With its moderate climate and terraced highlands, Yemen is agriculturally the most productive part of the Arabian Peninsula. Yet people, not crops, have been Yemen’s major export. Migrants from the former North and South Yemen are scattered throughout the world. During the last 20 years, the majority of Yemeni migrants have gone to neighboring oil states. With up to 30 percent of adult men abroad at a time, migration affected virtually every household. The earnings of the roughly 1.25 million expatriates, coupled with heavy foreign assistance, fueled the region’s socioeconomic transformation, particularly in the north. This era of prosperity ended abruptly when Iraq invaded Kuwait in early August 1990.

This was less than three months after the former Yemen Arab Republic (north) and the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen (south) joined to form the Republic of Yemen. The invasion immediately forced approximately 45,000 Yemenis and dependents to flee Kuwait and Iraq. When Yemen subsequently took a neutral stance and refused to support the Saudi invitation to US forces, Riyadh rescinded the special status that had allowed Yemenis to enter Saudi Arabia without the work permits and guarantees required of other migrants. Between 800,000 and 1 million people were forced home as a result. Some 2,000 Yemenis were forced to leave Qatar, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates. [1]

This represented a population increase of about 8 percent. Yemen’s ambassador to the United Nations, ‘Abdallah al-Ashtal, compares it to the United States suddenly taking in 30 million people. For the fledgling, financially strapped government of Yemen, the crisis was compounded by the disruption of normal relations. Sanaa claimed it lost $1.7 billion in foreign assistance (primarily from Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Iraq), oil supplies, foreign trade and workers’ remittances. [2] Lost remittances were estimated at only $400 million, although in 1987 remittances for the two Yemens amounted to $1.06 billion. [3]

Migrant Context

Yemen’s export of workers has been a major source of foreign exchange, and remittances a key factor in socioeconomic modernization of the country. [4] For all Yemenis, migration to Saudi Arabia was easy. They could obtain a visa at any port of entry, often without a passport; they did not require a sponsor for work or residence permits, and could own businesses.

Many migrants used their savings to supplement household incomes in Yemen. With about a quarter of adult men from the north and a third from the south abroad, their families grew dependent on remittances. Both national economies came to rely on migrants’ earnings, which accounted for as much as 20 percent of gross domestic product in the north and 50 percent in the south. [5]

In the north, remittances financed a construction boom and the rapid expansion of petty commerce. The easy escape of excess labor opened positions for, and raised wages of, workers at home. Migration from South Yemen, rather than being a safety value for excess labor and a means of acquiring skills, led to labor shortages and skill deficits. As a result, Aden severely restricted migration after 1973. Those working abroad became, in essence, permanent migrants. Despite government attempts to encourage investment, most money and acquired skills remained abroad. [6] Only since unification and their return have migrants from the south begun spending their savings as had those in the north.

The typical migrant was a single man who stayed abroad two to five years. By the mid-1980s, though, many had brought their families to live with them in Saudi Arabia. In 1990, an estimated one third of the 285,000 migrant workers in Saudi Arabia were accompanied by their families. [7] The decision to have their families join them seems to have coincided with migrants’ shifting from the volatile and competitive construction sector to more secure positions in the services sector.

Yemen’s position in the Gulf crisis may have been only one factor in the Saudi decision to expel the migrants. The Saudis were angry with Yemen’s unification and, some suggest, sought to undermine the new government, sensing that the unification dynamics made Yemeni migrants potentially more threatening to Saudi internal security.

Another speculative explanation derives from changes in the Saudi economy. In the 1980s, many migrants moved into low status service positions — taxi drivers, storekeepers, bakers, small business contractors and farm workers — once held by Saudis. Yemenis also began to bring their families, making themselves semi-permanent features on the Saudi economic landscape. As oil revenues declined, the Saudi labor market shrank. At the same time, the number of Saudi vocational school graduates increased, but desirable service positions were no longer readily available. [8] One way to create openings was to eliminate the Yemeni competitive advantage. This was apparently behind the Saudi attempt in the late 1980s to implement a law requiring unincorporated businesses to be Saudi owned. North Yemeni President ‘Ali ‘Abdallah Salih interceded then — to secure a special exclusion for Yemenis. This exclusion was canceled on September 19, 1990, and the status of Yemenis reverted to that of other migrants. They were given 30 days to find a Saudi guarantor or majority partner for businesses, and to obtain residence permits. The deadline was subsequently extended for another 30 days. [9]

An unknown but probably small number did arrange to comply with the new regulations. [10] Many, perhaps the majority, seem not to have expended much effort to do so. Some were motivated by nationalist feelings; others felt they could not satisfy the requirements. The result was a rush to liquidate assets, pack or sell possessions, and prepare to return to Yemen.

The Return

Those Yemenis suffering the greatest financial loss and dislocation were those forced to flee Iraq and Kuwait, leaving everything behind. Most migrants in Kuwait were native to Hadramawt, and many returned there.

The losses of returnees from Saudi Arabia were less severe. Although there were reports that the Saudis had detained and tortured hundreds of Yemenis, no migrants with whom I spoke reported being mistreated. [11] Most returnees, however, did accuse those who bought their property of profiting from their expulsion. Many were forced to sell their property and possessions at absurdly low prices. Hammoud Husayn, a migrant for over 30 years, owned three rental properties in Riyadh that he valued at 275,000 Saudi riyals. He was able to sell them for only 40,000 riyals. Many sellers received a fraction of their invested capital, especially those with tea shops, restaurants or bakeries. Sanaa estimates the returnees lost $7.9 billion in assets. [12]

For Yemen, the greatest impact came from trying to meet the needs of up to 40,000 returning migrants a day. The government sent trucks to the border to transfer returnees and their property to receiving points in Yemen. Customs rules were relaxed so most possessions were duty free. To defray costs and aid in resettlement, government and private-sector employees were ordered to contribute one day’s pay per month for three months to a resettlement fund.

The government pledged to create jobs and provide housing, schools and health centers. The estimated cost of these programs was $245 million, but funds from the World Bank, USAID, Germany, the UN and Yemen amounted to only $60 million. Sanaa made available 60 million Yemeni riyals. Promised programs did not get off the ground. Preliminary funds provided and administered by the UN Development Program set up an Emergency Recovery Program but not much else.

Returnees found more obstacles to resettling in Yemen than they anticipated. Most single returnees were accepted in the homes of kin, as were many returning highland families. Some 11.5 percent owned homes in Yemen. Some returnees with dependents needed assistance. The government provided temporary housing in schools and hospitals. In the hardest-hit areas, Hudayda and Aden, vacant lands were transformed into tent cities. The population of Hudayda tripled to more than 500,000 people. According to the returnees, probably between 75,000 and 100,000 families were directed to camps, where they remain.

Why did hundreds of thousands end up in camps? Many returnees, especially those from Tihama area along the Red Sea coast, had been abroad more than ten years. They had lived for years in urban areas and were unwilling to return to the countryside.

A second factor is the returnees’ status, a key element in Yemeni culture. According to some Yemeni social scientists, many migrants were from the lowest-status group known as the akhdam (literally “servant”). Predominately from Tihama, akhdam are generally described as having African heritage. [13] They traditionally performed tasks like street sweeping that others refused. For them, emigration was a way to shed this culturally imposed status. Having severed ties to their birthplaces intentionally, these returnees were unwilling to return to villages where their ancestry was known.

Finally, Yemen suffers from a housing shortage. This is most severe in urban areas of the former South Yemen. The 11.5 percent of migrants who owned houses they could return to in turn forced their tenants into the housing market. Some 32 percent of returnees found housing, often temporarily with kin. The majority of returnees, 56.5 percent, having limited resources and confronted with skyrocketing rents, had no place to go.

In Yemeni culture, family is central and custom demands that kin support each other. In Tihama, though, many returnees had long ago severed any such connections. In Aden, there was simply no space; some men were able to house family members with kin but had to find other quarters for themselves. People reported that their relatives’ homes were overcrowded and life stressful. Camps were the alternative. [14]

Broader Impact

Repatriation brought $1.36 billion to Yemen, but the remittance flow slowed dramatically. Once the returnees’ resources were exhausted, the ripple effects were many. The lack of foreign exchange drove inflation up.

Migration had created a relative labor shortage and high wages, even for day laborers. The return reversed this trend. Skilled returnees displaced less skilled workers. The influx of returnees drove unemployment from around 4 to 25 percent, with 40 percent unemployment among former migrants.

Peddling and begging proliferated. In addition to adults, scores of children spend their days on the street instead of in schools, helping to support their families. Shortages and inflation pushed food prices up by more than 200 percent between 1990 and 1992. [15] The UNDP reported the number of people living in poverty rose from 15 to 35 percent. (The official poverty line is a family income of 3000 Yemeni riyals per month — $250 at the official exchange rate, but in reality less than $100 — an amount that would permit only the most modest existence even if one had housing.) Overcrowded conditions and malnutrition became common. [16]

The crisis is nationwide. In October 1991, middle-class protests erupted in Sanaa. [17] Frustrated by high prices, lack of jobs and increasing poverty, demonstrations again broke out in mid-December 1992 in Ta‘izz, where thousands reportedly participated in looting and burning. The riots spread to Sanaa, where they lasted four days. Smaller demonstrations occurred in Hudayda, al-Bayda and Ibb; unrest spread even to small towns. More than 60 people were killed, hundreds injured and thousands arrested. The government reportedly brought 8,000 armed tribesmen into the capital to maintain power. [18]

The major obstacles to reabsorption are a stagnant economy and the lack of skills and education. Only 17.6 percent of returnees had completed some formal education; 45.1 percent are illiterate; the majority had been employed in unskilled and semi-skilled occupations. Additional classrooms were added to existing schools to cope with an increase of 350,000 students. [19] Temporary health centers were built in camps.

There was talk of job creation schemes such as road and agricultural projects, but this has not happened. Whether it was lack of funds and resources, lack of planning or simply lack of commitment, the government has not done much to alleviate the crisis. In the end most returnees have had to rely on whatever assistance kin and friends have been able to provide.


Some returnees were preparing to return home long before the crisis developed. ‘Abdallah Yahya, about 35 years old, is from the Rayma region of central Yemen. [20] Today he and his brother co-own a business in Sanaa that services international companies. Around 1970, ‘Abdallah migrated to Ethiopia; by 1975 he had moved to Saudi Arabia. Within a year or two, he was hired by a multinational corporation, learned English and eventually became a successful salesman. He married a woman from Rayma and brought her to live in Riyadh, where his three children were born. Being able to stay for extended periods without home visits was a plus for his career. When forced to leave, he was prepared. For years he had sent money to his brother who invested it in their wholesale and retail electrical parts business. Savings also built a house.

His is not an exceptional case. Hamid Salih, the eldest of three brothers from a highlands town, had migrated to Riyadh at age 16. After a few years, he and a Saudi partner opened a videotape rental store. Hamid’s younger brothers joined him in the store, and the three shared a house. Eventually they all married women from their home area and brought them to Riyadh. Business prospered, and Hamid and his brothers sent home enough money for their father to build a large house with space for three shops. Hamid also purchased land in a desirable northern area or Sanaa on which he built a house costing more than 1.6 million Yemeni riyals. While abroad, he rented it out for 25,000 riyals per year. Hamid could have received a guarantee from his Saudi partner, but chose to return home for patriotic reasons. He helped a brother set up a video business, and then set up his own in Sanaa, with equipment he brought, duty-free, from Saudi Arabia.

Most returnees had a more difficult time. The majority of single or unaccompanied returnees went to their villages. There they went through an extended vacation characterized by conspicuous consumption and reintroduction to local society. In the past, these periods would draw to a close as the migrant found work or set up a business. [21] This time, circumstances prevented closure. Many exhausted their savings. The number of returnees, the slump in the economy, and the migrants’ lack of capital made self-employment difficult. They were reluctant to return to the farm work they had sought to escape through work abroad. Where 52 percent of returnees had been agricultural workers before migrating, less than 4 percent intended to return to farming. [22]

Hasan Muhammad’s dilemma was typical, although his success is not. Rada‘a is his home town, but he lived there only as a young child. His family migrated to Sudan in the 1950s, where Hasan’s father became a successful merchant. Hasan spent 11 years in Sudan, attended local schools and married a girl from Rada‘a. When his father returned to Yemen, Hasan and his family went to Saudi Arabia and settled in Riyadh for the next 18 years.

Hasan eventually established himself as a subcontractor. When the Gulf crisis erupted, he had just won a new contract and purchased about $80,000 worth of materials. He could not resell these, and so was forced to leave a large portion of his savings. Returning to Rada‘a, Hasan spent a difficult year living at home. His father’s house was crowded with the families of several returning sons, and more than 30 children. Although unable to find work, Hasan was finally forced to move his family to a rented house. Expenses in Yemen were greater than in Riyadh, and his savings dwindled. His seven children adjusted quickly, but the schools were overcrowded and the quality of education was not comparable to that in Saudi Arabia. Finally, after 14 months, Hasan found a good-paying administrative position with a foreign contractor.

A more common case is that of Hasan’s kinsman, Salih, a migrant for 26 years. Salih worked as a driver and a carpenter, both jobs that paid what he considered good wages of roughly 3,000 Saudi riyals a month. [23] After the crisis forced him home, he was unemployed for 18 months. His limited savings were quickly exhausted, a situation made worse by the fact that several of his brothers were in a similar predicament. Finally, he found work as a guard earning 3,500 Yemeni riyals per month.

Labor Markets

Men commonly leave their families with relatives and move to cities in search of work. In Sanaa, day laborers, tools in hand, gather in some ten locations. [24] In Aden there are several collection points, manned mostly by men from the Ta‘izz area. Some day laborers are villagers temporarily in cities to earn some cash, but many have relocated. As there are far more workers than jobs, most work only one or two days a week, at 120-200 Yemeni riyals a day. At best these earnings help pay family expenses. Nearly everyone who could bring a vehicle back from abroad seems to have done so; some brought several. Taxis of all sorts now clog city streets. Competition is keen and earnings unpredictable, but with a car, even a rented one, almost any man can be in business for himself.

It is likely the worst situations are in the camps, but here too there are some success stories. Muhammad ‘Ali is in his early twenties and lives in Saddam camp in Hudayda, the eldest of three sons born in Saudi Arabia. One brother is also a camp resident; the other is working illegally in Saudi Arabia. Their father, ‘Ali Ja‘afar, from a village near Bayt al-Faqih, migrated in 1962. Muhammad went to Saudi schools and upon graduating went to work for a restaurant chain. He earned a modest wage (and free food) and was trained in many facets of restaurant work. He married a Yemeni whose family had migrated to Saudi Arabia when she was young. They have three children.

Muhammad’s first trip to Yemen was when his family returned from Saudi Arabia. He only brought household goods, having sold his jalopy. He could have returned to the family’s village, but followed his father’s advice and settled in the small house his father rented in Hudayda. This temporary arrangement was difficult, so he moved his family to one of the ten large camps in Hudayda. By selling some of his wife’s gold he was able to buy a fenced compound and a rough, one-room wooden house built by a migrant who was moving on. He also bought a car. Today his taxi earnings are erratic — there is no shortage of taxis in Hudayda — but he usually makes 200-300 Yemeni riyals, enough for food and some savings.

Muhammad’s brother, Husayn, is a peddler. Each morning Husayn goes to a wholesale market, purchases either a case of imported fruit or a wheelbarrow-load of local produce and joins about 100 other peddlers in an area near Zayid camp. If he sells everything, he may earn 40-50 Yemeni riyals.

The fact that the brothers work regularly is not unusual for camp residents. Some regular workers are easy to identify because they are converting their temporary shelters into permanent houses, replacing the plywood and sheet metal with cement blocks. Eventually they will have simple but permanent shelters and will have to buy the land from the city. Most men in camps, though, when asked, say they do not work, meaning they do not have permanent positions. Everyone seems able to find a few hours of low-paying work, often at unpleasant, menial tasks like grinding tobacco snuff.

Family size is a big factor in how well camp dwellers get by. Having several children who may each earn a few riyals is a plus. No one earns a lot, but the contribution of each provides a simple meal. Another factor is charities. Several mosques in Hudayda provided food for returnees during ‘Id al-Adha. Periodically, the Islamist political party, Islah, or the Muslim Brothers provide sacks of flour, rice and oil to the poorest families. [25] The government provides small loaves of bread.

Even if they get by, conditions for camp families are harsh. They are even worse for those in camps at ‘Abs, near the Saudi border, or the former Red Crescent camp just north of Hudayda, each with several hundred returnees living in shredded tents and crudely improvised compounds. The difficulties of camp life are many — no electricity, uncertain water delivery, no privacy, and unpredictable food supply. These concerns place a heavy strain on everyone. Reports of sickness and depression are common.

Women may feel the effects of camp life more severely than men. They must cope with limited resources, worry about water, guard against theft, try to keep children clean and clothes washed, and see to medical care. One measure of the situation is the suspension of normal codes of modesty and seclusion. Women are not confined to their compounds, often do not veil and, like men, seek every opportunity to get food or aid, often aggressively demanding services.

Some camp residents have turned to illegal activities. Prostitution is said to be common in Hudayda. Drugs are also a problem. Crime is reported to be on the rise throughout the country, though actual levels are unknown. [26]

It is hard to say how many people still live in the camps. Apparently based on the number of loaves of bread distributed, government officials suggest only 80,000 people in camps remain unabsorbed. Other estimates, including my own, are several times that. Some, perhaps many, men have returned to work illegally in Saudi Arabia.

As the recent riots make clear, it is not only the returnees who feel the effects of this forced repatriation. Nearly two decades of a rising standard of living have been reversed; 400 percent hyperinflation has driven real income down substantially. There is the overwhelming presence of people in economic difficulty, especially in cities like Sanaa where the contrast between rich and poor is most striking. Every intersection is a peddlers’ haven. The down-and-out, always present but now in vastly greater numbers, live out their lives on the sidewalks in front of fancy shops. This disturbing new scenario is repeated in virtually every town.

There is talk of renewed relations between Yemen and Saudi Arabia. While this may mean the renewal of aid and perhaps the return of some migrants, the numbers will likely be a fraction of those in the past. The government has promised that once new oil revenues begin to flow in 1994 there will be an upturn. For most returnees, such a dramatic economic expansion is their best hope.

Author’s Note: Research was conducted in Aden, al-Bayda, Hajja, al-Hudayda, Ibb, Sanaa and Ta‘izz provinces during July and August 1992. The project was funded by an Ohio University Research Committee Award and an American Institute for Yemeni Studies Fellowship.


[1] There are migrant communities in Kenya, Somalia, Ethiopia, India, Vietnam, Indonesia, the US and Britain. See Jonathan Friedlander, ed., Sojourners and Settlers: The Yemeni Immigrant Experience (Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 1988); and Fred Halliday, Arabs in Exile: Yemeni Migrants in Urban Britain (London: I. B. Tauris, 1992). See also: Nabeel Abraham, “Detroit’s Yemeni Workers.” MERIP Reports 57 (May 1977); Mary Bisharat, “Yemeni Farm Workers in California,” MERIP Reports 34 (January 1975); and the special issue “Sojourners and Settlers,” Middle East Report 139 (March-April 1986). The Yemeni government survey of 731,800 returnees lists those from Saudi Arabia as 285,029 men and 386,542 dependents (671,571 total). This figure does not include migrants who were on home leave and prevented from returning, those who returned without being counted (either before survey procedures were in place or missed) nor does it include some who did not have to return until after the official deadline had passed and the Yemeni survey halted. One million returnees from Saudi Arabia is the figure commonly cited by the UN Disaster Relief Organization, US Committee for Refugees, US State Department, International Organization for Migration and the US Government Accounting Office.
[2] Middle East Economic Digest, September 21, 1990, p. 31.
[3] The amount of money remitted and converted to Yemeni riyals depends on the exchange rate. As the value of the riyal was falling, government estimates, self-described as conservative, may be accurate. Remittances for 1991 are estimated at $325.3 million. When the Gulf crisis began, the exchange rate was 1 Saudi riyal to 3 Yemeni riyals; in mid-1992 it was 1 to 8.5.
[4] See Cynthia Myntti, “Yemeni Workers Abroad: The Impact on Women,” MERIP Reports 124 (June 1984); and Sheila Carapico and Cynthia Myntti, “Change in North Yemen, 1977-1989: A Tale of Two Families,” Middle East Report 170 (May-June 1991).
[5] Middle East Economic Digest, October 4, 1991, p. 5. Remittances to South Yemen were $180 million in 1977 and $450 million in 1982. See Ziad Abu-Amr, The People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen: The Transformation of Society (Ann Arbor: University Microfilms, 1986).
[6] Fred Halliday, “Labor Migration in the Arab World,” MERIP Reports 123 (May 1984).
[7] The Yemeni government survey of returnees [Sanaa: Central Statistical Organization, Ministry of Planning and Development, 1991], Tables 1 and 2) reported 386,542 dependents were repatriated from Saudi Arabia. If all family members are abroad, they are not enumerated in census data, so the exact number is unknown.
[8] Saudi Arabia’s Fourth Development Plan (1985-1990) provided $1.8 billion for vocational and technical training (Hossein Askari, Saudi Arabia’s Economy: Oil and the Search for Economic Development, Greenwich, CT: JAI Press, p. 165). The proportion of graduates actually seeking positions held by Yemenis or other foreigners is unknown. The Fifth Development Plan (1990-1995) predicted Saudi workers would replace 281,000 expatriates (Middle East Economic Digest, April 13, 1990, p. 5).
[9] Middle East Economic Digest, November 11, 1990.
[10] The official figure is 238,150 expatriates (Statistical Yearbook 1991 [San‘a: Central Statistical Organization, 1992], p. 5). This figure may include estimates of Yemenis abroad not enumerated in census data. C. Sinclair (Recovering Lost Remittances, Sanaa: USAID, 1990) estimates 315,040 migrants in Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states before the crisis. This is almost equal to the number of returnees, 315,143, surveyed by the Ministry of Migrant Affairs. While incomplete, this suggests the number of migrants still abroad is small.
[11] Amnesty International reported that 800 Yemenis had been detained and tortured before being expelled. Middle East Economic Digest, November 16, 1990, p. 33.
[[12] Middle East Economic Digest, April 26, 1991.
[13] See D. Walters, Perceptions of Social Inequality in the Yemen Arab Republic (Ann Arbor: University Microfilms, 1987).
[14] General Economic Memorandum, Ministry of Planning and Development.
[15] Yemen Times, March 11, 1992.
[16] Yemen Times, October 23, 1991.
[17] Yemen Times, October 23, 1991. There have been some protests in the camps in Hudayda over lack of water and costly medical care. Camp residents report these were instigated by outsiders.
[18] Yemen Times, December 16, 1992.
[19] Yemen Times, March 13, 1992.
[20] All names, and some peripheral circumstances, have been changed to protect anonymity. Views expressed reflect those commonly presented by returnees.
[21] See Thomas Stevenson, “Migration as a Rite of Passage in a Highland Yemeni Town,” in Friedlander, pp. 33-48.
[22] Yemen Times, April 29, 1992.
[23] This figure may be overstated. Sinclair estimates daily wages for unskilled workers at 60 Saudi riyals.
[24] A recent trend is for people building houses to hire a contractor with a work crew. This practice frees the owner of finding workers but reduces jobs for day laborers. It was contractors with expatriate, usually Asian, work crews that drove many Yemenis out of the Saudi construction market.
[25] It is ironic that Islah, widely acknowledged as Saudi-financed, is a major provider of assistance to returnees.
[26] The government cracked down on crime by cutting off the hands of 12 thieves. Yemen Times, October 23, 1991.

How to cite this article:

Thomas Stevenson "Yemeni Workers Come Home," Middle East Report 181 (March/April 1993).

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