In 1838, Sultan
Muhsin Bin Fadl of the state of Lahej ceded 194 km² (75 sq. miles) including Aden to the British. On 19 January 1839, the British East India Company landed Royal Marines at Aden to occupy the territory and stop attacks by pirates against British shipping to India. It then became an important trading hub between British India and the Red Sea, and following the opening of the Suez canal in 1869, it became a coaling station for ships en route to India. Aden was ruled as part of British India until 1937, when the city of Aden became the Colony of Aden. The Aden hinterland and Hadhramaut to the east formed the remainder of what would become South Yemen and was not administered directly by Aden but were tied to Britain by treaties of protection with local rulers of traditional polities that, together, became known as the Aden Protectorate. Economic development was largely centered in Aden, and while the city flourished, the states of the Aden Protectorate stagnated.
In 1963, Aden and much of the Protectorate were joined to form the Federation of South Arabia with the remaining states that declined to join, mainly in Hadhramaut, forming the separate Protectorate of South Arabia. Both of these polities were still tied to Britain with promises of total independence in 1968.
Two nationalist groups, the Front for the Liberation of Occupied South Yemen (FLOSY) and the National Liberation Front (NLF), began an armed struggle known as the Aden Emergency on 14 October 1963 against British control and, with the temporary closure of the Suez Canal in 1967, the British began to withdraw. One faction, NLF, was invited to the Geneva Talks to sign the independence agreement with the British. However, Britain - who during its occupation of Aden signed several treaties of protection with the local sheikhdoms and emirates of the Federation of South Arabia - excluded them in the talks and thus the agreement stated "...the handover of the territory of South Arabia to the (Yemeni) NLF...". Southern Yemen became independent as the People's Republic of Southern Yemen on 30 November 1967, and the National Liberation Front consolidated its control in the country.
In June 1969, a radical Marxist wing of the NLF gained power and on 1 December 1970, reorganized the country into the People's Democratic Republic of Yemen (PDRY). Subsequently, all political parties were amalgamated into the National Liberation Front, renamed the Yemeni Socialist Party, which became the only legal party. The People's Democratic Republic of Yemen established close ties with the Soviet Union, the People's Republic of China, Cuba, and the Palestinian Liberation Organization. East Germany's constitution of 1968 even served as a kind of blueprint for the PDRY's first constitution.
The new government embarked on a programme of nationalisation, introduced central planning, put limits on housing ownership and rent, and implemented a land reform. By 1973, the GDP of South Yemen increased by 25 percent. And despite the conservative environment and resistance, women became legally equal to men, polygamy, child marriage and arranged marriage were all banned by law. Equal rights in divorce were also sanctioned. The Republic also secularised education and sharia law was replaced by a state legal code.
The major communist powers assisted in the building of the PDRY's armed forces. Strong support from Moscow resulted in Soviet naval forces gaining access to naval facilities in South Yemen.
Disputes with North Yemen
The Arabian peninsula in 1914
Unlike the early decades of East Germany and West Germany, North Korea and South Korea, or North Vietnam and South Vietnam, North Yemen (YAR) and South Yemen (PDRY) remained relatively friendly, though relations were often strained. Fighting broke out in 1972, and a short-lived, small proxy border conflict was resolved with negotiations, where it was declared unification would eventually occur.
However, these plans were put on hold in 1979, as the PDRY funded Red rebels in the YAR, and war was only prevented by an Arab League intervention. The goal of unity was reaffirmed by the northern and southern heads of state during a summit meeting in Kuwait in March 1979.
In 1980, PDRY president Abdul Fattah Ismail resigned and went into exile in Moscow, having lost the confidence of his sponsors in the USSR. His successor, Ali Nasir Muhammad, took a less interventionist stance toward both North Yemen and neighbouring Oman.
On January 13, 1986, a violent struggle began in Aden between Ali Nasir's supporters and supporters of the returned Ismail, who wanted power back. Fighting, known as the South Yemen Civil War, lasted for more than a month and resulted in thousands of casualties, Ali Nasir's ouster, and Ismail's death. Some 60,000 people, including the deposed Ali Nasir, fled to the YAR. Ali Salim al-Beidh, an ally of Ismail who had succeeded in escaping the attack on pro-Ismail members of the Politburo, then became General Secretary of the Yemeni Socialist Party.
Reforms and attempts for unification
Against the background of the perestroika in the USSR, the main backer of the PDRY, political reforms were started in the late 1980s. Political prisoners were released, political parties were formed and the system of justice was reckoned to be more equitable than in the North. In May 1988, the YAR and PDRY governments came to an understanding that considerably reduced tensions including agreement to renew discussions concerning unification, to establish a joint oil exploration area along their undefined border, to demilitarize the border, and to allow Yemenis unrestricted border passage on the basis of only a national identification card. In 1990, the parties reached a full agreement on joint governing of Yemen, and the countries were effectively merged as Yemen.