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Oman and Yemen: 
an historic re-encounter
by Fred Halliday
The author, who is Professor of International Relations at the London School of Economies, gave this lecture to a joint meeting of the Anglo-Omani and British-Yemeni Societies on 28 October 1999.


The choice of topic is a fascinating one, but I am sure I am not alone in remarking that I may not have been the obvious choice of speaker. In the first place, I teach at the London School of Economics, an institution where it has been my pleasure, in recent years, to supervise students from, and research into, both Oman andYemen. I very much hope that this will continue. Yet it was not so long ago that one of the most notable rulers of this region, Sultan Said bin Taimur, was to remark that he was concerned about the impact of education on his subjects, precisely because they might go to study in the LSE (1). I have also myself had a long association with these two countries, going back some thirty years, and I shall have occasion in what follows to reflect on this. But it is no secret that my relations with both governments have not always been of the most convergent, nor has HMG always viewed my association with opposition forces inside these countries in the most benign of lights. This makes it all the more meaningful for me to thank all those officials who have, over many years, sought to inform and modify my views. I would here mention in particular HE Dr Abd al-Karim al-Iryani inYemen and HE Mr Yusuf Alawi in Oman. I am sure we all have views on what has happened in Yemen and Oman in recent years, and I am happy to discuss this in the latter part of this meeting; suffice it to say here that all of us are united in a fascination with, and affection for, the two countries, that we all wish them well in the present and the future, and that any errors ofjudgement, or fact, we may have been responsible for arose from that commitment. Yemen and Oman did not need the influence of the British Isles to develop a relationship: their association with Britain is a small part, almost a blip in a millennial interaction. But that association has been part of the modern history of these two countries, and it is one from which I, and I suspect all of us in this room, have learnt and profited in diverse ways.

Yemen and Oman have been in contact with each other for at least one and a half thousand years, but they have, in recent times, come to consolidate a new, and potentially most fruitful relationship. Part of this is the construction, now nearing completion, of a modern road network along the southern shores of the Peninsula. For of all of us who have had association with these countries, and with the vagaries of recent history, this is a most welcome and exciting development. It was Julian Paxton who first suggested the idea to me to address this meeting: in our initial conversation he remarked that he had always wanted to make the land journey from one end of South Arabia to the other, from Muscat to Aden and Sana’a or vice-versa. This has long been held a dream by those of us associated with the region. In early centuries, pre-Islamic and Islamic, trade routes, by sea and land, linked the cities of South Arabia. In the fourteen century Ibn Batuta travelled in an easterly direction, but his voyage from Aden to Dhofar took him by way of Mogadiscio and Mombasa. He then went on, via the Kuria Muria islands, to Muscat. It was, so he reported, a month by camel across the desert from Aden to Dhofar. Just over a century ago, in January 1895,Theodore and Mabel Bent set out to go by land from Dhofar to Hadhramaut: they did not, as we know, succeed. Departing from Salala in a westward direction, they took thirty hours in a boat to reach Rakhyut, then, so they tell us, the limit of ‘Omani influence’, before embarking on a gruelling trip under cover in an Arab boat to Qishn. I can claim to have walked across the frontier, from Hauf to Rakhyut, during the Dhofar war, and I suspect many others, in both directions, did so as well. I was struck making part of this trip recently by jeep, just how demanding it had been. But with the completion of this road, both a reality and symbol of the new cooperation, the linking of Muscat to Aden, and on to Sanaa, will now become a reality, one which, I hope, we may all, under appropriate circumstances, be able to enjoy.

The historic relationship

In assessing this relationship I would like to look first at the development of relations between the two states, how the two states got to their present understanding, then at recent agreements, before, by way of conclusion, examining some of the issues which they may have to face, conjointly, in the future. The story of their origins tells us that Yemen and Oman sprang from a similar source, the original inhabitants of Oman having migrated fromYemen after, so legend has it, the bursting of the dam at Marib. This is the story told in the famous history of al-Kalbi, of the migration of Malik bin Falim with 6,000 followers via Hadhramaut: after defeating a Persian army near Nizwa, he established the first independent state in Oman. Certainly, well before the sixth century there were trade links between what is today Oman and Yemen, most notably through the frankincense trade from Dhofar, but more generally as well. With the coming of Islam Yemen was amongst the first areas of the Peninsula to fall under the influence of the new religion, through direct influence from Hijaz; whilst Oman was later converted to Ibadhi Islam by missionaries who came down the Persian Gulf from Basra, followers of the dissident sect of Khawarij, and established the following which survives to this day amongst about 40% of the Omani population.

The first Islamic states ofYemen and Oman therefore evolved quite separately, and there seems to have been little contact between them; but it is believed by many that the first Imam in Oman only emerged after the institution of the same name had collapsed in Yemen. The history from then to the seventeenth century, when the beginnings of the modern states began to emerge, is unclear: it certainly seems, however, that the boundaries between the two states were not fixed, and interaction, sometimes confrontation, was recurrent. Thus the ninth-century Yemeni geographer Abu Muhammad al-Hasan al-Hamdani, when describing in his Sifat Jazirat al-Arab the limits of ‘natural Yemen’ set these near Muscat, whilst for Jbn Batuta what is today Dhofar was also part of ‘the extremity ofYemen’. On the other hand, there are reports in Omani history, though not in Yemeni sources, of the Omani incorporation of Hadhramaut, during a revolt in the tenth and eleventh centuries against Yemeni rule. In this mediaeval period, the frontier of state, economy, culture was certainly not firm nor should we expect it to have been. It testifies to the continued interaction of the two states and to that fluidity of culture and allegiance that prevailed in the large intermediate space between the coreYemeni and Omani domains.

The origins of the modern relationship are to be found in two overlapping processes — the gradual emergence, from the sixteenth century onwards, of distinct states inYemen and Oman, the Qasimis and theYaariba respectively, and the interaction of these states with foreign powers, in both cases with Britain and in the Omani case with Iran, and in the Yemeni with Turkey. To this process of state formation and external interaction was added the development internal to the Peninsula itself, the rise of the Wahhabi movement and, ultimately, the creation of Saudi Arabia. What this meant in practice was that by the end of the nineteenth century the SouthYemeni and Omani states had been placed under varying forms of British control. This led in one sense to a delineation of the boundary between them: the Omani incorporation of Dhofar in 1879, and the signing by Britain of Protectorate Agreements with the ruler of the adjoining area of Mahra, the Sultan of Qishn and Socotra in 1876 and 1888, and meant that the area as a whole came under loose British protection.Yet the very fact that strategic control lay with an external power may have lessened contact between the two states. This process of separation was compounded by the impact on both Yemen and Oman of the rise of the modern economic system: both were, in different ways, deprived of the economic links that had tied them to the outside world, the coffee trade inYemen’s case, the Indian Ocean empire based on the slave trade in the Omani case. The result was, by the beginning of the twentieth century, the retreat of both Yemen and Oman into a form of insulation from which they only later emerged. This culminated in the parallel, introverted, reigns ofYahya and Ahmad in Yemen, and Said bin Taimur in Oman. The exception was, of course, Aden and, in a different way, Hadhramaut: they looked to the world beyond the region and less to other Arabian states or societies.

The insulation ofYemen from Oman was, however, never complete. Between 1874 and 1881 the then ruler of Mukalla, the Kasadi naqib, sought to obtain the mediation of the Sultan of Muscat in his conflict with the Qu’ayti lords of Shilir and Shibam. As this coincided with the Omani expansion into Dhofar there was concern that Omani influence could spread westwards: the UK government therefore discouraged any Omani involvement in this intra-Hadhrami dispute. In the 1960s, the British assistant adviser P S Allfree found himself caught in a dispute over the town of Habrut, which lies along the frontier between Oman and Mahra. The local people professed allegiance to a variety of rulers, including the Saudi king ‘when he has been generous’, as one of them put it to Allfree. To complicate matters more the responsible British government ministries were at odds: the Foreign Office, which was responsible for Muscat, backing the Sultan of Oman’s claim to Habrut, the Colonial Office, which was responsible for the Protectorates, backing the claims of the Sultan of Malira and Socotra. Alifree allowed the locals to have unfettered access to the dates of Habrut; the question of territorial title was left unresolved (2).

This appearance of resolution was, however, to be challenged, for a time, with the rise of the nationalist movements in South Arabia which began in Oman with the Jabal Akhdhar revolt of 1955-1959, and in Yemen with the revolution of September 1962. These recurrent upheavals are an important part of the modern history of these states, and of their formation today. The process by which a modern Yemeni nationalism emerged, encompassing North and South, Aden and the Protectorates, and, gradually and never conclusively, Hadhramaut and Mahra lies outside the scope of this lecture. Suffice it to say that, by the 1960s and amidst political turmoil in North and South, the idea of a single modern Yemen, corresponding to the territory of both North and South, had gained considerable ground. The boundaries of thisYemen, and of its two component parts, were, however, not always clear: this was most noticeable in regard to the Saudi-Yemeni border dispute. In regard to Oman, Yemeni nationalism was less concerned, and the general issue of their border has never featured as a significant issue in modern Yemeni politics.

Yemeni claims on territory have focused mainly on Saudi Arabia. Here there have been clashes, as there were, in 1995, with Eritrea over the Hanish Islands. Yet this uncertainty about the Yemeni-Saudi frontier has implications, as we shall see, for Oman. In the period immediately after the independence of South Yemen in 1967, some NLF officials in Hadhramaut, acting, so far as I have been able to discern, off their own bat, did lay claim to Dhofar as part of historic Yemen, but this was never sustained or pursued. Of greater import was the officialYemeni protest at the decision of the retiring British authorities to transfer administrative authority for the Kuria Muria islands to Muscat: these had been given as a present to Queen Victoria by Sultan Said in 1854 and subsequently run by the Persian Gulf administration. The inhabitants had, so Britain reported, opted to be part of Oman rather than South Yemen. The newly established PRSY did protest to the UN in December 1967 about this, but, so far as I can tell, the matter was dropped thereafter. What was not dropped and was intermittently raised in the ensuing years by PDRY officials was the claim to around 7,000 square kilometres allegedly transferred from Mahra to Oman in 1965 by the British Political Agent in alGheidha: in the overall catalogue of Yemeni-Omani disagreements this did not, however, rank very highly.

Here we come to the most conflictual, and controversial, chapter in the modern history of Yemeni-Omani relations, the period associated with the war in Dhofar between 1965 and 1975 and the South Yemeni support for this (3). The guerrillas who were active in Dhofar were of diverse political persuasion, but with the advance of the NLF in South Yemen they came increasingly to be dominated by personnel who were part of the pan-Arab radical group, the Movement of Arab Nationalists, or harakat al-qaumiyyin al-arab. This included groups active within the Palestinian movement, the PFLP and the PDFLP, as well as the NLF in South Yemen, and the radical left in North Yemen. These groups, originally of a Nasserist orientation, were radicalised by the Egyptian defeat by Israel in 1967 and by developments in the Yemen war. The result was that the government in Aden was now run by the ideological associates of the Dhofari rebels. They believed, in addition to any strategic interest they might have had, that they had an ideological duty to assist their fellow revolutionaries in Dhofar. Assistance consisted first of rifles, military facilities and training, as well as diplomatic and financial support. Yemeni troops also guarded the frontier and on occasions, particularly in clashes at Habrut in May 1972 and in artillery clashes during the last months of the war in late 1975, became involved in cross-border activities.

It is an open question how far the Aden government actually controlled the Dhofar guerrillas or approved of all that they did. Any policy they had was increasingly affected by that of other powers with an interest in Dhofar, first up to 1972 the Chinese and then the USSR.Yet as long as the war in Dhofar continued, Aden was in collision with Oman, not only along the frontier, but also in the diplomatic arena. In 1971 when Oman sought entry to the Arab League and to the UN, South Yemen sought to organise opposition to its entry: but this was unsuccessful. When the question of Omani admission came to the UN General Assembly in October 1971, South Yemen was the only country voting against, with Cuba and Saudi Arabia the only two abstaining. It was to take another eleven years for Aden and Muscat to reach agreement on the establishment of diplomatic relations: even after the defeat of the guerrillas in late 1975, and the coming into operation of an effective ceasefire in March 1976, the PDRY continued to impose demands on normalisation of relations. The reconciliation of October 1982, under Kuwaiti auspices, marked the formal termination of PDRY support for the guerrillas, and led, inter alia, to the closure of their radio facilities in Aden; but it did not lead to an exchange of ambassadors until December 1987, and some nervousness continued on both sides: Oman was not involved in the intra-socialist conffict of January 1986, but in 1987 there was a serious border incident in which several soldiers were reported killed. There matters rested until in 1990 the two Yemens, for reasons unconnected to Oman, merged into one state. It was this merger and the ensuing course of the relationship between North and SouthYemen which shaped the most recent chapter in Yemeni-Omani relations and brought, for the first time in modern history, domains of Sana’a into contact with those of Muscat.

The 1990s:Yemeni Unity, Border Settlement

The stages by whichYemen as a whole and Oman have been brought closer in the 1990s can be briefly summarised. North Yemen had maintained, ever since the emergence of Oman as a modern Arab state in 1971, relations with Muscat and had a common interest in containing the PDRY Indeed the security threat posed, directly and indirectly to the North was far greater than any ever posed to Muscat. With the advent ofYemeni unity in 1990 the question of Oman having different relationships with North and SouthYemen was dissolved — henceforward relations were with Sana’a alone. In 1992 the border agreement was signed between the two states, and in May 1993 a new border post at al-Mazyouna was opened. In October 1993 Sultan Qabus paid his first visit to Sana’a and signed, amongst other things, a $21 millions loan toward the construction of the road linking the two states.This is expected to be completed next year.

But things were not at first that simple. The Yemeni unity agreement of May 1990, while it created one government, allowed two states to remain in existence. At first these appeared set on completing the intiqal, the transition, to a single state, but by late 1992 things were going the other way: the Yemeni union was turning sour, and in late April 1994 full-scale war, in which an estimated 7,000 people died, broke out between the two states (4). The inter-Yemeni war of 1994 lasted for seventy days, at the end of which the forces of the North occupied Aden and, rapidly, the whole of the South. This meant that for the first time in modern history forces from the Yemeni heartland had reached the frontiers of Omani jurisdiction.

The war of 1994 presented Oman with two immediate problems. One was its attitude during the war itself. Some members of the Gulf Cooperation Council, notably Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, favoured the South, and encouraged the West to recognise the breakaway regime that emerged on 27 May in Aden. Others, notably Qatar, supported the North. Oman did not sway either way and avoided, as it had done in 1986, conflict across its borders. That said, there were some Yemeni emigres in Oman who did provide logistical and other support to the South and, in contrast to 1986, when the defeated forces crossed into North Yemen, on this occasion the losers in the South crossed into Oman. Most of the military who came over subsequently returned, but the President of the breakaway republic, Ali al-Bidh, who sought refuge with his family, remains. Al-Bidh is, however, in a state of political silence, and it may well be that Yemen is happy for him to remain there under such conditions.

The second problem which Oman faced was what attitude to take to the new united Yemen. There may have been some anxiety at first, if only because Oman had got used to working with the southern officials and was now confronted with forces it knew less well. But this was a temporary concern, and in time relations were consolidated.

The core of this new understanding is the border agreement signed between the two countries on 1 October 1992. This delimited the border, whilst two appendices dealt, respectively, with the organisation of the border authorities, and the use of water, grazing and movement in the border zone, this latter being defined as a zone running up to a maximum of 25 kilometres each way from the common boundary line. A subsequent agreement covered the clearing of mines left from the time of the Dhofar war. Final border maps were exchanged in June 1995 (5). There was some controversy in Yemen over rumours that the government was giving away territory to Oman, and Omani officials for their part took pains to explain the agreement to the tribes who lived along the frontier. But as far as the domestic opinion of both countries is concerned this agreement prompted far less controversy than many other such issues in the Peninsula and the Middle East as a whole.

Current Concerns

When we come to the present, we can recognise that, for all their differences Yemen and Oman have many similarities. They are countries which combine a rich internal diversity, with an openness to the outside world. Both have created a national heritage that draws on diverse aspects of their past. This diversity can be a source of strength not of weakness. InYemen there are differences of religious sect, between Zeidi and Shafei, and of region, stretching from the northern highlands to Hadhramaut. Oman for its part has a religious diversity, comprising Ibadhis, who are neither Sunni nor Shia, with Sunni and Shia minorities. Oman also has its geographical diversity, from the Batina coast to the mountains of the interior down to Dhofar. The challenge of development is, in both cases, to preserve this diversity whilst forging a modern state. Both are also countries which, for all their periods of isolation in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, are open to the outside world and have lived that openness in a vety creative way: in Oman you feel the proximity of India, as you do the historic link with Africa — over 20% of the Omani population are believed to speak Swahili — and with Iran. In Yemen, the Horn of Africa is a small distance away — Yemen gave Ethiopia its script — and the migrations of the past two centuries have produced a diaspora that stretches through much of the Indian Ocean and on, including to the cities of Britain.

There is one further element that they both share, and which has been well illustrated in recent history, and that is a remarkable ability to overcome internal differences. The history of both countries in modern times is one of recurrent upheaval and revolt. InYemen the century began with the Northern revolt against the Turks, leading to the Treaty of Da’an of 1911 which created, in effect, the first independent Arab state of modern times. Under the Imams there was considerable resistance, most notably in the revolt of the Free Yemenis of 1948, before the Hamid al-Din succumbed in September 1962 to the revolt of Sallal and the other officers. Eight years of civil war followed. On the Omani side, the very origins of the modern state, first with the Ya’ariba in the seventeenth century and then with the Al Bu Said in the eighteenth, lay in the building of coalitions that opposed foreign influence. The history of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries has also been one of uprising and challenge: as far as the interior of the north is concerned, in the 1860s, in the period 1913-1920 and then in the 1950s, and then, later, in the separate revolt in Dhofar from 1965-1975. Yet after each of these, including the more recent and ideological confrontations, a measure of resolution and conciliation occurred; there was no large-scale and enduring retribution, but rather an attempt to forge a new, national, consensus. This is something remarkable in any comparative perspective and something which marks South Arabia off from those European and other countries — one thinks of Ireland and Finland in the 1920s, Spain in the 1930s, or Greece in the 1940s, let alone the USA after the 1860s or China after 1949 — where civil war was followed by decades of division and recrimination. This is something which the two countries share, and it is something that I was struck by during my recent visit to Oman. It is something for which the country’s rulers who initiated these policies must take prime credit — in Yemen President al-Iryani and his prime minister Muhsin al-Aini in 1970, in Oman, in the same year, Sultan Qabus and his prime minister Tariq bin Taimur.

Today relations between the two countries are stronger than at any time in the past and no major difficulties seem to be looming. There are, inevitably, a few areas that require management, four of which may be mentioned. First, there is a degree of competition between the two states over the development of their respective container ports. Both Aden and Salala are developing bulk container ports, for transshipment in feeder ships to the Gulf and Africa. Salala is up and running, with an annual throughput of 900,000 TEUs (6). Two major shipping lines have agreed to use and develop it. Aden plans for a first year throughput of 600,000 TEUs, but has faced greater difficulty in attracting external co-operation and investment. There is no reason why, if there is an upturn in the regional and East Asian economies, both ports should not function at their proper capacity, but the longer-run picture is as yet uncertain. Both are competitors of the dominant Arabian port Dubai, which handles up to 3m TEU. Secondly, there are some low-level security problems along the frontier. While the arrangements for the frontier delimitation have been put into place, and there is development at the main crossing point of al-Madhyuna, there is a cross-border traffic in arms, from Yemen to Oman, and in stolen cars, from Oman to Yemen, which causes concern.

Thirdly, there is the issue of general policy on the Arab world. Oman has sided clearly with the West, and has, while expressing concern at the impact of sanctions on Iraq, supported Security Council resolutions since 1990. Yemen, while opposing the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, has supported neither military action nor sanctions. On this, the most neuralgic issue in the Peninsula today, the two states, and, one suspects, much of their public opinion, remain divergent. This may have implications for what has for several years been a major goal of Yemeni foreign policy, admission to the Gulf Co-operation Council. The CCC, established in 1981, is a club of oil-producing monarchs: it is unlikely to admit an oil-poor, populous, republic. It is not sure whatYemen realistically expects from this application, or indeed what it anticipates from its application to join the Commonwealth: full membership of the GCC would appear improbable, some form of association agreement is, however, feasible, but would, inevitably, be conditional on goodwill from Riyadh.

Finally, this rapprochement between Oman andYemen has not gone unnoticed in their shared neighbour: Saudi Arabia’s relations with Oman are generally good, those with Yemen remain periodically tense, but the issue of common concern is the Saudi reaction to the border delimitation agreement. Oman was careful to settle its frontier with Saudi Arabia before settling that with Yemen. Current Saudi objections concern the ‘triple point’ where the three countries meet: when the two sides deposited the agreement with the Arab League in 1998 the Saudis expressed some concern, as this delimitation had implications for their, as yet unresolved, dispute with Yemen. It may also be that Riyadh felt it had not been consulted, and that, in general, the Saudis would have preferred Oman to wait until Riyadh settled withYemen — whenever that might be.

The present: similarities, and challenges

So much for the past and current issues, the question which confronts us now is what the future may bring, and how these two countries, now reconnected for the first time in centuries, can confront the common challenges which they face. The context for any such discussion should, I would argue, involve two shared longterm trends. One is the rise of a new generation — a product of education, of the experiences of the past twenty years, of increased contact with the outside world. The battles of the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s mean only a limited amount to this new generation. They are concerned with the place of their societies in the Arab, Islamic and international worlds, they aspire to economic and social development, they may not accept the constraints, internal and external, that their elders endured. They most certainly will not, and do not, accept controls on information and expression that were customaty in the past. The other shared long-term trend is the shift from oil- or rent-based economies to a post-oil epoch. Yemen’s oil at 400,000 barrels a day for a population of 17 millions is significant as a flow of revenue to the state, it is insignificant as a major source of revenue for the economy as a whole. For its part, Oman’s output of up to 900,000 barrels a day has been substantially more significant, but it is beginning to level off. Oman places great hopes in gas, but the market for gas, and the investment problems accompanying its transportation, are far greater than for oil, and may not easily be solved, on terms satisfactory to Oman. The economic future, and the employment prospects, for each country are therefore challenging, and uncertain.

Both countries also face challenges in the development of their political systems. I alluded earlier to the diversity which exists in both countries, on confessional and geographical bases. This is a source of potential enrichment and creative diversity. But in a context of financial shortages and uncertainty, it may also become a source of weakness. In Yemen there are enduring tensions, a considerable amount concerning the allocation of resources, between the Zeidi and Shafei populations, between Sana’a and the other cities — Taiz, Aden, Mukalla — and between western Yemen and Hadhramaut. In Oman the state’s investment and recruitment policy has successfully and generously tied Dhofar more and more closely into northern Oman: but tensions, and anxieties, remain. Much will depend, in both cases, not only on the actual investment decisions taken, but on whether there is a perception that the diverse regions and interests in the country are represented at the centre.

This challenge of regional balance is related to that of political elites. No country has a perfect political system, and failures of leadership in the Western world have been rather evident in recent years. That said, it may be a source of concern that in both Oman andYemen the political elites have been more or less unchanging for the past three decades.We need not invoke Lord Acton, or sociological theories of power consolidation by bureaucracy, to note that, while it may well be desirable for the symbolic or formal holders of state office to be continuous, in general good governance, good sense and good practice require a degree of circulation amongst those holding executive office. This and the efficacy and probity of government are questions of concern to the younger, capable, educated, ambitious generation now formed in both countries. In the Peninsula as a whole, perhaps the two most widespread, and visceral, issues within the political milieu are classic and universal ones — istiqlal and muhasaba, independence and accountability. As the former is over time resolved, the latter comes to have greater salience. People want to know how much money there is, and where it has gone, and is going. One hears a lot about how the Middle East is different from the rest of the world, and that people do not have the same values. I am not so sure, especially not in an age of global communications on the one hand, and a context of declining real per capita oil revenues on the other. For all those of us who consider ourselves friends of these two countries there will, quite properly, be some who deem it wiser not to allude to these questions. For others of us, friendship, and some contact with opinion in both countries, suggests that we should.

In any discussion of possible future tensions, however, it would be appropriate also to point to challenges that may come from outside. The great external challenges faced by both states have receded — imperial and colonial power politics have disappeared, the cold war is over, the politics of the Arab world are more accommodating, the regional upheavals — Ethiopia in the case of Yemen, Iran in the case of Oman — have passed. Yet there are trends and problems which both countries may face, and may face together. One is the rise of a regressive Islamism, of a violent and destructive kind. So far neither society has been seriously threatened by this and, for all the everyday frictions, inter-confessional relations have not degenerated. But in conditions of economic and social difficulty, Islamist forces of a destructive kind could gain ground. The very commitment of both states to a modern, but deeply felt, interpretation of their own diverse Islamic traditions is a strong bulwark against such movements, but the main deciding factor may well be what happens to the economy, and employment. Both countries also face the prospect of instability in their adjacent neighbourhoods —Yemen faces Sudan and Somalia across the Red Sea, Oman cannot be unaffected by what is happening, and may happen, in Pakistan. But perhaps the biggest question mark concerns the country that they both border, and which has loomed over them this past century, Saudi Arabia. It would be comforting for us all, in Yemen, Oman and Britain, to imagine that all will go well in Saudi Arabia and that the transition there to a new social and economic order will be a smooth one. It may be that wise, and decisive, action at the top may help to bring this about. But there are substantial reasons for doubting whether, over a longer time scale, of a decade or so, this will be the case. Managing Saudi Arabia, and living next to it, may well be one of the greatest challenges Yemen and Oman face in the twenty-first century as it was, in a different way, in the era of Saudi expansion early in the twentieth century.

As I have tried to show in this lecture, Yemen and Oman are no strangers to each other, and the association of British observers and participants with them is a small part of a much longer history, a history that will continue as the British connection, and Britain itself, change. It has, however, been the pleasure and privilege for all of us to know these countries and to enjoy the company of their peoples. I would therefore end with a shared wish, by saying, I believe on behalf of all of us, that we wishYemen and Oman, and all their peoples the best for the future, and we wish their rulers good luck, good timing and wisdom in their decisions. The next century promises, in Arabia as elsewhere, to be as challenging and fast-changing as the previous one. I hope indeed that it will be possible to travel by land from Muscat to Sana’a before too long, to do what Ibn Batuta and the Bents could not, and that this route will represent in reality what it does symbolically: the shared and increasingly interrelated fates of the Yemeni and Omani peoples.


1. ‘Where could the teachers come from?... They would come from Cairo and spread Nasser’s seditious ideas among their pupils. And what is there here for a young man with education? He would go to the university in Cairo or to the London School of Economics, finish in Moscow and come back here to foment trouble.’ Cited in J. B. Kelly, Arabia, the Gulf and the West: a critical view of the Arabs and their oil policy (London: Weidenfeld and Nicholson, 1980) p119.

2. P S Allfree, Hawks of the Hadhramaut (London: Robert Hale, 1967) pp75-8.

3. I have discussed this in greater detail in Fred Halliday, Revolution and Foreign Policy. The Case of South Yemen 1967—198 7 (Cambridge: CUP, 1990).

4. I have discussed this in more detail in ‘The Third Inter-Yemeni War: Causes and Consequences’, Asian Affairs London, June 1995.

5. For details of the negotiations and border agreement see Joseph Kechichian, Oman and the World: the Emergence of an Independent Foreign Policy (RAND: Santa Monica, 1996).

6. TEU=Twenty-foot Equivalent Unit. For further discussion see The Economist, 10 April 1999, and The Middle East, Issue no. 294, October 1999.

July 2000