The Prime Minister’s decision to host an urgent international conference on Yemen at the end of the month will have surprised many. Britain certainly needs to pull its weight in Pakistan and in its former colonial possessions in Africa, for example, but why in Yemen? Because Britain is better equipped than anyone to understand how fragile the country has become, how much tension has been generated by the mismanaged union in 1990 of the formerly Marxist south with the military-tribal republic of the north and how easily a fragmentation of the country could play into al-Qaeda’s hands.
Before 1967 when the south became Marxist-ruled and Soviet-backed, that same south was under British rule. But it went by different names, none of them Yemeni; small wonder so few of us connect Yemen with Aden.
Captured by force in 1839, the colony of Aden with its valuable port did duty as a link in the chain of naval fortresses that allowed Britannia to rule the waves. Aden’s wild tribal hinterland, meanwhile, dubbed the Eastern and Western Aden Protectorates (EAP and WAP), served as a buffer-zone against northern Yemenis, who always resented the presence of Crusader infidels so close to Islam’s holy places.
Time was, therefore, when the British were entirely at home in the now obscure and excessively jihadist-friendly southern and eastern reaches of the state that is Yemen today. For the 128 years that we ran sweltering Aden to mutual economic advantage, and the surrounding tribal lands to the advantage of no one much, this stretch of the Arabian peninsula — affectionately referred to by British expats as “the arsehole of the Empire” — was as familiar to us as Northern Ireland.
Young colonial officers, many of them now retired diplomats dismayed by Yemen’s re-branding as the root of all al-Qaeda evil, spent the happiest and sweatiest years of their lives hurtling around the rocky wildernesses in Land Rovers wearing native head-cloths and Yemeni sarongs, and sometimes chewing qat with the natives. They usually shared the tribesmen’s sense of humour and admired their courtesy while bemoaning their prickliness, greed and mulish resistance to change.
Those colonial officers did manage to bring a measure of order to the EAP, an area more properly known as Hadhramaut, which today is familiar to counter-terrorism officers as Osama bin Laden’s “ancestral homeland”. Mohammed bin Laden left to seek his fortune in Saudi Arabia a few years too early to enjoy the benefits of a tribal truce brokered by a colonial official, Harold Ingrams.
No such “progress” was achieved in the WAP. Aden was so in thrall to the charms of the WAP tribes that when the strident Arab nationalism and anti-imperialism of the Egyptian President, Abdul Gamal Nasser, roused Aden Colony and the protectorates to demand independence, the British fatally overestimated the power of the WAP’s tribal sultans to keep their tribes in line and on Britain’s side.
The young British diplomat then, Oliver Miles, has recalled how helplessly ignorant the British in Aden felt when the time came to negotiate the handover of power to Marxist leaders of the National Liberation Front, who had ousted the more moderate Arab nationalists by the autumn of 1967: “Who were they? How did they do it? How was it that when we eventually sat down with them for our hasty handover negotiations in Geneva, we recognised more than one face we had known in the Federal Army or the armed police, people of whose true purpose we had known nothing?”
Yemen — south and north — retains that unnerving ability to wrongfoot outsiders and avoid conforming to Western narratives. As all the country’s foreign occupiers — the British, the Ottomans, the Egyptians and the Russians — discovered, the tribes are motivated by mercenary considerations, not by ideology or religion. In the long term, then, al-Qaeda-inspired jihadism is unlikely to strike firmer roots in Yemen than any other kind of “ism” (except tribalism), unless its promoters’ pockets are, literally, bottomless. Yemenis’ traditional resistance to outside interference suggests their land would not lend itself to hosting the headquarters of a new Islamist caliphate.
Estimating how active a support base al-Qaeda in the Arabian peninsula has among Yemen’s tribes is hard. Yemeni culture is geared to young men acquiring guns at about 15 and desperately seeking a living abroad, sometimes on foreign battlefields. It is harder still to take the Government’s estimate of 300 al-Qaeda operatives at face value when large areas are out of its control.
There is a lot of affection for Britain in the south and east of the country — doubtless a measure of how miserably people have fared since 1967. But it may well be that Yemen’s ills are too chronic for Britain or even the wider West to tackle with sticking plasters of defence and development aid. Britain lost the propaganda war in the country when we invaded Iraq, and now our ally, Yemen’s military tribesman President, Ali Abdullah Saleh, is losing his grip. Yesterday he tried to strike another of his deals with al-Qaeda over laying down arms. With the state failing, there is no one we can safely do business with.
In the short term, the best preparation for the London conference may be to apply pressure to Yemen’s wealthy Arab neighbours who have at least as much reason as we do to fear the disintegration of the country. A relaxation of restrictions on Yemeni visas to the Gulf countries, for example, might release some of the steam mounting in the Yemeni pressure cooker. It would not be much, but it would be safer and more useful than funnelling funds to President Saleh.
Victoria Clark, the author of the forthcoming book Yemen: Dancing on the Heads of Snakes.