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Yemen Arab Republic


The official name of North Yemen from 1962 until its 1990 merger with South Yemen.

The emergence of North Yemen as a single political unit in modern times was largely a function of both the reoccupation of the country by the Ottomans in 1849 and the Yemeni resistance to this presence that coalesced around the imamate near the turn of the century. Defeat in World War I forced the Ottomans to withdraw in 1918, and a resurgent imamate state seized the opportunity. From 1918 until 1962, Yahya ibn Muhammad Hamid al-Din and his son Ahmad ibn Yahya Hamid al-Din acted to forge a monarchy much as the kings of England and France had done centuries earlier. The two imams strengthened the state, thereby securing Yemen's borders and pacifying the interior to degrees rarely known over the past millennium.

The imams used the strengthened imamate to revive North Yemen's traditional Islamic culture and society, this at a time when traditional societies around the world were crumbling under the weight of modernity backed by imperial power. They were aided in their efforts to insulate Yemen by the degree to which its agricultural economy was self-contained and self-sufficient. The result was a "backward" Yemen, though a small but increasing number of Yemenis exposed to the modern world wanted change and blamed the imamate for its absence. This produced a fateful chain of events: the birth of the Free Yemeni movement in the mid-1940s; the aborted 1948 revolution that left Imam Yahya dead; the failed 1955 coup against Imam Ahmad; and, finally, the 1962 revolution that yielded the Yemen Arab Republic (YAR).

Major Eras

In retrospect, the history of the YAR can best be divided into three periods. (1) The Sallal era (19621967), the wrenching first five years under President Abdullah al-Sallal, was marked by the revolution that began it, the long civil war and Egyptian
intervention that quickly followed, andabove allthe rapid and irreversible opening of the country to the modern world. (2) A ten-year transition period (19671977) was marked by the end of the civil war, the republican-royalist reconciliation under President Abd al-Rahman al-Iryani, and the attempt by President Ibrahim al-Hamdi to strengthen the state and restructure politics. (3) The Salih era (19781990) is identified with both the long tenure of President Ali Abdullah Salih and the change from political weakness and economic uncertainty at the outset to relative political stability, the discovery of oil, and the prospect of oil-based development and prosperity in more recent years.

Of the many important changes that took place in the YAR since its birth in 1962, most of the positive ones have been compressed into the years since its fifteenth anniversary in 1977. Nevertheless, the previous decade was important, a transition in which much-needed time was bought by a few modest but pivotal acts and, most important, by economic good fortune. Global and regional economic events over which the YAR had no control facilitated a huge flow of funds into the country in the form of both foreign aid and remittances from Yemenis working abroad. This period of transition was necessary because the changes that had buffeted Yemen in the five years following the 1962 revolution had left it both unable to retreat into the past and ill-equipped to go forward. The ability to advance rapidly in the 1980s seems very much the result of the possibility afforded for a breather in the 1970s.

Establishing Sovereignty

Given the isolation and the decentralized nature of North Yemeni society, much of the YAR's first quarter-century was taken up with the effort to establish sovereignty over the land and people. The Yemenis who made the revolution in 1962 were preoccupied from the outset with the need to create a state with the capacity to maintain public security and provide services. The long civil war that came on the heels of the revolution both increased this need and interfered with meeting it. Yemeni state-building was more hindered than helped by the fact that the new state was largely built and staffed by Egyptians and by the fact that Egyptian forces did most of the fighting on behalf of the Yemenis.

The balance of power between the tribal periphery and the state at the center tipped back toward the tribes during the civil war. As a result, the reach of the YAR extended little beyond the triangle in the southern half of the country that was traced by the roads linking the cites of Sanʿa, Taʿiz, and Hodeida (al-Hudayda).

State-Building Efforts

The YAR created in 1962 lacked modern political organization. A major theme of its first twenty-five years consisted of attempts to fashion the ideas and organization needed to channel support and demands from society to the regime and, conversely, to channel information, appeals, and directives from the regime to society. The civil war strained and even deformed the new republic, deferring any major effort at political construction under President al-Sallal. Egypt's heavy-handed tutelage left little room for Yemeni national politics and politicians to develop.

As with other late-developing countries, the tasks of state-building in the new YAR went beyond the maintenance of order and security to include the creation of a capacity to influence, if not control, the rate and direction of socioeconomic change. The wrenching effects of the sudden end of isolation and of virtual self-sufficiency made it obvious that state-building in all of its aspects was desperately needed. No less than the viability and survival of Yemen in its new external environment depended upon it, just as the civil war and the political weakness of the YAR made it unlikely.

The Egyptian exodus in 1967 led to the quick overthrow of President al-Sallal and the republican-royalist reconciliation that finally ended the civil war in 1970. Some state-building of importance was achieved thereafter by the regime headed by President al-Iryani. A modern constitution was adopted in 1970, and some of the ministries and other agencies erected after the revolution were strengthened. Economic needs as well as political constraints caused Yemeni leaders during the al-Iryani era to focus on financial and economic institutions; only halting first steps were taken toward reform of the civil service and the armed forces, matters of great political sensitivity. President al-Hamdi, who forced President al-Iryani into exile in 1974, believed in the modern state and worked to realize it. He promoted efforts to build institutions at the center, initiated the first major reform and upgrading of the armed forces, and fostered the idea of exchanging the benefits of state-sponsored development for allegiance to the state.

The results of efforts by the Iryani and Hamdi regimes at political construction were modest. The price of the reconciliation was the first-time granting of office and influence in the state to leading tribal shaykhs and the expulsion of the modernist Left from the body politicprices that weakened the position of all advocates of a strong state. The result was the narrowly based center-right republican regime, which, with changes, persisted from the late 1960s until at least the early 1980s. The chief institutional focus of politics during the Iryani era was the Consultative Council, which first convened after elections in early 1971. However, political parties were banned and, in the absence of explicit organizational and ideological ties, the council functioned as an assembly of local notables, especially the shaykhs.

President al-Hamdi was unable to strengthen his position by translating his great popularity into political organization. Indeed, his major political achievement actually narrowed the political base of his regime and shortened the reach of the state. Aware that the shaykhs were using their new positions to protect the tribal system, al-Hamdi moved swiftly to drive them from the Consultative Council and from other state offices. To this end, he dissolved the council and suspended the 1970 constitution. The tribes responded with virtual rebellion. Al-Hamdi's efforts to make up for this loss of support by reincorporating the modernist Left were hesitant. In addition to maintaining ties to old leftist friends, he launched both the Local Development Association (LDA) movement and the Correction movement. Despite their initial promise, al-Hamdi seems to have had second thoughts and to have pulled back from efforts to use these two initiatives as bases for a broad, popular political movement. His subsequent plans for a general people's congress ended with his assassination in 1977. Frustrated by his failure to grant them reentry into the polity, several leftist groups in 1976 created the National Democratic Front (NDF), which a few years later became the basis of the rebellion that challenged the Salih regime.

Socioeconomic Development of the 1970s

The civil war finally behind it, the YAR in the 1970s did undergo significant socioeconomic development based upon the rapid creation of a modest capacity to absorb generous amounts of economic and technical assistance from abroad and, most important, from the massive inflow of workers' remittances that fostered unprecedented consumption and prosperity. Whereas the remittances largely flowed through the private sector, the modest strengthening of state institutions and the increase in their capacities were the critical factors in Yemen's ability to absorb significantly increased foreign aid. By the late 1970s, work on a broad array of state-sponsored, foreign-assisted infrastructure, agricultural, and human resource development projects existed side by side with high levels of remittance-fueled consumption and economic activity in the private sector.

The Salih Regime

President Salih's long term in office, beginning in 1978, was witness to major gains in state-building. After a shaky start, the Salih regime slowly increased the capacity of the state in the provinces as well as in the cities, for the first time making the republican state more than just a nominal presence in the countryside. The armed forces were upgraded again in 1979 and, more recently, in 1986 and 1988. Modest efforts were made to improve the functioning of the civil service, ministries, and other agencies.

The Salih regime increased its dominance over lands controlled by the tribes, especially the large area that fans out north and east from San'a, the capital. However, the best evidence of the growing ability of the YAR to exercise power within its own borders was the political-military defeat of the NDF. With its origins in the expulsion of the Left from the republic in 1968, the NDF rebellion had finally burst into flame over a wide area by early 1980. This uprising was extinguished in 1982, and the state was able at last to establish a real presence in lands bordering South Yemen.

In 1979, the Salih regime had little political support outside the armed forces. After the failure of ad hoc efforts to change this, the regime put in place an impressive program of political construction during the first half of the 1980s. This phased, sequential program began in early 1980 with the drafting of the National Pact. The pact then became the subject of a long national dialogue and local plebiscites orchestrated by the National Dialogue Committee. Elections to the General People's Congress (GPC), and its several-day session, were held in mid-1982 to review and then to adopt the National Pact. This done, the GPC declared itself a permanent political organization, which would be selected every four years, meet biennially and be led by a seventy-five-member Standing Committee headed by President Salih.

The key to the success of the Salih regime's political effort lay in the flexible, step-by-step process by which it moved the Yemeni polity from where it was in 1979 to the holding of the GPC in 1982. By design and a bit of luck, moreover, this sustained initiative also provided a political process largely managed by the regime into which elements of the Yemeni left could be safely incorporated when, in 1982, the NDF rebellion was quelled. Two dialogues, the one between the regime and the NDF as well as the more public one between the regime and the rest of the nation, converged in a structure that facilitated a second national reconciliation.

Although President Salih insisted that the GPC was not a political party, its activities were clearly aimed at consensus-building, guidance, and controltypical functions of a party. In fact, the GPC did become an umbrella party, a loose organization of organizations in a society that was not well organized politically for many of the tasks of the modern world. The Salih regime was also buttressed by constitutional change during the 1980s. The 1970 constitution, suspended by al-Hamdi in 1974, had been reinstated confusingly in 1978 without its centerpiece, the Consultative Council, and with an amendment that formally created the presidency. Clarity and closure on a number of issues were not achieved until July 1988 when a new Consultative Council was finally chosen in accordance with the constitution. The council elections, the first since 1971, were hotly contested and relatively fair and open; despite the ban on parties, much partisan-ship was in evidence. In mid-July, the new council elected President Salih to a new term and then gave approval to the composition and program of the new government. As a result, for the first time since the Iryani regime was ousted in 1974, the head of state and the government were selected in accordance with the 1970 constitution, that is, by a properly chosen Consultative Council.

Oil and the Economy

The modest prosperity that the YAR enjoyed after the mid-1970s was paralleled by the modern sector's increasing vulnerability to negative economic and political forces, domestic and external. Political uncertainty early in the Salih era threatened the limited capacity of the state to foster and manage development, and this was followed by the fall in oil prices and worldwide recession that led to sharp drops in aid and remittances to Yemen. Faced with economic crises, the regime in the early 1980s adopted austerity measures, and these had some success in forcing the country to live within more modest means in a less generous world.

The YAR's long-term development prospects improved abruptly when oil was discovered in commercial quantities in 1984. This event also placed severe demands on the still very limited capacities of the state. With the oil find, the twin tasks facing the Salih regime were to maintain the new discipline and austerity of the past few years and to gear up to absorb efficiently the oil revenues that were expected to start flowing in late 1987. Despite the politically difficult combination of rising expectations and continued hard times, the regime during this period of transition was able to limit imports and government expenditures. Changes in organization and the appointment of top technocrats to key posts contributed to the modest success of the transition. Although oil for export did begin to flow in late 1987, the regime was forced in 1989 to reim-pose austerity measures that it had relaxed prematurely the previous year. Nevertheless, at the same time that it wrestled with these politically hard choices, the government proceeded as fast as financing would allow with development of the oil and gas sector as well as with key infrastructure and agricultural projects.

Development in the 1980s

In the 1980s, the increasing capacity of the Yemeni state for development also helped it to perform its more traditional functions and was partly understood and justified in these terms. This was especially the case when the regime stepped up efforts to extend its reach into NDF-influenced and tribal areas. Certain development efforts made the periphery more accessible and made possible the delivery of basic services to places where the state was regarded with suspicion or scorn. Hence the emphasis on pushing roads into such areas as soon as they were pacified. President Salih came to justify development efforts in terms of nation-state build-ingin terms of national integrationas well as economic gains. The development activities of the second half of the 1980s, as well as the content of the third Five-Year Development Plan adopted in 1988, reflected the continuing influence of these ideas.

This third period of YAR history, spanning the 1980s, ended with the creation of the Republic of Yemen, headed by President Salih. It was the political and economic turnaround of the YAR after the 1970s, as well as the sudden weakening of South Yemen in the late 1980s, that made possible the YAR-initiated merger.

see also ahmad ibn yahya hamid al-din; free yemenis; yahya ibn muhammad hamid al-din.


Burrowes, Robert D. Historical Dictionary of Yemen. Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press, 1995.

Burrowes, Robert D. The Yemen Arab Republic: The Politics of Development, 19621986. Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1987.

Dresch, Paul. Tribes, Government, and History in Yemen. Oxford: Clarendon, 1989.

Stookey, Robert W. Yemen: The Politics of the Yemen Arab Republic. Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1978.

Wenner, Manfred W. The Yemen Arab Republic: Development and Change in an Ancient Land. Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1991.

robert d. burrowes

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