The British-Yemeni Society

News and events


Journal articles

Book reviews

About the Society

Society officers

Annual reports


Annual appeal



In Memoriam

Sayyid Abubakr bin Shaikh Al-Kaff KBE,

Fifty years ago Sayyid Abubakr bin Shaikh Al-Kaff philanthropist and peacemaker, was knighted for his public services in Hadhramaut, now a province of the Republic of Yemen. John Ducker, who served as a political officer in the region before independence, pays tribute to his memory.

Abubakr bin Shaikh Al-Kaff was a member of a very successful family of Tarim Sayyids which made a substantial fortune in trading and real estate in Singapore and the Dutch East Indies.

He was born in Singapore in c1890, but spent the best part of his life in Wadi Hadhramaut, and the best part of his fortune in seeking to bring peace to the region. He was largely instrumental in persuading the British authorities in Aden to take a more active interest in the welfare of his homeland. In 1934 Harold Ingrains was sent on an exploratory visit; he returned to the area in 1936 to work with Sayyid Abubakr and the local Qu’aiti and Kathiri rulers to persuade the warring tribes to accept a three year truce. Sayyid Abubakr’s personal influence and liberal purse played a crucial role in negotiations leading to the general pacification of the country, which laid the basis for its future security and stability

Before these events, Sayyid Abubakr had already embarked on the construction of a road from the coast to the interior, financing much of the cost from his own pocket, including payments to compensate local tribesmen for the loss of income earned by their camel caravans before the advent of motorised transport. He was also involved in the running and improvement of a hospital and school in Tarim, financed by the Al-Kaff family charity, which provided free medical care and education to the local population.

In 1938 Sayyid Abubakr was appointed Companion of the British Empire (CBE) for his public services. The importance of his peacemaking role is vividly attested by a petition signed early that year by some ninety nine Hadhrami notables. This urged him to postpone his reported intention of travelling abroad for fear that his absence would put at risk the peace and reforms which he had helped to initiate.

Sayyid Abubakr was a man of independent spirit who did not hesitate to speak his mind. When he was advanced to KBE in 1953, he declined to give up his CBE, as protocol required, remarking that what the British gave with one hand, they took away with the other! Both decorations appeared in his letterhead. In 1954 he was formally knighted by HM Queen Elizabeth during her one and only visit to Aden. During the ceremony Sayyid Abubakr was exempted from the requirement to kneel before the Sovereign; he had earlier made it clear that as a Muslim he could only kneel before God.

Sayyid Abubakr was respected in his personal life as a devout Muslim and a man of his word; and he was blessed with a wife who had an equally high reputation. Ingrains wrote of him at some length in his book, Arabia and the Isles. From the early 1930s until his death in 1965,Western travellers and many British officials, myself included, benefited from his wisdom, help and unstinting hospitality.

I was in Seiyun at the time of his death when hundreds of mourners from all over Hadhramaut gathered to pay their last respects to him. joined the vast crowd following his coffin for the ceremonies of burial, with drums beating and women wailing from the rooftops. It was a hot morning and the dust of the long funeral procession rose in the still air. We later gathered at the mudbrick palace of Sayyid Abubakr’s son-in-law, Mashhur bin Hassan Al-Kaff, to express our condolences to members of the family

With the exception of Sultan Saleh bin Ghalib Al-Qu’aiti (d. 1958), there was no comparable figure in the Aden Protectorate of his generation. Sayyid Abubakr was a great conciliator and public benefactor whose name will be remembered with respect long into the future.

HM Queen Elizabeth knighting Sayyid Abubakr bin Shaikh al-Kaff during her visit to Aden in April 1954.

August 2003