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Royal United Services Institute Conference – ‘Without Glory but Without Disaster’ – Sponsored by MBI Al Jaber Foundation

Federation of South Arabia Map

Professor Clive Jones, Chair in Regional Security, Durham University, made the keynote address that led the way to the panel discussions, and described the historical and regional context of British involvement in Aden and South Arabia.

He stated that several studies have tried to unveil why British rule in Yemen failed; from bad governance deriving from the political situation in London, to British officers on the ground not being able to deal with the locals and, finally, even the intrusion of neighbouring states. We also need to take into consideration the overall changes occurring in the MENA region during those years and the people’s demand for self-determination.

The panelists’ talks underlined how Aden’s colonial government was composed of several hundred men whose main task was to safeguard the maritime activity of the city. The remainder of the government was composed of local authorities, in particular Imams, but few of them proved to be actual allies of the British.

In the 1950s, colonial desires were to bring balance to the Federation of South Arabia and give the colonial government greater power. Britain relied on Victorian ideals of creating welfare for the people but the Federation’s status wasn’t clear, as Britain was mainly concerned with the region’s economic relevance.

The British perceived the local rulers as old, tribal nobility that would never succeed in making alliances. The fact that these rulers did not agree with Her Majesty’s government caused the British to think that they might be easily malleable.

Later on, the panelists dealt with the political situation in Aden and South Arabia. They reported on some of the testimonies of former officers and gave us a taste of the reality of those times. Aden and the protectorate were one of the last British colonies to gain independence. The testimonies discussed how popular Communism was with Arab nationalists and how Britain failed to establish a local government that had the support of the people. Yemen was, all of a sudden, declared one nation but this did not bring about what the British had hoped for, because of tribal rivalries between local rulers. When Britain left, they did so by leaving the country’s independence issues unresolved.

The final part of the conference was dedicated to explaining what the legacy of British rule in South Arabia was, and how it affected neighbouring countries, namely Oman and the UAE. Many former Adeni officials moved to these countries and were appointed to high posts, therefore “exporting” the British colonial model. The idea of the Federation later inspired the birth of the UAE. The British deemed it impossible and yet the very model they had come up with worked in neighbouring countries.

The panelists concluded that these were some of the reasons why Yemen is facing its current crisis.

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