Plain tales from the sands by Jim Ellis

by Jim Ellis

This article was published in the British Yemeni Society's journal, 2000. It is an abridged version of a paper which Jim Ellis drafted in 1993/94. It draws on his unique knowledge of the border area between Saudi Arabia and southern Yemen, before British withdrawal from the region in 1967.

In December 1951, I was appointed Military Assistant to the Resident Adviser of the Eastern Aden Protectorate. Part of my duties was the maintenance of law and order in the Northern Desert Areas — the region grazed by the nomadic tribes —bounded on the west by the Kingdom of Yemen, and on the north by the Qa’amiyat sands. The peace-keeping force which patrolled this territory was provided by the Hadhrami Bedouin Legion (HBL), based in Mukalla. Ra’is Abdul Hadi Hammad, an officer of Iraqi origin on secondment from the Jordanian Arab Legion, was in direct charge of the force. He was also Second-in-Command of the HBL.

The tribes living in the area were the Sei’ar, Kurab, Nahad, Awamir, Manahil and Mabra, who were in treaty relations with their various Sultans. We also had dealings from time to time with the Dahm and Abida of the Kingdom of Yemen; with the Yam of Saudi Arabia; with the Rawashid who, having no special connection with any particular state, had dealings with several; and with the Bait Kathir of the Sultanate of Oman. There were further complications in the eastern part of the territory as there were Mahra (mainly Bait Khawar) living inside the Sultanate of Oman, and Kathiris (mainly Bait Khawar) living among the Mahra. When the pilgrim route across the desert via Al Abr and Najran was opened up, we also saw a lot of the (Saudi) Dawasir, who owned or drove most of the trucks involved.

There was a past history of raiding and feuding between these tribes and with others further afield, the worst being between the Dahm and Al Mishqas (Manahil, Mabra and people further east). The nomadic sections of the Sei’ar also had a bad reputation and were looked upon as a menace by all their neighbours.

Al-Abr had been occupied by Qu’aiti forces as long ago as 1939, but this alone did not restrain the Sei’ar and others from raiding and bloodshed; so in 1950, HBL forts were established on the wells at Zamakh and Minwakh. This put a stop to Sei’ari raiding, but the Manahil and Mahra still harboured thoughts of revenge against the Dahm, who had hammered them mercilessly in the past. They also had unresolved feuds with the Yam and Abida, although these were as much their own fault as that of their opponents. A combined ‘ghazzu’ of Manahil and Mahra set forth from Thamud in November 1951 and, taking advantage of water from recent rains and floods, and so avoiding wells which were guarded, travelled to Rayyan in the Dahmi ‘dira’, and seized a waterhole (probably Al Mashainaqa) whence they raided not only the Dahm but theYam and Abida as well. They then retraced their steps eastwards, but Abdul Hadi had received news of the raid and set off in pursuit. He surprised the raiders at Shaqham, a waterhole in Wadi Makhia and recaptured some of the looted camels, killing one raider and mortally wounding another.

Fear of counter-raids caused us to institute regular motor patrols in the area between Jebel Thaniya and the sands north of Khushm alJebel. On occasion these patrols visited Wadi’a and the Sharura ridge, which were in the Sei’ari ‘dira’ and in which the Saudis had not shown any interest. The Yam also had shown no sign of objecting to our patrols. Indeed, a section of theYam were grazing to the southeast, with permission from us and the Sei’ar. These Yam, at that time, were watering at Al-Abr and visiting Hadhrami markets.

In January 1954, Abul Hadi and I, on patrol, encountered an Aramco geological party a little north of the Sharura ridge. I instructed them to return to their own territory, which they did. Later, I was told by the Resident Adviser in Mukalla that I should not regard Sharura as being in my territory, although it was in the Sei’ari ‘dira’, because it was beyond the ‘Violet Line’. This ‘Violet Line’ had been agreed between the British and the Turks in 1913 as the line separating their ‘spheres of influence’ to avoid future clashes. It was drawn on the map with a ruler, using violet ink. It started at Jebel Bulaiq, north of Harib, and ran at an angle of 45 degrees across Arabia, ending up somewhere near Qatar.

In 1926, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia was beginning to take shape and included the Murra tribe, with whom King Abdul Aziz had close personal relations. The Murra grazed well to the south of the eastern part of the Violet Line. Negotiations took place in Riyadh between the British and Saudis, during which modifications of the Violet Line were proposed. From these emerged what the British were to call the ‘Riyadh Line’, although there was no indication that the Saudis had actually accepted it. I was instructed to treat this amended line as the border, except when in pursuit of intruders.

In late September 1955, the Sei’ar reported that a large Aramco party ‘with machines’ was operating in their ‘dira’ just north of Asfal Eiwat al-Sei’ar. Accompanied by Ra’is Salim Omar al-Johi, who had succeeded Abdul Hadi, I reconnoitred the place indicated and found a drilling rig at work well to the south of the ‘Riyadh Line’. We later called this place ‘Camp A’. As the party there seemed fairly numerous, before contacting them, I called for reinforcements so that when I went in, there would be no arguments. Reinforcements were flown up from Riyan to Zamakh, together with an Air Liaison Officer, in case we needed air support.

On 5 October, we went into Camp A which we found to contain an Aramco drilling party with a Saudi escort. We first spoke to the Commander of the Saudi escort and told him that they would have to leave. We then approached the Aramco party, who were in radio contact with Dhahran. I told them that my instructions were that the Saudi escort should leave that day and that after they had gone I could agree with the Aramco party chief a reasonable time for them to remove their equipment back into Saudi territory. The party chief relayed this to Aramco, Dhahran, who replied with a message accusing us of a breach of international law and various other crimes.

I repeated my instructions and the party chief again spoke to Dhahran. One of the Americans said to me, ‘You aren’t going to shoot these poor fellows, are you?’. I replied that I hoped this wouldn’t be necessary. Dhahran then said that if the Saudi escort had to go, the Aramco party would also have to go. I confirmed that this was fine by me, adding that we would move into their camp next morning and that any equipment which they left would be safe as long as the water, in a large canvas tank, lasted, but that we could not guard it thereafter. They departed in the late afternoon, leaving behind what they could not carry with them.

When we entered Camp A next morning, we saw vehicle tracks leading further east and followed them. Some miles away, we found a D8 bulldozer parked on a dune where it had been used to winch heavy vehicles through soft sand. Further on, we found a second drilling rig, set up but not yet used, near the edge of the dunes and within sight of the bushes marking the floodpath ofWadi Khudhra. The tracks went no further. We called this place ‘Camp B’.

When we occupied Camp A, we left behind a standing patrol, commanded by Mulazim Sa’id Amr al-Ghorabi, in the dunes west of Khushm al-Jebel, to intercept any further incursions. On 8 October, Sa’idAmr reported that the Saudi escort had returned. Sa’ud bin Abdul Aziz was now King, and the escort had decided that it would be safer to surrender to us than to proceed to Najran. Some time earlier the previous Amir of Najran, Bin Madhi, had incurred the wrath of King Sa’ud and had been dragged off in chains to Riyadh. We disarmed the Saudis, fed them and sent them under escort to Seiyun. They spent a couple of months between Seiyun, Riyan and Aden before returning to Jedda when it seemed safe to do so.

Thamud was garrisoned in 1953, Sanau in 1954 and Habarut in 1956. In 1957 and 1958, there were several incursions from the northeast into the dunes and arid plains between Wadi Khudhra and Wadi Shu’ait by hunting parties, mainly from Qatar.

July 2000