Yemen is one of the world's most ancient countries and played an important part in Middle Eastern trade, supplying the ancient world with such exotic items as frankincense, myrrh, spices, condiments and other luxury items. The southwestern coastal strait known as Bab El-Mandeb, which links the Indian Ocean with the Red Sea, was an important trade corridor for about 3,000 years.
Since independence, the population has been almost entirely Arab. However, there are Afro-Arab concentrations in western coastal locations, South Asians in southern regions, and small European communities in major metropolitan areas. Many ethnologists contend that the purest "Arab" stock is to be found in Yemen. Classified as Joktanic Semites, the Yemenis claim descent from Himyar, great-grandson of Joktan, who, according to the book of Genesis, was descended from Shem, the son of Noah. Yemenis were prominent in the early armies of Islam and thus helped to spread Arabic influence throughout much of the Middle East. The Tihama has been subjected to occupation and infiltration by many conquerors, and its people show significant mixtures of other racial types, including Negroid peoples. A small minority of Akhdam perform menial tasks throughout the country. The history of the Yemenite Jews predates by centuries the Islamic Hijra (AD 622). How they came to settle in the region has not been determined.
Arabic, the national language, is spoken in a variety of dialects. In vocabulary and other features there is a considerable difference between the classical language used for writing and formal speaking and the spoken dialect used for ordinary discourse. Traces of the ancient South Arabian languages spoken prior to the coming of Muhammad appear in the dialects of the more remote districts of southern Yemen. Mahri, a rare and relatively unstudied language of unknown origins, is spoken in the east. English is widely understood in the former PDRY.
Yemen is officially a Muslim country. Almost all of the inhabitants are Sunnis of the Shaf 'i school, one of the four major schools of Islamic law. They reside chiefly in the coastal plains and the southwestern part of the country. Most of those remaining are Shias of the Zaydi sect, who live in the highlands. This sect, originating in the 9th century, takes its name from Zayd bin 'Ali (d.740), a descendant of Muhammad, and doctrinally is very close to Sunni Islam. In addition, there is a small minority of Ismailis, members of another Shia sect.
Nearly all of the country's once sizable Jewish population has emigrated. There are no legal restrictions on the few hundred who remain, although there are traditional restrictions on places of residence and choice of employment. About 500 Jews live in the villages between Şan'ā' and Şa'dah in northern Yemen. There are also small Christian and Hindu communities. In remote areas there is still evidence of shamanism, animism, and other indigenous forms of religion.
The constitution provides for freedom of religion, but the government does enforce some restrictions. Conversion of Muslims to other religions is punishable by death; non-Muslims are prohibited from proselytising and holding public office.