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Yemen is the poorest country in the Middle East, with 80% of its poor in rural areas. In spite of limited cultivable land, nearly two-thirds of Yemenis derive their livelihood from agriculture. An increasing proportion of land has been converted from food production to the growing of qat, and small farmers’ land holdings are getting smaller while the largest and wealthiest landowners’ holdings are increasing. Sixty-two percent of farms cover less than 2 hectares. In spite of a major role in agricultural production, women rarely have ownership rights to land and commonly relinquish inherited land rights to male family members.

Land disputes are relatively common in Yemen because there is no system for authenticating land deeds and land documents, either formal or customary, and no national cadastre. However, both urban and rural landowners have a reasonable degree of tenure security with rights enforceable under either civil law or customary and Islamic law, respectively. Access to water, which is tied to land rights, is a common cause of land disputes, particularly in areas of water scarcity. Land scarcity is resulting in appropriation and sale of communal land, in some cases by sheikhs in violation of their fiduciary responsibility. Yemen faces a crisis in terms of water supply and water quality, with one of the lowest per capita water availability rates in the world (only 150 cubic meters per year) and pervasive groundwater contamination. This situation has made waterborne diseases the major cause of the high infant mortality rate of 53 per thousand. Ninety percent of water withdrawal is for agriculture. Surface and groundwater resources are communal property, which has led to less than optimal use of this very scarce resource.

Forests constitute only 1% of Yemen’s total land area. However, forests are a critical resource, providing 70% of the country’s energy needs and over half the fodder for livestock. In spite of forests’ economic significance, Yemen does not have a national forest policy or legislation governing forest land. The ownership status of most forest land in Yemen is ambiguous and disputes are frequent.

One of the major current sources of Yemen’s national income, oil, is projected to become exhausted by 2012. Accordingly, Yemen can no longer rely on oil revenues and must instead continue to focus its development strategy on sustainable and productive use of its natural and human resource base.


  • Access to Land. Productive land in Yemen is increasingly concentrated in the hands of a small number of wealthy families, reducing the rural and urban poor’s access to land. Factors leading to the change in land distribution are broadly articulated, but few if any comprehensive and systematic studies of the changes in land access patterns exist. Donors should help fill this large gap in knowledge by supporting such a study. Based on the study results and drawing on its knowledge of the region and comparative countries, the government could request assistance for mechanisms and programs to improve land access for the country’s rural and urban poor, thus helping the government achieve its stated objectives.
  • Land and Water Dispute Resolution. Yemen’s formal court system faces significant challenges, functions poorly, and is less accessible to the rural poor and women. As part of its decentralization initiative, Yemen has assimilated some of the traditional leaders into the government system, a process that has in some areas weakened the effectiveness of traditional dispute resolution forums. As a result, residents in some areas have no effective and fair forum in which to seek enforcement of their land and water rights. USAID in particular has been working with the government and court system on capacity-building within the judiciary and has a good foundation to be the lead donor for an in-depth assessment of Yemen’s formal and informal land and water dispute resolution systems, offer recommendations for enhancing their capacity and effectiveness, and pilot dispute resolution programs in several areas.
  • Women’s Rights. Women have responsibility for most of the work on agricultural land yet have limited rights to the land and are often excluded from the educational and employment opportunities that could improve their economic security and social position. Women from economically disadvantaged households and women-headed households should be prioritized for land access and development programs. Donors should consider developing a thematic, multi- country project that focuses on the issue of women’s land inheritance under Islamic law in several countries that have a high percentage of Muslims, such as Yemen. The objective of such a project would be to construct land-related interventions designed to address the commonly observed decision of Muslim women to relinquish land rights in favor of the promise of security by male relatives.
  • Forest land. Yemen does not have a legal framework governing forest land and forest resources – resources that are critical to the livelihoods of Yemen’s poorest households. Donors should assist the government to collect work conducted to date (including the FAO’s prior work in Yemen with community-based forest management), identify and convene stakeholders, and provide technical assistance in the development of a policy and legal framework.


The Republic of Yemen is the result of the 1990 unification of the former Yemen Arab Republic and the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen. The country’s rapidly-growing population is composed almost entirely of Arabic-speaking Muslims, and Islamic principles inform the formal and customary law. Yemen is the poorest Middle Eastern country: just under half of Yemen’s population lives on less than $2 a day, and approximately 80% of the country’s poorest people are in the rural areas. Oil income provides an estimated 75% of government revenue and 90% of export revenues. At the current rate of extraction and absent any new discoveries, the country will deplete its oil reserves by 2012.

Much of Yemen is harsh desert and rocky terrain. Water is scarce. Seventy percent of the population lives in rural areas, and agriculture supports the livelihoods of two-thirds of the population, yet only 3% of the land is arable. Only 1.5 million hectares of land is cultivated, with an increasing percentage of land converted from food production to cultivation of qat, a pseudoephedrine stimulant. The trend is toward a reduction in the amount of land held by small landholders in favor of increasing amounts of land held by the largest and wealthiest landowners.

Women perform 75% of cultivation activities in Yemen, yet rarely have ownership rights to land and commonly relinquish inherited land rights to male family members in exchange for promises of security. Women’s economic status suffers from low agricultural wages, widespread illiteracy, exclusion from the formal non-agricultural labor market, and traditional religious and social constraints on mobility and employment.

Yemen faces a crisis in terms of water supply and water quality. Yemen has one of the lowest per capita water availability rates in the world. Competition for water for domestic and industrial use is increasing, and withdrawals exceed renewable resources. Deforestation of upper watersheds, overgrazing, and changes in land use are degrading watersheds and negatively affecting the quality and quantity of water. Groundwater contamination is pervasive and shallow aquifers are becoming polluted. Fewer than half of the rural population has access to safe drinking water. USAID, the World Bank, and other donors have begun a US $90 million five-year (2009–2014) grant project to support the government’s implementation of its National Water Sector Strategy and Investment Program, which includes components to improve community-based water resource management and increase access to water supply.

Yemen has a limited amount of forest land (1% of total land area), and the population’s demand for fuel and fodder for livestock exceeds the regeneration capacities of Yemen’s remaining forests. The country lacks a legal framework governing its forest land and forest resources.

Yemen has reserves of oil, gas, and other minerals but most of the country’s mineral production is focused on the production of oil, gas, and limestone. Oil income provides 90% of export revenues. At the current rate of extraction and absent any new discoveries, the country will deplete its oil reserves by 2012. Yemen’s economic future has been highly dependent on its declining oil resources. The International Finance Corporation (IFC) has been assisting Yemen’s government in drafting a new mining law, policy, and regulations in an effort to develop the industry for the social and economic benefit of the population (IFC 2009).

Published / Updated: July 2010

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