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  The Clayton mission
to Sana'a of 1926


The archive of the Royal Society for Asian Affairs (RSAA) contains six photographs taken during the Mission to Sana’a led by Sir Gilbert Clayton (1875—1929) in 1926. Five of these are reproduced here by kind permission of the RSAA. The photographs are mounted on board and captioned in fine copperplate script — possibly the hand of the Mission’s stenographer, R. V Kaikini (on loan from Bombay), from notes drafted by the photographer who was a member of the Mission but unnamed.

I am grateful to H. E. Dr Hussain al-Amri, son of Imam Yahya’s Chief Minister, Qadhi Abdullah al-Amri, for his help in relating the photographs to the map of Sana’a as it was, and is today. I am also indebted to Soraya Antonius for allowing me to see photographs of Sir Gilbert Clayton and her father, George Antonius, taken during their visits to Jedda in 1925 and 1927, and for kindly permitting two of the photographs to be reproduced in this article. And thanks are due to St John Armitage for his good offices in this respect.

Clayton’s Mission took place against the background of Imam Yahya’s invasion and occupation of various parts of the Aden Protectorate. The Imam claimed sovereignty over the whole of south-western Arabia and had refused to recognise the Anglo-Turkish Convention of 1914 defining the border between Ottoman Yemen and the British Protectorate. In 1920 he had occupied a large part of the Amirate of Dhala, and having taken Beidha in 1923, his forces penetrated deep into Audhali territory in 1924. The British authorities in Aden were unable to provide much assistance to the Protectorate rulers until 1928, when Aden became an Air Command and it was possible to deploy the RAF in operations to expel Yemeni forces from most of the territory which they had occupied. In the meantime the British had little option but to attempt a diplomatic settlement of the disputed frontier, This, and the negotiation of a treaty of friendship withYemen, was the aim of Clayton’s Mission.

Clayton, Director of Military Intelligence in Egypt during the First World War and later Chief Secretary in Palestine, was an experienced negotiator. T. F. Lawrence, who worked closely with him in Cairo, described him as ‘calm, detached, clearsighted, of unconscious courage in assuming responsibility. He gave an open run to his subordinates . . . he worked by influence rather than by loud direction . . .  he impressed men by his sobriety, and by a certain quiet and stately moderation of hope . . . ’ In 1925 Clayton had successfully concluded two agreements with King Abdul Aziz ibn Saud (demarcating the border between Najd and Transjordan, and regulating Saudi tribal migrations into Iraq and Transjordan), and was to return to the Hejaz in 1927 to conclude the Treaty ofJedda, whereby Britain recognised the Saudi King as a sovereign and independent ruler. Clayton’s principal assistant in these negotiations was George Antonius (1892—1942), a member of an ethnic Greek family settled in Egypt, and a fluent Arabic speaker, who had been educated at Victoria College, Alexandria, and at King’s College, Cambridge. In the 1 920s Antonius was serving with the British Administration in Palestine; he was later to make a name for himself as author of a history of the Arab National Movement, The Arab Awakening (1938).

Clayton arranged for Antonius to be appointed Secretary to his Sana’a Mission; other members included Lieut. -Colonel M. C. Lake and Shaikh Muhammad Salim from the Aden Residency; Lieut. -Colonel M. S. Irani from the Indian Medical Service; Shaikh Yislam Ba Ruwais, transport officer; and four servants. Lake, who played no direct part in the Mission’s negotiations, probably took the photographs of Sana’a.

The party arrived at Hodeida by sea from Aden on 17 January. The following day they proceeded by motor to Bajil where they stayed the night. On 19 January, they continued their journey to Sana’a on mule-back, in five stages, accompanied by an escort of 44 Yemeni soldiers led by Muhammad al-Muta’, their heavy baggage being loaded onto camels. They reached Sana’a on 24 January and about five miles outside the city were met by a fifty strong escort of Yemeni cavalry and a horse-drawn carriage sent for Clayton’s use by the Imam. Outside the western gate of Sana’a (Bab al-Qa’a), a battalion of Yemeni infantry was drawn up as a guard of honour. Also gathered there was a large crowd — which followed the visitors into the city, along the road leading to, as Clayton recorded, ‘a commodious stone-built house in Bir el-’Azab (the residential quarter), which had been prepared for our accommodation. ’

This was the Government Guest-house where the Imam housed foreign delegations and which is now the Military Museum. Half an hour later, four seniorYemeni officials arrived with a message of welcome from the Imam. In conversation with one of them, Raghib Bey, a former Ottoman diplomat who served for many years as the Imam’s Chamberlain and Foreign Secretary, Clayton learned that ‘the Imam was anxious to organise a display on the occasion of my first visit, and asked that I should postpone it so as to give time for arrangements to be made. ’ Accordingly, he and Antonius waited until the morning of 26 January to pay their first formal call on the Imam; from the Guest-house they were driven in the Imam’s car across Maidan al-Shararah (now Tahrir Square), through Bab alSaba (the ‘Sabaean’ Gate demolished in the l960s), into the street (todafs Ali Abdulmoglini Street) running north along the Palace precincts towards Bab al-Shaqadif (also demolished). Clayton ‘was received by a guard of honour, the street leading to the Palace being lined on either side by troops . . . In attendance upon His Highness were Qadhi Abdullah al-Amri, Chief Minister, Sayyid Abdullali ibn Ibrahim, President of the Theological College, and Raghib Bey. I read my letter of appointment which was then translated into Arabic. The Imam’s reply was then read out by Raghib Bey. Its purport . . . was as follows:

‘We note the contents of His Majesty’s letter with extreme satisfaction and are particularly gratified that His Majesty should have seen fit to send so experienced and tried a person as yourself. . . We believe in the fullest manner in the goodwill of His Majesty’s Government towards us and in their desire to recognise the rights and independence of our nation whose existence, for over one thousand years, has spread itself over all those territories which form its inheritance. . . You have been invested with wide powers enabling you to establish our clear rights, and we confidently hope that you will be successful in your mission. We believe that an Agreement between us will pave the way for friendly sentiments in Yemen towards Great Britain. . . We extend to you a more cordial welcome than is dictated by official custom. . .

After a further exchange of courtesies the Imam withdrew; Clayton’s first substantive discussion with him took place two days later. Sixteen further meetings were held between the British and Yemeni sides; nine of these were attended by the Imam; the other seven were ‘working’ sessions between his officials and Antonius, except on one occasion when the latter was ill with fever and Clayton took over.

At their second meeting on 28 January, Imam Yahya had urged Clayton ‘to look upon his [the Imam’s] country as an ailing body and on myself [Clayton] as its physician, and he was willing to leave it to me, to my knowledge and sense of justice, to apply the proper remedy.’ Qadhi Abdullah al-Amri used the same metaphor in later discussion with Antonius. But the Yemenis, skilled in the arts of evasion and tergiversation (skills which the Imam, in early conversation with Clayton, had admonished the British for exercising in their dealings with the Arabs over Palestine), proved unwilling to accept any prescription put forward by their British ‘physician’. The sticking point was the Imam's refusal to contemplate any renunciation of his claims to sovereignty over the whole of south-west Arabia, which a commitment to withdraw Yemeni forces from Protectorate territory would have implied. Despite the breakdown of their negotiations, Clayton and Imam Yahya parted cordially, and on 21 February the Mission left Sana’a to return to Aden overland. Clayton was convinced that the Imam, partly in deference to local public opinion, had acted against his better judgement; and Clayton was right in believing that the Imam would, in time, be ready to reach an accommodation. In 1934 Britain and Yemen concluded the Treaty of Sana’a. In the negotiations leading up to this the British revived a proposal made by Clayton in 1926, namely that both sides should shelve the issue of sovereignty, without prejudice to their respective claims, to facilitate agreement on more immediate and practical concerns. By 1933 the Imam was under pressure from the Saudis on his northern border, and his forces had been ejected from most of the territory in the Aden Protectorate which they had occupied. He thus had more incentive to reach a modus vivendi with the British in 1934 than was the case in 1926.

Although the Treaty of Sana’a led to a temporary improvement in Anglo-Yemeni relations, border incursions and cross-border raiding continued intermittently Matters were not helped by the assassination of ImamYahya and Qadhi Abdullah al-Amri in 1948; and the accession of Imam Ahmad, who as Crown Prince and Governor of Taiz had taken a harder line on border issues than his father, marked the beginning of a period of increasing tension.

Nevertheless, some twenty five years after Clayton’s abortive Mission, the two countries, following bilateral talks in London led on theYemeni side by the Imam’s Foreign Minister, Qadhi Muhammad Abdullali al-Amri, agreed to exchange diplomatic relations. In 1951 Michael Jacomb, Britain’s first Charge d’Affaires in Yemen, arrived to take up his new post in Taiz, while Sayyid Hassan Ibrahim was appointed to representYemen in London.

July, 2001

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