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Britain is backing a Saudi invasion of Yemen that has cost thousands of innocent lives. It is providing advanced weaponry to the Saudis, training their military, and has soldiers embedded with the Saudis helping with targeting; and there is suspicion that British soldiers may even be involved in flying sorties themselves.
This is true of today. But it also describes exactly what was happening in the 1960s, in a shameful episode which Britain has, like so much of its colonial past, effectively whitewashed out of history.
In 1962, following the death of Yemeni King Ahmad, Arab nationalist army officers led by Colonel Abdullah Al-Sallal seized power and declared a Republic. The Royalists launched an insurgency to reclaim power, backed by Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Israel and Britain, whilst Nasser’s Egypt sent troops to support the fledgling republican government.
In his book ‘Unpeople’, historian Mark Curtis pieces together Britain’s ‘dirty war’ in Yemen between 1962 and 1969 using declassified files which – despite their public availability and the incendiary nature of their revelations – have only ever been examined by one other British historian. British involvement spanned both Conservative and Labour governments, and implicated leading members of the British government in war crimes.
Just as today, the side under attack from Britain clearly had popular support – as British officials were well aware. Christopher Gandy – Britain’s top official in Yemen’s cultural capital, Taiz – noted that the previous regime was “unpopular with large elements and those in many ways the best”, describing it as “an arbitrary autocracy”. Another British official, in the Prime Minister’s office, wrote that Nasser had been “able to capture most of the dynamic and modern forces in the area whilst we have been left, by our own choice, backing the forces which are not merely reactionary (that would not matter so much) but shifty, unreliable and treacherous” Even Prime Minister Harold Macmillan admitted it was “repugnant to political equality and prudence alike that we should so often appear to be supporting out of date and despotic regimes and to be opposing the growth of modern and more democratic forms of government”. Thus, wrote Curtis, “Britain decided to engage in a covert campaign to promote those forces recognised [by Britain itself] as ‘shifty’, ‘treacherous’ and ‘despotic’ to undermine those recognised as ‘popular’ and ‘democratic'”.
At the request of Mossad, MI6 appointed Conservative MP Neil MacLean to run a guerrilla war against the new Republican government. At first Britain’s role was primarily to support and equip Jordan’s involvement in the war; just as today, it was British fighter jets carrying out airstrikes on Yemen, with British military advisors embedded with their allies at the most senior level. This involvement stepped up a gear in March 1963, however, when Britain began covertly supplying weapons to the Royalist forces themselves via their Gulf allies. The following month, says MI6 biographer Stephen Dorrill, millions of pounds worth of light weapons were shipped from an RAF station in Wilstshire to the insurgents, including 50,000 rifles. At the same time, a decision was taken by Britain’s foreign minister (shortly to become Prime Minister) Alec Douglas-Home, MI6 chief Dick White and SAS founder David Stirling to send a British force to work directly with the insurgents. But to avoid parliamentary scrutiny and public accountability, this force would be comprised of mercenaries, rather than serving soldiers. SAS soldiers and paratroopers were given temporary leave to join this new force on a salary of £10,000 per year, paid by the Saudi Prince Sultan. An MI6 task force was also set up, to facilitate weapons and personnel supplies, and authorisation was given for British mercenaries to lay mines. The same time as these decisions were taken, Douglas-Home told parliament “our policy in Yemen is one of non-intervention in the affairs of that country. It is not therefore our policy to supply arms to the Royalists in the Yemen”. Foreign minister Rab Butler was more uneasy with such barefaced lying, especially when evidence began circulating of exactly what Britain was up to; a memo he sent to the PM in 1964 complained that his job of rebuffing UN claims that Britain was supplying the Royalists was made slightly more difficult “since we know that this is in fact true”.
British officials also knew that their insurgency had no chance of winning. But this was not the point. As Prime Minister Macmillan told President Kennedy at the time, “I quite realise that the Loyalists will probably not win in Yemen in the end but it would not suit us too badly if the new Yemeni regime were occupied with their own internal affairs during the next few years”. What Britain wanted, he added, was “a weak government in Yemen not able to make trouble”. Nor was this only Macmillan’s personal opinion; his foreign policy advisor Philip de Zulueta wrote that “All departments appear to be agreed that the present stalemate in the Yemen, with the Republicans and Royalists fighting each other and therefore having no time or energy left over to make trouble for us in Aden, suits our own interests very well…our interest is surely to have the maximum confusion in the tribal areas on the Aden frontier” with Yemen.
Labour came to power in the autumn of 1964, but the policy stayed the same; indeed, direct (but covert) RAF bombing of Yemen began soon after. In addition, another private British military company Airwork Services, signed a $26million contract to provide personnel for training Saudi pilots and ground crew involved in the war. This agreement later evolved into British pilots actually carrying out bombing missions themselves, with a foreign office memo dated March 1967 noting that “we have raised no objection to their being employed in operations, though we made it clear to the Saudis that we could not publicly acquiesce in any such arrangements”. By the time the war ended – with its inevitable Republican victory – an estimated 200,000 people had been killed.
At the same time as Britain was running the insurgency in North Yemen, it was fighting a vicious counter-insurgency campaign in South Yemen – then a colonial protectorate known as the Federation of Southern Arabia. This federation comprised the port city of Aden, under the direct colonial rule of the UK, and a series of sheikhdoms in the pay of the UK in the neighbouring hinterland. Its inhabitants were desperately poor, with one British commander noting that “there is barely enough subsistence to support the population”. These were the conditions behind a major revolt against British rule that broke out in the district of Radfan in April 1964 and would not be quelled for 7 months. The methods used to do so were typically brutal, with the British High Commissioner of Aden, Sir Kennedy Trevaskis suggesting that soldiers be sent to “put the fear of death into the villages”. If this didn’t work, he said “it would be necessary to deliver some gun attacks on livestock or men outside the villages”, adding that “we might be able to claim that our aircraft were shooting back of [sic] men who had fired at us from the ground”. The British use of airstrikes against the risen peasants was massive: historian John Newsinger writes that in just 3 months in 1964, British jets fired 2508 rockets and 200,000 cannon rounds, whilst British bombers dropped 3504 20-pound bombs and 14 1000-pound bombs and fired 20,000 cannon rounds. The government took Trevaskis’ advice and targeted crops in what Newsinger correctly described as a “deliberate, calculated attempt to terrorise and starve them into surrender.” Although the Radfan rebellion was eventually crushed, the British lost control of the hinterland to the National Liberation forces less than three years later, swiftly followed by Aden itself.
The 1960s was not the first time Britain had aided and abetted a Saudi war against the Yemenis, however. In 1934, Ibn Saud invaded and annexed Asir – “a Yemeni province by all historical accounts” in the words of the academic and Yemen specialist Elham Manea – and forced Yemen to sign a treaty deferring their claims to the territory for 20 years. It has never been returned to Yemen and remains occupied by the Saudis to this day. Britain’s role in facilitating this carve up was significant. As Manea explains, “During this period, the real power was Great Britain. Its role was crucial in either exacerbating or containing regional conflicts….[and] in the Yemeni-Saudi war they intensified the conflict to the detriment of Yemen”. When Ibn Saud claimed sovereignty over Asir in 1930, the British, who had been neutral towards disputes between the Peninsula’s various rulers hitherto, “shifted their position, perceiving Asir as ‘part of Saudi Arabia’… This was a terrible setback for [Yemeni leader] Yihia and drove him into an agreement with the British in 1934 which ultimately sealed his total defeat.” The agreement forced Yihia to recognise British sovereignty of Aden – Yemen’s major port – for 40 years. Britain then provided military vehicles for the Saudi suppression of the Asiri revolt and subsequent occupation that followed.
So the current British-Saudi war against Yemen is in fact the third in a century. But why is Britain so seemingly determined to see the country dismembered and its development sabotaged? Strange as it may seem, the answer is that Britain is scared of Yemen. For Yemen is the sole country on the Arab peninsula with the potential power to challenge the colonial stitch-up reached between Britain and the Gulf monarchies it placed in power in the nineteenth century, and who continue to rule to this day. As Palestinian author Said Aburish has noted, the very “nature of the Yemen was a challenge to the Saudis: it was a populous country with more than half the population of the whole Arabian peninsula, had a solid urban history and was more advanced than its new neighbour. It also represented a thorn in the side of British colonialism, a possible springboard for action against their control of Saudi Arabia and all the makeshift tributary sheikhdoms and emirates of the Gulf. In particular, the Yemen represented a threat to the British colonisation of Aden, a territory which considered itself part of a greater Yemen which had been dismembered by colonialism”. The potential power of a united, peaceful, Yemen was also highlighted by Aden’s High Commissioner Kennedy Trevaskis, who noted that, if the Yemenis took Aden, “it would for the first time provide the Yemen with a large modern town and a port of international consequence” and “economically, it would offer the greatest advantages to so poor and ill developed a country”. A peaceful, united Yemen – with over half the peninsula’s population – would threaten Saudi-British-US hegemony of the entire region. That is why Britain has, for over 80 years, sought to keep it divided and warring.
A shorter version of this article originally appeared at Middle East Eye.