Britain in Yemen

December 16 2010

Yemen, January 1965, Wikimedia Commons; enlarge

Britain and the Arabs in 1964

Last of the Dictionary Men


Aden was Britain’s most important possession on the Arabian peninsula. Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, the Trucial States and Oman were protectorates. Aden in Yemen was a colony, a major port and a coaling station for ships en route to India, about equidistant from the Suez Canal, Bombay and Zanzibar.

It had been ceded to the British by a local ruler in 1838 and subordinated to Bombay. It was ruled by the East India Company until the Crown took over in India in 1858. In 1932 it became a separate province of British India, but in 1937 it was detached from India to become a separate colony. It gained importance with the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869.

The Aden hinterland and, to the east, Hadhramaut formed the major part of what would become South Yemen and were not administered directly by Aden. (The historical Hadhramaut extends to the border of Oman. A smaller Hadhramaut is now a governorate in the Republic of Yemen.) Starting in the nineteenth century and continuing into the twentieth, Britain signed agreements with local Sunni rulers of traditional polities there that, together, became known as the Aden Protectorate.

By the late 1950s the British in Aden were being directly threatened by Nasser. Britain responded by uniting the states under its protection as the Federation of Arab Emirates of the South. Aden itself joined the federation in 1963 and it was renamed the Federation of South Arabia. (It was the age of federations.) The few remaining unfederated states formed the Protectorate of South Arabia.

The British left Aden in 1967 in the face of uncontrollable violence from both nationalist and socialist elements. The Federation of South Arabia collapsed and southern Yemen became independent as the People’s Republic of South Yemen, which became a Marxist People’s Democratic Republic in 1970.

The Royal Marines had been the first British troops to occupy Aden in 1839 and were the last to leave.

Film shot during the tour of duty of the 4th (Leicestershire) Battalion of The Royal Anglian Regiment in 1965. There is material on YouTube from the later British years. It was one of the least peaceful of Britain’s colonial withdrawals.

The history of the north was different. Before the nineteenth century, the most powerful indigenous rulers of Yemen had been Imams of the Zaydi sect of Shiite Islam. They had expelled the Ottomans from most of the Yemen early in the seventeenth century, but their history goes back much further than that. Their base was in the north.

By the nineteenth century, their power was declining. The Ottomans regained control of some of the northern cities early in the century, including Sanaa. When the Turks withdrew for the last time in 1918 the Imams continued to rule the north, which became the Mutawakkilite Kingdom of Yemen from 1918 to ’62 (capital Taiz, near the Red Sea port of Mocha). Britain never had a direct presence in this area.

In 1962 Arab nationalists took over and formed the non-communist Yemen Arab Republic (“North Yemen”). The capital was moved from Taiz to Sanaa.

The two Yemens were united in 1990.


Aden in 1960

11 Responses to “Britain in Yemen”

  1. davidderrick Says:

    Gibraltar, Aden, Hong Kong, Cape Town … four British rocks.

  2. davidderrick Says:

    The Anglian Regiment clip on YouTube and Street Fighting Man:

  3. Rod Leonard Says:

    3rd Batalion Royal Anglian (the Pompadours)
    left in June 1967 after a very hard 9 months, I was 18 at the time I served there, was a horrible place. Now the centre of terrorism! The first Muslim Minister (of justice Labour) in Britain, last year gave them £150 million pounds of British tax payers money. at the last election the people of Dewsbury, voted him out of office.

    • davidderrick Says:

      Thanks. You’re referring to Shahid Malik, who was Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice. I think he pledged the money in his previous job as Under-Secretary for International Development.

  4. davidderrick Says:

    There have been several posts here about Thesiger: he served the Royalist (Mutawakkilite) forces from 1966 to ’68 during the North Yemen Civil War of 1962-70.

  5. […] Square, Sanaa March 19 2011 This post on Britain in Yemen gave some elementary background on the country, and facts about the Shiite […]

  6. […] The first stop on the journey from Ceylon to England is in Aden, as the ship enters the Red Sea. This photo of Aden from 1960 appears on […]

  7. RBooker Says:

    Hi David,
    Just sent an email to what I think might be your email address? Trying to get in contact about one of your photos and a BBC TV series I’m working on. Would be great to get in contact –
    Many thanks,

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s