Yemeni-British Relations: WHERE TO? [Archives:2000/25/Law & Diplomacy]

June 19 2000

During a seminar co-sponsored by The French Center for Yemeni Studies and Future Studies Center ” Yemen and The World”, Sanaa 16-17 May 2000, Dr. M.A. Qubaty, FRCS presented a study as a working paper. Dr. Qubaty’s study was titled ” Yemeni-British Relations 1990-2000: The Challenges Towards Positive Partnership”.
Yemen Times publishes portions of Dr. Qubaty’s study, highlighting those having certain significant effects influencing the progress of Yemeni-British prospective relations.
Yemeni-British relations represent absolutely the oldest link in Yemen’s relations with the West as they date back to the beginnings of the 17th century via Mocha sea port and the coffee trade. In 1618 the British East India Company was granted a license for the establishment of a factory and official headquarters for its resident representative in the city port of Mocha in addition to permission for doing business. More than 180 years later, under a pretext of the danger of probable French invasion of India, similar to Napoleon’s invasion of Egypt in 1798, the British landed an army garrison on the Yemeni island of Perim in May 1799 and closed down the Strait of Bab el Mandeb. In May 1801 Dr. ”Pringil” was appointed an official resident representative of the British government in Mocha, not a representative of the British East India Company. The British government representative was able to have a meeting with the Imam who offered facilities to British ships and encouraged business with them, depriving French ships of such advantages. The Imam also allowed the British to build a hospital in Mocha.

First British Kidnapped in Yemen
The kidnapping incident of a British relief worker Henry Thompson, the first British citizen kidnapped in Yemen in mid October 1997, seemed to be accurately planned and aimed at straining Yemeni-British relations. Its timing was also chosen very carefully. The kidnapping of the first British national came less than a fortnight after conferring the 22 May Unity Order on the former British ambassador to Yemen and the arrival of a new British ambassador and coincided with the imminent beginning of the Commonwealth summit in Edinburgh where the question of Yemen’s joining the Commonwealth was to be discussed. The kidnapping also came some three weeks ahead of a state visit to Britain by President Ali Abdullah Saleh, the first of its kind by a Yemeni President. The incident also coincided with Aden’s preparation to receive a delegation of more than 100 tourists.

2nd kidnapping incident
The second kidnapping incident of British nationals happened on April 21, 1998. In the incident the director of the British council branch of Aden, along with his wife and son were kidnapped near the city of Thamar on their way from Aden to Sanaa heading for Britain. The BBC broadcast a commentary on the kidnapping incident pointing out that it constituted a big embarrassment for the Yemeni government that was trying to encourage tourism and investment in Yemen. What had complicated the matter was the urgent British demand not to use force to release the hostages for fear of endangering their safety. The incident later proved to have harmed Yemeni-British relations.

Capitalization and development of Aden Refinery
It seemed that the question of capitalization and development of Aden Refinery would have been implemented by the British industrial companies and investment banks after they had shown readiness to invest $400 million. That had been thought to be certain especially following the news carried by news agencies and 26 September newspaper of Yemen in the wake of the British industry secretary Lord Clinton Davis’s visit to Sana’a, less than two weeks after President Saleh’s return from a visit to Britain. Despite all those positive indicators it became clear that there was a variation, even though partial, between Yemen and Britain. The first signs of that difference appeared with the idea of cancelling a visit by a team from British oil and gas companies that had been scheduled to arrive in Yemen in early February 1998. That was followed by a postponement then cancelation of a big symposium planned and funded by British investment banks in mid 1998.
Undoubtedly, the failure of the agreement on the project of capitalization and development of Aden refinery had negatively overshadowed Yemeni-British relations. That resulted in a host of negative consequences reflecting the hypersensitivity that befell the relations of the two countries because of the lack of clear vision and absence of frankness. Probably it was to the misfortune of Yemeni-British relations that 1998 saw a number of events and problems so difficult to explain that their occurrence appeared to be by chance. However, they might have been planned for and part of intensive activity aimed at hindering development of the relations between Yemen and Britain.

Disarrangement of twinning Aden with Cardiff
As part of inaugurating the Yemen Festival activities in Britain and during his meeting with the mayor of the city of Cardiff, Yemen’s minister of culture and tourism extended an invitation to him to visit the city of Aden. That was to be followed with an invitation by the governor of Aden to the Mayor to visit Aden and then to have the two towns officially twinned with each other. Historically the two towns relations extend to hundreds of years. Coal was transported from Cardiff to Aden as a supply station for ships. The ships that carried coal would return loaded with stones from Shamsan mountain. Shamsan mountain stones were used in building three famous streets in Cardiff the capital of Wales. It seemed that because of misarrangement and confusion in coordination among various Yemeni institutions the whole subject of twinning was not followed up by Yemen according to the promise given by the minister of culture and tourism. During the Yemeni minister of culture and tourism’s visit to Britain there was an initial agreement for holding a festival of ” 380 Years of Yemeni-British Friendship” in 1998. That idea also failed. Thus, deficiency in some aspects of performance and its activity had led to failure in fulfillment of the idea of the festival and non-realization of the twinning process of Cardiff and Aden.

Would Yemen’s Gas constitute a Fresh Hope?
Specialized economic press carried the news of the signing of a memorandum of understanding between the Yemeni company for liquefied gas and British Gas Company on April 4, 1998. The memorandum stipulated that both companies would maintain talks on providing liquefied gas by the Yemeni company to a project British Gas was developing in India. According to analysis issued then by world economic circles, if the talks to follow the memorandum succeeded, gas shipments were expected to begin either in 2002 or 2003 and to continue for 25 years. But observers noticed the absence of British Gas representatives at the Yemeni ”Oil and Gas” conference held in late September 1998, and that was taken as an indication that the understanding memorandum had probably reached a deadlock.

Abyan & Aden Incidents
The kidnapping of 16 tourists in Abyan on 28 December 1998 that ended in the killing of 3 Britons and an Australian, represented the declared beginning of the pinnacle of crisis in Yemeni-British relations. It was later revealed that on December 23, 1998 the Yemeni authorities arrested British nationals of Pakistani, Arab and one Yemeni origin.
The British government put the blame on the Yemeni police way in dealing with the kidnapping incident that led to the killing of its nationals and the Australian tourist. Because of complications and the disclosed relationship between the” Abu Al-Hassan” group in Abyan and the group arrested in Aden that had connection with ”Ansar Al-Sharia” group led by the London-based Egyptian Abu Hamza, the Yemeni government expressed deep concern over practices against Yemen by some British-based terrorist groups.
The British government on its part, as a reaction to Abyan incident, pulled out the British teachers and stopped all English-Language teaching programs in all branches of the British Council in Yemen. The British foreign office and the Commonwealth had issued an announcement against British nationals visiting Yemen because it could not guarantee their safety against the dangers of kidnapping and their consequences.
The media campaign between the two countries continued to escalate until the meeting that took place between president Ali Abdullah Saleh and the British prime minister in Amman. Both were attending the funeral ceremony of the late king Hussein of Jordan at the beginning of February. The two leaders affirmed their keenness to strengthen the countries’ relations and calm down the atmosphere to give enough chance to Yemeni judiciary to give its verdicts on the Abyan and Aden incidents.