Historical developments and Future prospects:The Yemeni community in Britain [Archives:2005/805/Reportage]

January 6 2005

By Mohammad Siddique Sedddon
Research Fellow, The Islamic Foundation, Leicestershire, UK

The relationship between Britain and Yemen was developed through British trading exploits in India via the East India Company (EIC), founded 1600. The first recorded British vessel to land in the port of Aden was the EIC's, “Ascension”, in 1609.

The British needed a refueling station to and from Indian and Far East and a port to facilitate trade into the African continent.

The first attempts to settle the lower Arabian Peninsular was in Mocha. Coffee and spices were traded from the port to Britain and Europe, but the British failed to maintain control.

In 1835, Captain Haines visited the ancient port of Aden and noted, “[it] might be made the grand emporium for the export of coffee and gums etc., as well as the channel through which the produce of India and England might be thrown into the rich provinces of Yemen and the Hadhramawt.”

But Haines also realized the strategic potential of the port and commented that, “The trade would also be open to the African coast, the distance being so trifling: from thence, gums, coffee, hides, frankincense, myrhh would be thrown into the Aden market and the trader thereby be enabled not only to return with the produce of Yemen, but of what might return him a good profit from the African coast.”

By 1839, Aden had become a British Protectorate after a negotiated treatise with local tribal shaykhs. Initial attempts to establish a coaling station by the EIC were slow, but when in 1844, local hostilities between Hussain, the Shareef of Mocha, and the Imam of Yemen, traders abandoned the port for the safety of Aden. The port was hurriedly developed as traders from America, Germany, French, Persia, India and Somalia shifted their products through Aden. Although British ships provided the bulk of transportation of products from the east to the West, it was not until 1857 that the first British trader, Captain Luke Thomas, was established.

Through their British Protectorate status local Yemeni sailors, via muqadems and muwasits, began to be employed on British vessels sailing to Europe and Britain. By 1850, Joseph Salter noted that there were, “more than 10,000 Asiatics [sic] and Africans nnually visiting London docks alone.” Certainly by the 1880s there were established communities of Yemeni sailors in the port cities of London, Liverpool, South Shields and Cardiff.

Early Yemeni Communities in Britain

The appearance of Yemeni sailors throughout the major port cities of Britain precipitated “Arab-only” boarding houses because 'coloured' seamen were prohibited from staying in the same lodgings as white sailors. However, despite the racial discrimination against them, in the Arab boarding houses Yemenis could eat halal food and maintain their religious and cultural observances.

By the 1920s, South Shields local city Council had granted licenses for no less than 60 Arab boarding houses. Further, Yemeni sailors also began to marry local British woman and settle in the docklands communities. These mixed marriages caused some concern and issues were raised concerning the so called 'problem' of mixed-race, or 'mongrel' children.

During the First World War more than three and a half thousand Yemenis lost their lives on British vessels shipping vital supplies to British troops in Europe and beyond. The Cardiff Yemeni community lost one thousand Yemenis alone.

Post-war Yemeni migration from Britain

After the First World War the development of the Yemeni communities in Britain was effected by three major economic, social and technological changes. Firstly, economic depression and mass unemployment meant that many Yemenis became the victims of racism and social exclusion. In the docks, Yemenis were accused of 'stealing' jobs from white workers.

Secondly, the introduction of the Coloured Seamen's Act, 1925, saw “Adenese Arabs” (Yemenis) discriminated against through a quota system that restricted the number of 'coloured' sailors employed on any particular vessel. The Act also required that all coloured sailors report to and register at a local police station within seven days of arrival to Britain.

Thirdly, technological advances in the shipping industry meant that ships engines could now be fuelled by oil rather than coal. This meant large scale unemployment for Yemeni sailors who were mostly employed as coal stokers, or 'donkeymen', shoveling coal into the steam engine furnaces.

As a result of these developments most Yemenis migrated from Britain to the Middle East, to take up jobs in the developing oil-related industries. From those Yemenis who stayed in Britain, many made an inward migration from the port cities to the industrial cities of Birmingham, Sheffield and Manchester.

Community Formation

As more Yemenis began to marry local wives, facilitating the religious education and cultural needs of the mixed race, or muwallad, children became a priority. But, the lack of any real community structures or institutions was apparent and no real developments were made until the appearance of a religious scholar from the Yemen migrated to Britain with the expressed objective of religious instruction among the Yemeni Muslims and their families.

Shaykh Abdullah Ali al-Hakimi came to Britain via Algeria where he had stayed for some time under the tutorage and guidance of a great North African Sufu shaykh, Mustafa Ahmad al-Alawi. After hearing of the plight of the migrant and their children, shaykh al-Hakimi sought permission from his spiritual guide to take the tariqa to Britain.

Al-Hakimi first worked amongst the Yemenis in South Shields, which had a long-established docklands community. He established Qur'anic, Islamic instruction and Arabic language classes for Muslim children and their convert wives. Religious identity became an outward expression and many women began to wear the hijab in addition to the community holding public Islamic processions on Eid and the birthday of the Prophet Muhammad.

Further, in 1936 the success of the development of the South Shields' religious and cultural identities lead to the purchase of a former public house, The Hilda Arms, on Cuthbert Street, which was converted into a mosque known as the, Zawiyah Alawiyah Islamia Mosque.

Shaykh al-Hakimi then systematically established zawaya throughout the Yemeni communities of Britain. He also propagated an anti-Imamate movement and established a newsletter in Arabic, Al-Salam, which promoted a revolt against the Zaydi Imam ruler, Yahya. It is suspected by some that the shaykh was eventually assassinated by members of the pro-Imamate movement on a visit to the Yemen in the 1950s. However, despite his untimely death, as a result of his efforts a situation of steady development continued amongst the British Yemeni communities until the Second World War.

After the Second World War the economic development of Britain was aided by the immigration of thousands of male colonial and commonwealth subjects. These single-male transient workers came from the Indian sub-continent, The Caribbean and the Yemen. The migrants provided a steady and conscientious labor work-force largely performing the tasks and duties that indigenous workers did not want to do.

As a result of this second wave of Yemeni migration to Britain, the existing Yemeni communities in Birmingham, Cardiff, Sheffield, Liverpool, Manchester and South Shields were transformed. Many new migrants were influenced by Islamic reformist movements and Arab nationalist movements and these influences began to change the religious and political demography of the British Yemeni communities.

For example, the zawaya of the Alawi sufi order declined as new Yemeni migrants began to spread more wahhabi and salafi-inspired expression of Islamic practice. Also, politically many new Yemeni migrants, inspired by the pro-Marxists and socialist political movements, resisted both the Zaydi Imamate in the North Yemen and the British Colonial rule in the South.

Community Development

Throughout the independence and unifications struggles of the former North and South Yemen, Yemeni politics has played out in the British Yemeni communities in microcosm. In Britain, where migrants from a particular tribe or region of Yemen dominate, the transnational politics or trans-local tribal problems often divide the community.

Transnational politics can become a particular problem when it comes to the specifics of the community development of British Yemeni communities. Coupled with a lack of specific skills in community management, development and capacity building within some of the communities themselves some British Yemeni communities have become what Fred Halliday describes as 'invisible Arabs'. My own doctoral research among the Yemeni community in Manchester has revealed a significant difference between the official population size of the Yemeni community based on both the 1991 and 2001 census figures and the population size according to my demographic studies undertaken during my ethnographic research amongst the community.

The discrepancy in the actual and the official population of Yemeni communities in Britain has a real knock-on effect in terms of the amount of funding and service provision they receive from local authorities and service providers. In cities where the community constitutes a large minority like Birmingham, community development is second to none.

But, in some much smaller communities where the development skills are absent from within the community, then aspects of discrimination, under-development, social decay and exclusion become an alarmingly increasing feature. However, in communities where development skills exists, despite the community's relatively small size, capacity building, equal opportunities in employment, education and service provision all feature. There are at least two examples of such communities from the Yemeni communities in Britain.

In terms of the history of Islam in Britain, the Yemeni community is important in that it represents the oldest British Muslim community which in the cities of Cardiff and South Shields is now entering its seventh generation.

Future prospects

While the 'second wave' Yemeni migration to Britain, as part of the postcolonial post-war migration phenomenon, transformed the religious and political orientations of the community, it also transformed the community's ethnic composition. This ethnographical 'shift' happened when 'second wave' Yemeni migrants slowly began to bring their wives and children to Britain.

There were two major factors for the migration of Yemeni wives and children to Britain. Firstly, the implementation of the Commonwealth Immigration Act, 1962, meant that migrant workers from former colonies and commonwealth countries could no longer travel freely to and from Britain without either a visa or a work permit. And, secondly, political turmoil and civil war in the divided Yemen meant it was potentially dangerous to leave dependants unprotected.

Whereas before, Yemenis either married local British wives or remained as single male sojourners, sending money home to their families and dependants and, occasionally, making extended visits back home, they now began to bring and settle their families in Britain.

As a result, the Yemeni communities in the industrial urbanized British cities became fully-fledged communities equal to those of other migrant Muslim communities from the Indian sub-continent and beyond. Like the other minority communities the Yemenis had genuine socio-cultural developmental needs. Their cultural needs were largely met through self-help projects such as the establishment of places of worship and cultural centers, but specific needs such as religious instruction and Arabic language classes for children was lacking.

Fortunately, at the same time that Yemeni dependents were joining their husbands and fathers in Britain, there was also an influx of educated professionals and postgraduate students coming to Britain to extend their studies. With the help of the Yemeni government, the students set-up cultural classes throughout the Yemeni communities in Britain. However, as political instability and hostilities increased between the divided Yemen, funds to support the migrant Yemeni communities evaporated.

Despite this negative development many communities had developed enough skills to tap into local government funding for minority community projects and as a result of their efforts capacity building and community development continued in many communities. However, in smaller communities where there is a certain degree of 'invisibility' of the Yemeni populations, the developmental situation is reversed.

For example, in Eccles, Manchester, the Yemeni community received no funds from local government for community development, equal opportunities or employment training. The facilities that are available and centered in institutions established and run by other minority communities. This is worrying because the Yemenis constitute the largest ethnic minority community in Eccles but funding is based on population statistics and the 1991 and 2001 census data shows that there are officially only around 250 Yemenis living in Eccles which translates to 1.5 per cent of the population of Eccles. My own ethnographic research estimates a population of around 1,000 Yemenis, which translates as 9.8 per cent of the total population. This obvious disparity between the official and actual population statistic has a huge impact on the politics of minority community funding, social inclusion and development.

In contrast, Birmingham has a Yemeni population of around 14,000 and this large minority presence has translated into very positive funding and support from local, central and European governments that has provided a well-developed, multi-functioning community centre that has just received a total of around 4,000,000 pounds in development funding.

Clearly, the socio-political and economic situation of the Yemeni community in Britain is quite diverse and some communities have developed far greater than others. However, beyond the intra-dynamics of community development amongst British Yemenis, there are greater inhibiting factors between the Yemeni community and the wider British society. These are firstly, racism and social exclusion based on the superficiality of a persons skin. Racism has not really been effectively tackled by British governments and their institutions and the reality of a diverse, multi-racial, multi-cultural and religiously plural Britain has not been reflected in the political realm.

Secondly, the phenomenon of Islamophobia, 'the fear of Islam', has risen as a result of the terrorist attacks of September 11. This has resulted in physical attacks on Muslim and the mosques. In Manchester an elderly Yemeni was beaten by some youths who accused him of being Usama Bin Laden. The mosque was also set on fire in a religious-hatred motivated attack.

Thirdly, the 'loyalty' of the British Yemeni community has come under much scrutiny particularly after some young British Yemenis were caught in the Yemen and suspected of plotting terrorist attacks. The British involvement in the invasion of Iraq has placed a question mark over the British Arab allegiances and belonging.

All of the above issues cannot and will not be resolved in the immediate future and the resilience and pragmatism of the Yemeni community against all the problems that they have faced in their one hundred and thirty-year presence in Britain probably means that the link between Yemen and Britain and Britain and the Yemen will continue for many years to come.