Overview | Government

This series of profiles of foreign nations is part of the Country Studies Program, formerly the Army Area Handbook Program. The profiles offer brief, summarized information on a country's historical background, geography, society, economy, transportation and telecommunications, government and politics, and national security. Derived from The Library of Congress.


Political System/Overview: Since unification in 1990, Yemen has officially been a republic. According to the constitution, “the political system of the Republic of Yemen is based on political and partisan pluralism.” In reality, however, the General People’s Congress (GPC), which is headed by president Ali Abdallah Salih (who won re-election in September 2006 with 77 percent of the vote), dominates the government and continues to hold an absolute majority in parliament as a result of the 2003 elections. In 2001 several constitutional amendments were passed by national referendum that strengthened the powers of the executive branch. The president was given the authority to dissolve parliament without a national referendum, and his term of office was extended to seven years. The Shura Council appointed by the president was almost doubled in size and given enhanced legislative authority. Yemen’s judiciary is perceived as weak and corrupt, and numerous government efforts to effect reform have as yet failed to improve the functioning of the judicial system.

Constitution: Yemen’s constitution was ratified by popular referendum on May 16, 1991. It defines the republic as an independent and sovereign Arab and Islamic country and establishes sharia, or Islamic law, as the basis of all laws. In February 2001, several amendments were passed by national referendum extending the presidential term to seven years and the parliamentary term to six years and increasing the size and authority of the Shura Council.

Branches of Government: Yemen’s current president, Ali Abdallah Salih, was reelected by universal suffrage in September 2006 for a seven-year term. President Salih won the election with 77 percent of the vote, despite a challenge from the opposition Joint Meeting Parties (JMP) coalition candidate, Faisal bin Shamlan. The president appoints a vice president and a prime minister, who in turn appoints the 35-member Council of Ministers. Yemen’s legislature is bicameral, composed of an elected 301-seat House of Representatives (parliament) and an appointed Shura Council with 111 members. The parliament, whose members serve six-year terms, enacts laws, sanctions general state policy and the socioeconomic plan, and approves government budgets and final accounts. The current parliament is dominated by the ruling party, the General People’s Congress; as a result, it has failed to initiate legislation, instead debating policies that the government submits, and is generally perceived as an ineffective check on executive-branch authority. However, according to the U.S. Department of State, Yemen’s parliament has rejected or delayed action on some government initiatives and forced the modification of others. Ministers have also been subjected to critical questioning when called to appear before parliament to defend government policies. Pursuant to 2001 constitutional amendments, the Shura Council, whose role is primarily advisory, has the power to vote jointly with parliament on any legislative matters of the president’s choice.

Yemen has six types of courts: criminal, civil, personal status, special cases (e.g., kidnapping, carjacking, and acts of sabotage), commercial, and court-martial. In recent years, other limited-jurisdiction courts, e.g., juvenile and public funds courts, have been established under executive authority. The judicial system is organized in a three-tiered court structure. At the base are the courts of first instance, with broad powers to hear all manner of civil, criminal, commercial, and family matters. At the next level are the courts of appeal; there is one in each governorate and one in Sanaa. Each court of appeal has separate divisions for criminal, military, civil, and family issues. The highest court, the Supreme Court, settles jurisdictional disputes between courts, hears cases brought against high government officials, serves as the final court of appeal for all lower court decisions, and determines the constitutionality of laws and regulations. In addition to this formal court system, there is a system of tribal adjudication. It is responsible primarily for non-criminal issues, but in practice these courts adjudicate criminal cases as well.

Administrative Divisions: Yemen is divided into 19 governorates. According to the U.S. government, for electoral and administrative purposes the capital city of Sanaa is treated as an additional governorate. A United Nations report on the preliminary results of Yemen’s 2004 population census also lists Raimah as a new governorate.

Provincial and Local Government: Formal government authority is centralized in the capital city of Sanaa. Yemen’s Local Authority Law decentralizes authority by establishing locally elected district and governorate councils currently headed by government-appointed governors. In rural Yemen, direct state control is weak, with tribal confederations acting as autonomous sub-states. After the September 2006 elections, President Salih announced various measures that would enable future governors and directors of the councils to be directly elected. However, because the ruling party, the General People’s Congress (GPC), continues to dominate the local councils, executive authority over the governorates is expected to remain strong.

Judicial and Legal System: Yemen’s constitution, as amended, stipulates that Islamic law (sharia) is the source of all legislation. All laws are based on a combination of sharia, old Egyptian laws, and Napoleonic tradition. Defendants are presumed innocent until proven guilty; indigent defendants in felony cases are by law entitled to counsel, but in practice this does not always occur. Trials, which are generally public, are conducted without juries; judges adjudicate criminal cases. All defendants have the right of appeal. Women often suffer discrimination, particularly in domestic matters.

Although Yemen’s constitution provides for an autonomous judiciary and independent judges, in reality the judiciary is managed by an executive-branch council, the Supreme Judicial Council (SJC), and judges are appointed and can be removed by the executive branch. The judicial system itself is considered weak; corruption is widespread; the government is often reluctant to enforce judgments; and judges are subject to harassment from tribal leaders, who themselves exercise significant discretion in the interpretation and application of the law. The most comprehensive restructuring of the judiciary since the government initiated judicial reforms in 1997 was announced in December 2004. The SJC dismissed 22 judges for corruption, designating others for investigation and forcing more than 100 others into retirement. In early 2005, more than 200 judges and 300 prosecutors at the district and governorate level were reassigned. These reforms had little impact, and in December 2005, the government announced a new 10-year reform initiative aimed at making the judiciary more independent and better staffed.

Electoral System: Yemen has universal suffrage for those age 18 and older. The constitution provides that the president be elected by popular vote from at least two candidates endorsed by parliament. In 1999 the first nationwide direct presidential election was held, giving Ali Abdallah Salih, the leader of the General People’s Congress, a five-year term, which was extended to seven years in 2001. President Salih was reelected with 77 percent of the popular vote in September 2006. The electorate also elects the parliament every six years, most recently in April 2003. The next parliamentary elections are to be held in April 2009. Although the 2003 elections were deemed by international observers to be generally free and fair, there were reports of irregularities such as underage voting and voter intimidation.

Politics and Political Parties: Yemen’s Political Parties Law mandates that political parties be viable national organizations comprising at least 75 founders and 2,500 members and not restrict membership to a particular region. The government provides financial support to political parties, including a stipend for newspaper publication. The ruling party, the General People’s Congress (GPC), captured 238 of 301 seats in parliament in the 2003 elections. In the September 2006 elections, the GPC garnered 315 seats in the governorates (74 percent of the popular vote) and 5,078 local council seats (74 percent of the popular vote). In 2005 a coalition of five opposition parties formed the Joint Meeting Parties (JMP) to effect political and economic reform. The JMP includes the northern-based, tribal and Islamist-oriented Yemeni Congregation for Reform (Islah) and the secular Yemeni Socialist Party (YSP), which represents the remnants of the former South Yemeni leadership. In the September 2006 presidential election, the JMP backed opposition candidate Faisal bin Shamlan, whose success in garnering 22 percent of the popular vote is viewed as a first step in challenging the political stronghold of President Salih and the GPC.

Mass Media: Yemen’s Ministry of Information influences the media through its control of printing presses, granting of newspaper subsidies, and ownership of the country’s only television and radio stations. According to the U.S. Department of State, Yemen has six government-controlled, 19 independent, and 14 party-affiliated newspapers. There are approximately 80 magazines, 50 percent of which are private, 30 percent government-controlled, and 20 percent party-affiliated. The government controls the content of news broadcasts and edits coverage of televised parliamentary debates. Although Yemen’s government claims it does not monitor Internet usage, the U.S. Department of State reports that the government does occasionally block political and sexually explicit Web sites. By law and regulation, newspapers and magazines must be government-licensed, and their content is restricted.

Foreign Relations: The 1990–91 Gulf War had a significant negative impact on Yemen’s relations with its Arab neighbors. As a member of the United Nations Security Council during those years, Yemen abstained on a number of Security Council resolutions concerning Iraq and Kuwait, did not support economic sanctions against Iraq, and called for an “Arab solution” to the crisis. Western and neighboring Gulf states responded by curtailing or canceling aid programs and diplomatic contacts. In particular, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait cut off critical financial aid and budgetary support, and Saudi Arabia expelled almost 1 million Yemeni workers, all of which had a profound impact on Yemen’s government finances. Yemen did not succeed in re-establishing diplomatic ties with Kuwait until 1999; in 2000, when a border agreement was signed with Saudi Arabia, Kuwait agreed to resume financial aid. The treaty Yemen signed with Saudi Arabia resolved a 50-year-old dispute between the two countries, providing coordinates for delineating the land and maritime border. In 1995 Yemen and Oman finalized the demarcation of their common border and currently have a strong trade relationship.

Although relations with the West were strained as a result of Yemen’s pro-Iraq stance during the first Gulf War, ties were re-established by the mid-1990s when Western democracies urged the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank to extend financial assistance to Yemen. In 1999 the United States began using Aden as a refueling stop for the U.S. Navy. After the October 2000 bombing of the USS Cole in that harbor, Yemen strengthened its efforts against the Islamist groups responsible for the attack. In July 2001, the United States renewed the bilateral financial aid that had been frozen since the Gulf War. Since September 11, 2001, relations between Yemen and the United States are considered to be significantly stronger. Yemen reportedly values the military and financial support the United States provides, as well as its influence with the IMF, which has serious concerns about Yemen’s commitment to economic reform. According to the U.S. Department of State, the United States considers Yemen an important partner in the global war on terrorism, providing assistance in the military, diplomatic, and financial arenas. The U.S. government reaffirmed its commitment to provide economic and military support to Yemen during November 2005 meetings between the White House and President Salih.

Membership in International Organizations: Yemen is a member of the United Nations (UN) and many of its affiliates and specialized agencies: Food and Agriculture Organization, International Civil Aviation Organization, International Fund for Agricultural Development, International Labour Organization, International Maritime Organization, International Telecommunication Union, UN Conference on Trade and Development, UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, UN High Commissioner for Refugees, UN Industrial Development Organization, Universal Postal Union, and World Health Organization. Yemen is also a member of the Arab Fund for Economic and Social Development, Arab Monetary Fund, Council of Arab Economic Unity, Group of 77, International Atomic Energy Agency, International Bank for Reconstruction and Development, International Civil Aviation Organization, International Confederation of Free Trade Unions, International Criminal Court (signatory), International Criminal Police Organization, International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, International Finance Corporation, International Monetary Fund, Islamic Development Bank, League of Arab States, Multilateral Investment Guarantee Investment Agency, Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, Organization of the Islamic Conference, World Intellectual Property Organization, and World Meteorological Organization. Yemen was granted observer status at the World Trade Organization (WTO) in 1999 and in 2002 and 2003 submitted necessary documentation for full membership. The WTO working party on Yemen met in 2004 and 2005 to discuss Yemen’s accession; negotiations are expected to take several years.

Major International Treaties: Yemen is a signatory to various international agreements on agricultural commodities, commerce, defense, economic and technical cooperation, finance, and postal matters. Yemen is a Non-Annex I country under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. Yemen is not a signatory to the Kyoto Protocol but has acceded to it, which has the same legal effect as ratification. Yemen is a signatory to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, a party to the Biological Weapons Convention, and has signed and ratified the Chemical Weapons Convention. Yemen is also a party to environmental conventions on Biodiversity, Desertification, Environmental Modification, Hazardous Wastes, Law of the Sea, and Ozone Layer Protection.


Armed Forces Overview: The armed forces of the Yemen Arab Republic and the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen were officially merged in May 1990, but in May 1994 civil war broke out between the forces of the two former states, culminating in victory for the North. In October 1994, President Salih announced plans for the modernization of the armed forces, which would include the banning of party affiliation in the security services and armed forces, and in March 1995 the full merger of the armed forces was completed. The number of military personnel in Yemen is relatively high; in sum, Yemen has the second largest military force on the Arabian Peninsula after Saudi Arabia. Yemen’s military consists of an army, navy, air force, and reserves. In 2005–6 total active troops were estimated as follows: army, 60,000; navy, 1,700; air force, 5,000; and reserves, 40,000. Despite these troop levels, Yemen’s military equipment is considered to be light, outdated, and poorly maintained, particularly when compared with neighboring Gulf states.

Foreign Military Relations: Although no U.S. troops are based permanently in Yemen, the United States has provided military assistance and technical support in recent years. According to the U.S. Department of State, the resumption of International Military Education and Training assistance and the transfer of military equipment and spare parts to Yemen have improved defense relations between the United States and Yemen. Yemen received US$1.9 million in Foreign Military Financing in FY2003 and was expected to receive US$14.9 million for FY2004. Non-government sources report that a small number of U.S. troops including Special Forces units and U.S. Navy SEALs have taken part in limited joint exercises with Yemeni forces in recent years, and in 2002 Yemeni Special Forces received training in counterterrorism from the U.S. Special Operations Command. In 2003 Yemen reported that U.S. naval experts were training military technicians in the Yemeni navy in preparation for joining the new Yemeni coast guard, and in 2004–5 the United States donated 14 patrol craft to the coast guard. In 2005 an Australian company delivered 10 patrol boats to assist Yemeni government efforts to combat terrorism and illegal trafficking; the company will train crews to man the vessels.

External Threat: In the aftermath of the 1990–91 Gulf War when Yemen sided with Iraq in its invasion of Kuwait, both Kuwait and Saudi Arabia broke diplomatic ties with Yemen. Although these ties have been restored, tensions remain over the Saudi Arabia–Yemen border. Despite increased border security, fugitive Islamist militants from throughout the Gulf region, especially Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan, and Iraq, regularly cross what is still perceived as a lax border into Yemen. This poses a security threat to a country battling terrorism on many fronts.

Defense Budget: Yemen’s defense spending has historically been one of the government’s three largest expenditures. The defense budget increased from US$540 million in 2001 to US$1 billion in 2005. The 2005 budget is a 42 percent increase over 2004 and represents 6.4 percent of gross domestic product (GDP).

Major Military Units: Yemen’s military is divided into an army, navy, and air force. The army is organized into eight armored brigades, 16 infantry brigades, six mechanized brigades, two airborne commando brigades, one surface-to-surface missile brigade, three artillery brigades, one central guard force, one Special Forces brigade, and six air defense brigades, which consist of four antiaircraft artillery battalions and one surface-to-air missile battalion. The navy’s major bases are located in Aden and Al Hudaydah; there are also bases in Al Mukalla, Perim Island, and Socotra that maintain naval support equipment. The air force includes an air defense force.

Major Military Equipment: Yemen’s army is reported to be equipped with 790 main battle tanks, 130 reconnaissance vehicles, 200 armored infantry fighting vehicles, 710 armored personnel carriers, 310 towed artillery, 25 self-propelled artillery, 294 multiple rocket launchers, 502 mortars, six Scud B (up to an estimated 33 missiles) and 28 other surface-to-surface missiles, 71 antitank guided weapons, some rocket launchers, some recoilless launchers, 530 air defense guns, and an estimated 800 surface-to-air missiles. The navy’s inventory includes eight missile craft, six miscellaneous boats/craft, five inshore patrol craft, six mine countermeasures vessels, one landing ship (tank), two landing craft (mechanical), four landing craft (utility), and two support and miscellaneous tankers. The air force, including air defense, has 75 combat aircraft and eight attack helicopters, as well as assorted transport aircraft, training aircraft and helicopters, and both air-to-air and air-to-surface missiles.

Military Service: In 2001 Yemen’s National Defense Council abolished the existing two-year compulsory military service, relying instead on volunteers to fill posts in the military and security forces.

Paramilitary Forces: Yemen’s paramilitary force has about 70,000 troops. Approximately 50,000 constitute the Central Security Organization of the Ministry of Interior; they are equipped with a range of infantry weapons and armored personnel carriers. An additional 20,000 are forces of armed tribal levies. Yemen is building up a small coast guard under the Ministry of Interior, training naval military technicians for posts in Aden and Al Mukalla.

Foreign Military Forces: There are no permanent U.S. troops in Yemen, but military personnel have been deployed there in recent years for training purposes. Since the February 2006 escape of 23 Al Qaeda members from a prison in Sanaa, an international coalition of warships has patrolled the waterways off Yemen.

Military Forces Abroad: Yemen’s Middle Eastern neighbors who are members of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) participate in a defense force based in Saudi Arabia. Yemen is not a member of the GCC, and there are no reports of the country having a military presence outside of its own borders.

Police: Yemen’s primary and most feared internal security and intelligence gathering force is the Political Security Organization (PSO), led by military officers; it reports directly to the president and operates its own detention centers. There are an estimated 150,000 personnel in the PSO. The Central Security Organization, which is part of the Ministry of Interior, maintains a paramilitary force and also has its own extrajudicial detention facilities. Also attached to the Ministry of Interior is the Criminal Investigative Department (CID) of the police, which conducts most criminal investigations and arrests. The total strength of the CID is estimated to be 13,000 personnel. According to the U.S. Department of State, members of the PSO and Ministry of Interior police forces have committed serious human rights violations, including physical abuse and lengthy detentions without formal charges. In 2002 the government established the National Security Bureau, which reports directly to the president and appears to have similar responsibilities to those of the PSO, but it remains unclear how the two organizations will coordinate their responsibilities.

Internal Threat: Analysts see the greatest challenge to the political dominance of the General People’s Congress as stemming from a range of security threats posed by Islamist and tribal elements within Yemen. Yemen’s topography contributes to a lack of central government control in the more remote governorates, which in turn has enhanced the authority of the country’s well-armed autonomous tribes. Army and security forces often face a significant challenge from rebellious tribes, as they did in July 2005 when armed tribal militia blocked fuel deliveries in Sanaa to protest proposed reductions in fuel subsidies. Tribesmen, particularly in the north, routinely kidnap foreign tourists and workers in order to extract political and economic concessions from the government.

In April, October, and November 2005, Zaydi militants carried out attacks against police and soldiers near Sadah; the attackers were believed to be followers of a militant cleric killed by Yemeni security forces in September 2004. Future attacks by these militants are not unlikely, and the availability of an estimated 9 million firearms among the general population increases the potential deadly force of these attacks. The government also faces a threat from militants from Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan, and Iraq who routinely cross the Yemen–Saudi Arabia border, as well as militant Islamists from Somalia who can access existing arms smuggling routes between the two countries.

Terrorism: Yemen was the site of two major terrorist attacks—the suicide bombing attack against the USS Cole in October 2000 in the Aden harbor and the bombing of the French supertanker Limburg off the port of Al Mukalla two years later. In 2004 suspects linked to al Qaeda were prosecuted and convicted in Yemeni courts for the Aden attacks as well as other planned terrorist activities. In 2005 dozens of al Qaeda members were tried and convicted in Yemen of planning and perpetrating terrorist attacks against Yemeni officials and Western targets both in Yemen and abroad, including additional suspects linked to the USS Cole bombing. On February 3, 2006, 23 convicted al Qaeda members, 13 of whom were tied to the USS Cole and Limburg bombings, escaped from the maximum-security prison in Sanaa; most remain at large. In September 2006, four suicide bombers were killed in a foiled attempt to bomb two Yemeni oil facilities; two of the four have been identified as being among the group of 13 escaped prisoners.

According to the U.S. Department of State, Yemen provides support for the global war on terrorism and has expressed a willingness to fight international terrorists by denying them the use of its territorial seas and ports. The United States and Yemen are cooperating in efforts to strengthen the Yemeni coast guard’s security capabilities. Although a 2001 border agreement between Yemen and Saudi Arabia has improved border security and curtailed arms trafficking, the U.S. government continues to be concerned about cross-border smuggling of arms and militants. There is concern that Yemen’s government is unable to freeze the financial assets of United Nations-designated al Qaeda supporters, and military experts have reported that there are al Qaeda sympathizers in the Yemeni military and government. There are also numerous reports that Yemeni mercenaries, many of whom attended training camps in Afghanistan, are participating in the Iraq insurgency.

Human Rights: According to the U.S. Department of State’s annual report on human rights practices, Yemen’s government has maintained a poor human rights record, continuing to commit various abuses, including the arbitrary arrest of persons critical of the government. Security forces, which are generally considered corrupt, often detain persons for prolonged periods of time without due process, subjecting them to torture and abuse. Violence and discrimination against women have been reported, as well as discrimination against persons with disabilities and against religious, racial, and ethnic minorities. The government often controls the management of unions and trade union federations.

Although Yemen’s constitution protects privacy, government police forces routinely search citizens’ property without warrants and monitor telephone, postal, and Internet communications. Yemen’s constitution also provides for freedom of speech and of the press “within the limits of the law,” but this protection is also violated. Police forces often threaten and harass journalists who are critical of the government in order to influence press coverage. Some journalists have been placed on trial for writing articles critical of the president or reporting on issues deemed sensitive to the government, and newspapers have been temporarily shut down for the same reasons. Foreign publications are monitored for content and subject to censorship. Legislation was enacted in 2005 mandating that journalists reveal their information sources in certain circumstances and significantly raising start-up costs for newspapers and Web sites.

Index for Yemen:
Overview | Government


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