Britain’s role in Yemen: does it need to change?

Britain has a long interest in Yemen; its near century and a half occupation of Aden was important to the British Empire, but particularly Aden was vital in Britain’s lucrative control of the Indian Raj. Britain changed Yemen’s history, and some of those changes still reverberate in the current conflict. For that reason alone, the British government has a responsibility now to Yemeni people; to ensure that any involvement by the international community does not cause Yemeni suffering; to help Yemenis work together to find a meaningful peace; and to provide significant humanitarian aid to ease suffering.

The boundaries of most states in the Middle East were drawn up by colonial powers, and often bear little resemblance to the way the land was used and divided amongst its residents. That was not true of Yemen; although the boundaries between North and South Yemen were decided by the Ottomans and the British in the nineteenth century, the geographic area in the south-west corner of Arabia has existed as the land of Yemen since long before Islamic times; it is referred to many times in the Holy Qur’an. The final boundaries between Saudi and Yemen were only settled in 2000. Yemen’s location is strategic; it sits in the centre of Africa, Europe and Asia, and borders the sea routes between those land masses. Aden has a natural harbour that has been used by seafarers for millennia: it was known to belong to the Kingdom of Aswan that ruled Yemen between seventh and fifth century BC.

When the British India Company settled in Aden in 1839, the Ottomans had already had an interest in Yemen for three hundred years, although they had found the hostile tribes of North Yemen difficult to win over and had not successfully controlled them. The Zaidi Imamate had ruled Yemen for hundreds of years, and saw Aden as within its domain, although it had largely been used by a colony of Indian Ocean sea pirates since the 1700s. The British were looking for a coaling station to fuel its steam ships travelling between Suez and Bombay. After tetchy negotiations with the local sheikh failed, eventually the British took Aden by force, in spite of the Imam’s objections. A mix of bribes and demonstrations of force by the British kept Aden in British control, although hostile tribes were always causing problems. The area was known as the Aden Settlement, part of the Indian Raj.

When the Suez Canal opened in 1869, the increase in shipping made Aden into a prosperous port, one of the busiest in the world. The territory was re-organised as a separate Crown Colony of the United Kingdom from 1937, the hinterland becoming a British Protectorate. The British offered little to Yemenis themselves at that time, although some were employed the conditions were tough and they lived in a shanty town in Crater, with only rudimentary medical and educational services. World War Two brought a surge to the fortunes of Aden, with a dramatic rise in its population to over 80,000, only one third were Aden-born Arabs, with others drawn from all over Yemen, plus Indians, Jews and Somalis.

After the war Britain began to lose the lands of its empire, but Aden was a jewel that was worth keeping. The airport at Khormakser was the busiest RAF airport in the world, and only New York and Liverpool received more ships than Aden port. As the local population grew more restive under British occupation, concessions were made in order to try to keep it under British control. The colony acquired a parliament in 1947, and by 1955 some of the members were elected. Permission to establish a trades union was granted in 1942 and 20,000 union members were registered by 1956. There was a large rise in the numbers of school places offered.   After much struggling, Britain managed to get the cosmopolitan Adeni population to join with the Hadramauti tribesmen of east Yemen to form a new Federation of South Arabia

But inevitably, Yemenis became interested in Egypt and the pan-Arabism and anti-Imperialist movement of Nasser. Not only was this a threat to the British, but also to the Imamate in North Yemen, whose relationship with Britain had become more hostile in the 1950s and 60s. Eventually in 1962, with the aid of the Egyptians the Imamate of North Yemen was overthrown and North Yemen became a republic. I have a Yemeni friend who recalls her happy sixties’ childhood in Aden; she does not describe any feelings of oppression due to the British occupation. She recalled that one day when she returned from school, she was having fun singing to herself and playing; she forgot the time and was very late home. The impression from this story is that it was considered normal for small girls to walk home from school alone, demonstrating the perception of safety within the Arab community. Even though Aden was under occupation, her father was able to operate a successful business and also owned property within the city. Similarly, I have heard accounts of British children living in Aden at this time, and their memories of Yemen were invariably positive; for example, the son of a British officer told me that he used to cycle home from Steamer Point to Khormakser late in the evening without ever considering he might encounter problems. So despite the political unrest and occasional uprisings, in the main Aden provided a stable home for its citizens, whatever their origins.

However, the revolution in the north had stirred the desire for independence in the south, and behind the scenes there were ominous developments. Two rival groups, FLOSY (Front for the Liberation of South Yemen) and NLF (National Liberation Front) formed; both of them sought independence, and an armed struggle ensued between these groups as well as attacks on the British. FLOSY was considered to be less violent and had more educated people within its ranks, whereas the NLF was a Marxist paramilitary organisation that grew out of the trades unions. Things got bad enough for the British to suspend the government and impose direct colonial rule in 1965. This however did not stop the downward spiral, and finally the British were forced to leave in November 1967. As FLOSY was considered to be the most popular party, any negotiations that the British had concerning handover of powers tended to be with that group; however, a few months before the British left, the NLF had dramatically risen in popularity, and seized control.

Post-colonisation the South rapidly descended into economic chaos, although this was not caused by the ruling party. The British bases had been a valuable part of the Adeni economy, and because of financial troubles in UK at that time, an operating base was not left in Aden after their departure, leaving a hole in the finances of the fledgling state. And to make matters worse, the closure of the Suez Canal by Egypt after the Six Day War severely affected the traffic calling in to the port. South Yemen, which became known as the PDRY (People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen) affiliated with the Soviet Union in 1968 and became the Middle East’s only Marxist state. As part of that process, property was seized and nationalised. Rich landowners and sheikhs fled to Saudi Arabia.

Could Britain have done anything to make the move to independence easier? Britain’s occupation had in many ways provided benefits to the Yemeni community particularly in the last few decades, but it had interrupted the indigenous systems of ruling, and taken away opportunities for self-determination. Part of that was the British ignorance of the ruling systems that had functioned effectively in the Arabian Peninsula before their arrival; the only system of rule they considered was the British system, with them taking on all responsibility for controlling ‘the natives’. What I see is that the rivalries between Yemeni groups with different aspirations that emerged before independence had no proper political channels for dialogue, because Britain had not allowed an effective system of political representation for local populations, apart from a few seats in parliament. So when differences arose, they were addressed through violence.

As in Palestine, trying to control the rivalries between groups took up so much time that there were no opportunities to hand over properly, and like in Palestine, when the British eventually left they did so in a hurry, leaving the warring factions behind them.

Yemen did not join the Commonwealth, and so unfortunately ties between the two countries did not continue. That is a pity; I was at first surprised by the warmth felt towards Britain by Yemenis, especially those from Aden. The mementos of British rule remained; the statue of Queen Victoria still undamaged placed in a small green park near the old port; the rows of army barracks, now turned into homes for local people; the many grand Victorian buildings from Empire days, in need of restoration but still exuding an aura of power and stability. The church, in a style found in many English villages, still stood strong; it had been damaged by the North during the civil war, but lovingly restored to its former state. The British graves left there were carefully tended. Many Adeni people told me that they considered Aden’s finest hour was when it was ruled by Britain.

I was shocked at the suddenness of the air bombardment by the Saudi Coalition. And I was more shocked when the Britain government stood by; allowing the devastating attacks on Yemen to continue without protest. As Yemeni civilians died, and as their country was bought to its knees in a few short weeks by a savage bombing, the defense secretary Philip Hammond stated that the British government would do everything to support the attacks, short of combat. I believe our shared history means Britain has a moral responsibility to be more active in promoting peace between the warring factions.

The UK government has been active in selling planes to Saudi Arabia. Many people believe the British government restricts sales to repressive regimes; this was true but was changed quietly without parliamentary approval in 2014 and the government now sells to anyone unless there is risk the weapons might be used in violation of the law. Before this change, UK deals include a £4.4 billion in the Salam ‘peace’ project in 2007, for 72 Eurofighter Typhoon jets, and a £1.6 billion BAE contract in 2012 to train the Saudi air force and provide 22 BAE Hawk jets. Government spokespersons have excused this, stating that if we didn’t do so, others would.

Saudi Arabia has no UN mandate for aerial bombardment of Yemen; they have bombed areas where civilians likely to be found; markets, a displaced person camp, schools and hospitals. They have also damaged infrastructure such as water tanks putting lives at risk, and the Saudi led blockade has put the civilian population at risk. Additionally, Oxfam has pointed to the use of illegal weapons by the Saudi coalition. According to the Campaign Against the Arms Trade, UK made war planes are playing a central role in Saudi Arabia’s attacks on Yemen. In July 2015, after reports of extensive civilian deaths and severe damage to infrastructure and historic buildings, it was reported that Paveway IV bombs, made by Raytheon, were diverted from the RAF to Saudi for use in Yemen. Experts have estimated that even if hostilities cease now, it will take a hundred years for Yemen to recover. It is time for the British government to make a stand and promote peace in Yemen. This conflict cannot be resolved by war. The Middle East has enough weapons, and what Yemen urgently needs is humanitarian aid.