The British Council in Yemen

by Brendan McSharry

This article was published in the British Yemeni Society's journal, November 1996

My aim in writing this short piece for the Journal is to highlight the importance of the Republic of Yemen to the Middle East region and to show how the British Council’s cultural and educational work in this poor but very historic country is helping it to develop. Yemen is also of strategic value to the region with its higher level of democracy and plurality on the one hand, and with Aden Free Port giving access to Asia and Africa for the world’s shipping on the other. Having spent just over a year in the country as Director of the British Council, I have come to believe in the future of Yemen and its potential as a supplier of skilled and resourceful labour for the region. However, I also realise that Yemen is of peripheral concern to British interests: its reserves of oil and gas are relatively small, its economy is weak and its recent past has been politically unstable. Added to this the fact that Britain left Aden almost thirty years ago, it is amazing that there is still an Embassy and a Council office here in Yemen.

Brief history of the British Council

The British Council opened up in Yemen in 1973 under the resourceful and imaginative leadership of the first country representative, Clive Smith, an event graphically described by him in an articles published in New Arabian Studies Volume 3, last year. With the invaluable support of the British Embassy, Clive nurtured the growth of Council activity over the first five years. During that time English language teaching of key Yemenis and an ODA educational aid programme for this poor struggling Republic were developed in addition to the standard cultural and educational activities that have established the Council’s global reputation: running a library and educational information service; providing scholarships to active Yemenis of all ages to study in Britain and offering a programme of events. One of the great advisers to the Council in those pioneering days, as Clive mentions, was the celebrated Arab scholar, Professor Bob Serjeant.

The foundation laid, successive directors such as Peter Clark, Peter Chenery and Jim McGrath worked with commendable flair and dynamism to build up a solid and robust Council operation. With unification of North and South Yemen in 1990, the opportunity arose to expand activities in Aden, particularly in English Language teaching. Indeed, by 1994 the Council was teaching English country-wide to over 400 Yemeni students, many of them aid project workers and oil company officials: with centres in San’a, Aden and Hodaidah. But all was not well. The development of Yemen and its economy, so impressively strong in the eighties, came to a halt with the Gulf and Civil Wars (1991 and 1994 respectively): the GC and Socialist party conflict of interests and the recession proved too much for the newly unified Republic. There followed a fallow period of over a year during 1994 and 1995 when the fortunes of Yemen sank as low as they could, international aid and trade shrank, and with even British Council scholars having to suspend their UK studies for a time. Only now has the Embassy, Council and ODA been able to resume serious developmental activity - with the never failing support and encouragement of the Yemeni-British Friendship Association and its UK counterpart the British-Yemeni Society.

What the British Council does and why

The Council has set itself four main aims in support of UK-Yemen relations and Yemeni development. These are to:

  • help develop Yemen’s schools, universities, sports and youth services and primary health units,
  • promote the use of English and the best British educational and training services and products as development tools,
  • demonstrate the vitality and excellence of British arts to the Yemeni public and vice versa for Yemeni arts,
  • encourage key Yemeni women to participate in the development of their country.

To realise these aims the British Council pays for and sends forty scholars to the UK a year; helps set up joint research programmes between UK and Yemeni universities, administers the Embassy aid and scholarship schemes; provides a programme of cultural events for the public featuring exhibitions, music and drama, education talks and workshops and for a fee teaches general and specialist English to 230 key Yemenis on San’a and Hodaidah; runs a centre for UK public exams; and runs a library and video club and a UK educational information and placement service. The Council also teaches German in collaboration with the German Embassy Of course, this activity is not done by the Council alone and in isolation. The support and co-operation of the Embassy (and through them the ODA and DTI as well) is vital for success; while the help and encouragement of the BritishYemeni Society and the Yemeni-British Friendship Association provide a constant boost, especially when the Council seems under threat of closure.

The cost and resources used

The resources used to implement these programmes are quite slender. They comprise a rented three-villa compound in San’a, with offices, classrooms, audio-visual equipment, 6,000 books and 400 videos and a student computer listening centre, from which the total operation is run by 10 UK staff, most of whom are teachers and thirteen Yemeni admin staff The total net cost to the British tax payer of the British Council programme is but £182,000 per year when you take into account the revenue earned by the provision of paid educational and project management services. For this money the tax payer gains extra influence in this strategically important part of the Middle East, increased exports and a good name for helping a poor but up and coming nation to develop. It should not surprise the reader to learn that the Embassy achieves an equal impact with relatively little resources and money too. The new Ambassador, Doug Scrafton, has transformed the Embassy into a tight and effective ship which is respected and valued by Yemeni organisations and UK companies alike.


There have been some highlights of the British Council calendar of the past year or so worth mentioning. The most notable was undoubtedly the Welsh-Yemeni Festival. It featured a Welsh Food week with the BBC chef Cohn Pressdee, the celebrated crafts exhibition New Traditions, curated by Ralph Turner and the Oriel Gallery, and a tour of Yemen by traditional Welsh (Lyrices Cambrenses) and Yemeni music groups with accompanying dancers. In all the Festival was seen and enjoyed by over 5,000 people. It also attracted £80,000 worth of sponsorship under the skilful co-ordination of Pat Aithie and Katherine Potter. We were fortunate enough to have the Lord Mayor of Cardiff and Shaikh Said, the leader of the Yemeni community there, come over to launch the festivities.

Other highlights include helping to arrange the country’s first National Scientific Symposium; helping DTI and the Embassy hold a touring trade catalogue exhibition; teaching forty key Yemeni women English and holding Gender in Development workshops with funding from the Dutch government and the running of architectural conservation forums in Aden and San’a led by James Parry of the National Trust.

The future?

Though the Council Staff have achieved a lot with the help of the Embassy DTI, the BYS and YBFA, it has caused a great strain on staff and resources. Under pressure you make mistakes and often feel you are moving one step forward and two steps back! Nevertheless we plan for an even more robust future that attracts sponsorship and revenue for the Council’s cultural and educational activities. We are currently preparing for an exhibition Yemenis in Britain, focusing on the life and times of the 60,000 Yemenis living in Britain in communities based on Cardiff, Birmingham, Sheffield, South Shields and Liverpool. It will tour UK and Yemen. This will be in conjunction with World Circuit Arts Festival of Yemen, to be held in London in September and October 1997. The patrons will be the Yemeni and British ambassadors and the one and only Prince Nazeem! The Council will collaborate with the DTI, the Embassy and a host of sponsors in the Yemen trade fair scheduled for November 1997. Last but not least, the Council hopes to open a teaching centre in Aden in that year as well. All this activity suggests that Yemen is turning a corner and growing once again; a correct assumption. The Gulf needs this Republic and I predict that, in five years time, they will come to recognise this. The Free Zone and Port of Aden, World Bank and international aid support, increased trade and a people that have not lost their traditions or their ability to survive on almost nothing: these will be the ingredients that will propel Yemen forward on the stage of the Arabian Peninsula.

In one way it is a pity that Council directors cannot stay here for a very long time and develop a profound knowledge of the country: but then again the Republic would have missed out on such noted Arabists as Clive Smith and Peter Clark. Unfortunately I cannot speak much Arabic - but I like and respect tremendously the Yemenis and feel fortunate that I am living in Sana’a and not in London!

November 1996