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  Book review

Sultans of Aden 

by Gordon Waterfield

Reprinted by Stacey International, 2002, with an envoi by Stephen Day CMG. Pp. xiii + 300. Illus. Maps. Notes. Index. Hb. £22. 50. ISBN 1-900988-4 10.

Aden, the Biblical Eden, fabled Incense Kingdom entrepot and flourishing Roman Emporium in the reign of Constantine had reached its nadir in 1839 when Captain Stafford Haines of the Indian Navy acquired it as Queen Victoria’s first imperial possession. Within 15 years, this brave, imaginative and resourceful sailor whose avowed aim was ‘to extend the blessings of knowledge, industry and commerce among peoples hitherto sunk in the most gloomy depths of superstitious knowledge’ had transformed what had become an impoverished fishing village of 600 souls into a thriving commercial port of 20,000. Haines had selected the magnificent natural harbour of Aden in preference to Socotra or Mukalla as his choice for a strategically sited British coaling station en route to India. He was also determined to revive the ancient commercial prosperity of this ‘Eye of the Yemen’ recognising at the same time that the key to its security, stability and survival as a British base was to reach a peaceful rapprochement with its hinterland tribes.

Haines achieved his aims through force of personality; an intimate knowledge of and interest in Islam and tribal custom; a sophisticated intelligence network; a diplomatic ingenuity that extended his influence even to the Imam of the Yemen; and by his resolute military defence of Aden in the face of repeated tribal attacks. Sir Richard Burton endorsed Haines’s recipe for political and diplomatic success with his epitaph: ‘there is no man ... who can negotiate so effectively as a good, honest, open-hearted and positive naval officer’.

Waterfield’s Sultans of Aden vividly recounts the heroic but ultimately tragic story of the founder of modern Aden whose false prosecution for embezzlement and trumped up imprisonment for debt after 30 years devoted service to Queen, Country and the people of Aden has echoes of the treatment of Clive and Warren Hastings. Published within a year of Britain’s ungallant withdrawal from Aden in 1967, it was one of the few of many books of that time to cast British South Arabia’s last depressing chapter into a wider historical perspective. Kipling, both the apostle of Empire and early prophet of its demise, might have been surprised that his ‘burned out barrack stove’ would be among the last colonial possessions to be prised from Britain’s reluctant grasp.

Yet if Haines had visited British Aden at its apogee in the early 1960s he would have been heartened to see his own vision fulfilled. By then, Aden’s bunkering trade was second only to New York’s; P&O, Shaw Savill and Union Castle liners plying between Europe and the Antipodes, Asia and Africa daily debouched hundreds of shoppers to scour its duty free shops; the BP Refinery and British military base provided employment for tens of thousands of indigenous and immigrant Yemeni workers, while property developers could re-coup their capital investment within 18 months. This ‘Hong Kong of the Middle East’ with its free port and laissez-faire economy was basking in a period of unmatched prosperity with its multi-racial community enjoying social services, the rule of law and the prospect of phased political development. Haines’s creation had become an example of British Imperialism doing more ‘to promote the free movement of goods, capital and labour ... or impose Western norms of law, order and governance’* than any other organisation in history. But if Haines would have found Aden changed beyond recognition, once in the wild and impoverished hinterland of the Protectorate he would have been on familiar ground. Aden might be booming but the Protectorate was still in a time warp.

Stacey International must be congratulated for re-publishing Waterfield’s scholarly memorial to Haines but the engraft of Stephen Day’s highly charged envoi makes an awkward fit. Few are better qualified than Day to record those last depressing days of disintegration; breaches of faith; unilateral abrogation of solemn treaties; political pusillanimity and perfidy His tour d’horizon gives a candid and graphic picture of his times and his portraits of the rulers and tribes with which he was involved - Yafa’is, Fadhlis, Qutaibis, Dhalais - are vividly drawn. But this very personal 30 page piece is more an anecdotal mosaic than a measured historical envoi and its parameters are too limited to fulfil the publisher’s claim of sketching in ‘from where Waterfield leaves off’. Some minor quibbles: on p. 271 ‘William Hamilton’ should read R A B (Alexander) Hamilton; p. 273 the photo is of Hussein Bayoumi (his brother Ali having died in 1963) and on p. 300 the attack on USS Cole was in 2000 not 1998.

Day’s disparagement of the Abdali Sultans of Lahej - the historic Sultans of Aden at least since 1735 - belies their central role in the Aden story. A mixture of good, mad and bad: sometimes our friends and sometimes our enemies, like them or loathe them they were bound to be principal players not only in Haines’s day but throughout Britain’s time in South Arabia by virtue of Lahej’s size, relative wealth and geographical proximity to Aden.

A more important criticism is that in commenting on fundamental and complex issues such as British policy and Federation, Day’s analysis is dismissively summary. His quip ‘We were there because we were there’ is a caricature of Britain’s South Arabian policy. At one time or other, most 20th-century British statesmen came to realise that our particular brand of imperialism, however enlightened and idealistic, was obsolescent and that disengagement was inevitable. Yet even until 1966, Aden provided an extraordinary exception to this rule in that British policy was unswervingly consistent in its aim of preserving the Aden base at almost any cost.

By contrast, British policy towards the Protectorate was confused and bedevilled by divided councils - between Bombay and London; civil versus military authority; Colonial versus Foreign Office. Yet even here - and notwithstanding the pleas of successive governors and those on the ground trying to make bricks without straw - the policy which was followed until it was probably too late was to maintain the Protectorate cordon sanitaire with least interference and at least possible cost.

During Britain’s imperial heyday when we had the ships, men and money, the rationale of maintaining Aden as a key fuelling and strategic base was unexceptionable. Napoleon’s 1798 invasion of Egypt had awakened Britain to the need to safeguard the sea routes to India. From then on, until our withdrawal from the Indian subcontinent in 1947, India remained a paramount consideration in Britain’s foreign, military and economic policy. After Haines’s occupation, interconnected aims were to check Muhammed Ali’s Egyptian imperial ambitions; attract trade to Aden; resist Turkish and Yemeni incursions into the Protectorate and defuse endemic tribal troubles.

After the Second World War and India’s independence, our dramatically changed economic and political circumstances offered an opportunity for radical reappraisal. However, although we were fast losing our role as the predominant power in the Middle East, a new set of imperatives inconveniently presented themselves. Following BP’s expulsion from Abadan in 1951,Aden was chosen as a secure site for a new oil refinery which was completed in 1954 in record time. The 1956 catalyst of Suez gave Britain another opportunity for re-assessment particularly as America, then anxious to identify with de-colonisation and Arab nationalism, was lukewarm to our continued Middle Eastern presence. But it was not simply a matter of Britain continuing to bang its head against the writing on the wall. The conflict with Nasser; the 1958 Iraq revolution; successive British military involvements in Jordan, Oman and Kuwait; the growing Soviet threat and the rise of Arab nationalism hardened belief that Aden must be retained as a key military base to protect Britain’s Gulf oil interests and provide a bastion against Communism. This muscular policy was confirmed in 1961 when Middle East Command was transferred from Kenya and Aden’s population of military personnel and their dependants rose to over 20,000.

Aden's post-war prosperity brought with it political and social problems exacerbated by an influx of disenfranchised Yemeni labour and Arab nationalism. The base became a focus of anti-imperialist sentiment and the rising tide of unrest underlined the Protectorate’s importance as a counterweight and cordon sanitaire. But the economic, social and constitutional gap between a booming, urbanised Aden and the archaic, poverty stricken and undeveloped Protectorate was by then unbridgeable.

During the 1940s and 1950s advisory treaties had been hurriedly signed with most Western Aden Protectorate States when it was belatedly realised that a united and relatively prosperous hinterland was vital to Aden’s security. Federation was seen as a means of achieving this. It was not a new concept. As early as 1930 it had been mooted by the then British Resident Symes at a Lahej conference but resisted by suspicious tribal rulers. In 1950 Kennedy Trevaskis conceived a federal scheme which curiously excluded Aden. In 1954 a version of this was formally promoted by Governor Hickinbotham but given lukewarm HMG support when opposed implacably by the highly politicised Aden TUC backed by the Yemen and Egypt. However, although ancient tribal tradition, rivalry and enmity militated against the very concept, some progressive Arabs were already formulating their own version of a federated South Arabia. Thus, in 1956 the Lahej based South Arabian League and the Aden National United Front were proposing a new state comprising Aden, the Protectorate and the Yemen. This, unsurprisingly, got no British support but in 1959, after difficult and protracted negotiations, six Western Protectorate states formed the first South Arabian federation.

Despite the immense disparities between the two, a South Arabian federation without Aden would have been meaningless. With time fast running out, Sir William Luce, Aden’s outstanding governor from 1956 to 1960, unsuccessfully recommended to HMG a radical solution involving the surrender of British sovereignty by 1962; the conversion of Aden from colony into a protectorate and its merger with a federation supported by generous development funding. Although a reluctant Aden joined the Federal fold in 1963, this was an unwilling merger of unequals, and by now events were driving policy. Initially, Britain’s newly elected (1964) Labour Government pledged its support to the Federation but by 1966, confronted by a sterling crisis compounded by Arab and international pressures, the cost of maintaining the Aden base was deemed unjustifiable and unsustainable. In 1967 Britain abandoned South Arabia and those who had served and supported us were left to the devices of a ruthless Marxist regime.

We shall never know whether different policies implemented earlier might have affected the final outcome. In its last years, the Aden base proved to be an expensive albatross never properly used for the purposes for which it was created. Yet paradoxically, its very existence may have been the catalyst that created modern South West Arabia. 27 years after the British quit Aden, in the wake of protracted North/South tensions, the civil war of 1994 finally and forcibly brought into existence a unified Yemen.

* Niall Ferguson's Empire (Penguin 2003).

J G R Harding