Yemen Ethnic Groups

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

Yemen is located in an extremely important place. In this lesson, we're going to talk about how this location did (or didn't) influence the Yemeni population.


Yemen and yewomen, pay attention. Okay, that's not a real thing. What is a real thing is the nation of Yemen, located on the southwestern edge of the Arabian Peninsula. That's a good place to be located. In fact, this may have been one of the most important places on the globe throughout much of human history. You see, Yemen is located at the confluence of the Red Sea, the Gulf of Aden, and the Arabian Sea, and via that the Indian Ocean. For thousands of years, the world's most lucrative trade routes that connected Africa, the Middle East and even at times the Mediterranean to the markets of East Asia ran directly along the coast of modern Yemen. So, this has been a center of global exchange for centuries as wealth, technology, ideas, and people moved around the world. But who lives in Yemen now? Yemen and yewomen of course. Or you could call them Yeminis. That's probably more accurate.


Arab Ethnicity in Yemen

Situated at the epicenter of the greatest trade networks of history, you might expect Yemen to be one of the most diverse places on Earth. Well, not quite. The vast majority of Yemenis identify with a single ethnicity: Arab. The Arab ethnicity describes people native to the Arabian Peninsula who speak a specific branch of Semitic languages. On a side note, this larger ethno-linguistic group of Semites, to which Arabs belong, should not be confused with the modern use of the term Semites to describe the Jewish people, although Arabs and Hebrews are ethnically related. In fact, as the southern Arabian Peninsula was originally inhabited by a range of Semitic peoples, it is very likely that many amongst them were Hebrews. Islam entered the region in the 7th century, which is when the modern Arab ethnicity is often seen as really beginning. As Muslim Arabs spread throughout the Arabian Peninsula, many settled in what is now Yemen. Their descendants live there to this day.

For centuries Yemen was home to some very wealthy Arab merchants

So, it makes sense that Arabs constitute a major ethnic population of Yemen, but why are they so absolutely dominant? Despite its closeness to Africa and India, the Arab population of Yemen shows very little genetic evidence of ethnic mixing. There are probably historic reasons for this. In the medieval world, extremely wealthy Arabic-speaking families took over the various fractions of the world's trade routes and unified them. From that point on, Arabs controlled international trade, unified through shared ethnic identity and a shared devotion to Islam. Seeing as the coast of what is now Yemen held some of the wealthiest and most powerful ports in the world, it's perhaps unsurprising that the Arab families of Yemen had little reason to marry outside of their ethnicity. For whatever the reason, Yemen Arabs have a strong tie to their ethnic heritage and many claim to represent the least diluted Arab gene pool in the Arabian Peninsula.

Ethnic Minorities in Yemen

Even though most of the population does identify as Arab, Yemen does have its share of ethnic minority groups. These largely draw from West Africa, South Asia, and Europe, and most are foreign born. The established ethnic minority populations, those that have lived in Yemen for a generation or more, are much fewer. Several have left since the Arab Spring of 2011 resulted in riots and protests across the country. Foreigners in Yemen constitute practically the entirety of the non-Muslim population, as Yemeni Arabs are overwhelmingly devoted to Islam.

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