Mountainous and dry, with a tendency to anarchy in the ample spaces between its cities, Yemen has long been hospitable to insurgency. Yet in ancient times it was home to the Sabaeans and had claims to be the biblical land of the Queen of Sheba. Its fertility and beauty were such that the Romans called it Arabia Felix, ‘happy Arabia’. The people there are mostly Arabs and like much of the rest of Arabia, became subject to the distant domain of the Ottoman sultan. The fate of the peninsula was influenced significantly by Britain, which in 1937 took the port city of Aden as the centre of its colony (on independence in 1967, it became South Yemen). Britain exercised significant influence over who ruled Muscat and Oman; assisted succession to the monarchy and imamate of North Yemen; and together with the US confirmed the al Saud family as hereditary rulers of what became Saudi Arabia. Now combined, the former North and South Yemen are together Sunni by bare majority, but the Zaidi Shia remain a large, mainly northern minority.
Yemen’s civil war is commonly described – not without reason – as having given rise to this century’s worst humanitarian disaster. United Nations officials and national leaders condemn the killing it has seen, the displacement it has caused, and the hunger and disease its continuation has allowed to spread. Whenever they are asked, foreign politicians without a stake in events intone that a ‘political solution’ is necessary and that peace must be achieved through dialogue.