during the eigtheenth and nineteenth centuries, when many Hadhramis settled in India, Malaysia, Singapore, and especially Indonesia. The Handhrami diaspora has maintained strong ties with its homeland. Some Hadhramis still send their sons and daughters to the Hadhramawt for their education and in order to marry, and continually contribute to the impressive array of knowledge in Hadhrami libraries and knowledge centres.
The Hadhrami diaspora also continued to financially support their homeland, from as far away as the Indonesian archipelago. The Hadhramis have been instrumental in the early spread of Islam, just as the traders of the East and West Indies companies were instrumental in the spread of Christianity. During the past half century, Hadhramis have migrated to the Gulf and Saudi Arabia. Osama bin Laden’s father originates from Wadi Doan, close to the Hadhramawt.
There is virtually no immigration in Yemen. Exceptions are the small expat communities in Sana’a and Aden, and a growing group of Somali refugees who crossed the Red Sea in small boats owned by human traffickers during the last decade, fleeing the dire circumstances in South Somalia. The Somali refugees live in large refugee camps near Aden and Bir’ Ali, which are supported by the UNHCR, and on the outskirts of large cities such as Sana’a and Aden. In 2007, their number exceeded 100.000, the influx still continuing.
Box: “The cost of a boat from Djibouti to Yemen is only $30 per person and the route is safer from Djibouti to the Yemeni coasts. The problem is that to be trafficked from Somalia to Djibouti, a person needs at least $200. The average income of any worker in Somalia is at least $100 per month, which is enough for living, but it is insecure there. That’s why I left Somalia for Yemen. I want to live in peace,” said Ramadhan Abbas Ibrahim (34), refugee from Moqadisu. (Mohammed al-Kibsi in Yemen Observer, 2008)
Another exception is the Akhdam, a group of immigrants of African origin. The Akhdam – the word literally means servants – are believed to be the offspring of Christian Ethiopian warriors who invaded Southern Arabia in the sixth century, but were later defeated and forced to serve the Yemeni Arab population. Other 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 themselves prefer to be called Muhamasheen, or ‘marginalized ones’ – number somewhere between 250.000 and 500.000, though estimates by Akhdam activists are much higher, up to three million. In practice, the Akhdam lack many civil rights, including the right to possession of land or to obtaining building permits or holding passports. The Akhdam are not entitled to social services, and foreign aid generally passes them by. Intermarriage with Yemeni Arabs does not take place and the Akhdam are still doing the most menial of jobs in Yemen.
Akhdam can be seen everywhere in Yemen, dressed in orange overalls, sweeping the streets. As there are hardly any dustbins on the Yemeni streets and Yemenis like to dispose of their refuse there and then, there is always plenty of rubbish to be collected. Every building block in Sana’a has its own Akhdam to collect rubbish and sweep the streets. According to the local director of Sana’a waste collection, the Akhdam are nowadays paid reasonable wages.
Remigration and Diaspora
Close to a million Yemeni migrant workers – the story has it that every family had at least one male member working in Saudi Arabia during the 1970s and 1980s – were expelled from Saudi Arabia after Yemen declared its neutrality during the First Gulf War in 1991. Many have since returned to Saudi Arabia. The 2004 census showed that 1.2 million Yemenis live in Saudi Arabia, notably in Riyad. Another 500.000 reside elsewhere in the world, with large communities in Manchester, UK, and in Dearborn, Detroit, US.
Saudi Arabia has attempted to build a separation wall along part of its border with Yemen, to stop the smuggle of commodities, arms and people. This nearly led to an armed conflict with Yemen in 2004, and to discord with the tribe that occupies the land on both sides of the wall. It is unclear how much of the ‘wall’ has been completed.
Box: ‘Hundreds’ of (often neglected) children cross the border with Saudi Arabia daily, in search of a better life. After a long journey with an anonymous truck driver, the children reach Haradth, where smugglers take them across the border. “Just before the border,” Ahmed recalled, “the smugglers told us to get out of the truck and walk behind the check point so the police wouldn’t be able to see us,” after which they met up with the children again at the main road and took them to Jeddah. (Alia Ishaq in Yemen Times, 2008)
Banner: The government seeks to offer all facilitations for the expatriates to increase their investment and remittances, to promote tourism and to encourage the brains to comeback to Yemen.
Banner: “Then came president Saleh, whose rule has not been labeled by historians up to now. Writers and researchers are still at a loss at what name to give to his term of rule, but most of them are inclined to call it a period of tribal governance.” (Mazin Al Saqqaf in the Yemen Times, 2008)
Banner: “Concerning democracy and tribe, Al-Ahmar said that the tribe is superior to everything except religion.” (Sheikh Abdullah Ben Hussein Al-Ahmar on the issue of border dispute between Yemen and Saudi Arabia, Yemen Times 2000)