Fifteenth Annual General Meeting, 20 June 2007.
It is customary for the Chairman to begin his report by saying that the Society has had an active year. This indeed has been the case but I do believe that it could have been even more active, and this is a theme which I shall return to later.
Before I review the past year, let me say that the essential backdrop to the Society’s activity is of course news about Yemen – political, economic, cultural and social – and the development of bilateral links between Britain and Yemen. We need to keep abreast of the news, whether it be about floods in the rainy season or the lethal effect of soaring temperatures in Aden at a time of intermittent power cuts, as has occurred in the last couple of days; or about Ministerial visits to London or Sana’a; or about conferences and other subjects exercising The Yemen Times or The Yemen Observer, both informative papers from which we can learn a lot about Yemen. We are also fortunate in having the Yemen Gateway website as a link into what the world media are reporting on Yemen, and Brian Whitaker deserves our thanks for keeping it going.
In my report last year, I said that there were signs that the British government was putting more effort into developing bilateral links. I am glad to say that that process still continues – a process to which the efforts of HE the Yemeni Ambassador, sitting here beside me, and the outgoing British Ambassador in Sana’a, Mike Gifford, have made a notable contribution. Meanwhile, I am delighted that the British Ambassador-designate, Tim Torlot, has been able to join us this evening, and to take this opportunity to invite him in his future capacity to become co-President of the Society.
There have been increasing high-level contacts between our two countries. I shall mention only two here. The first was the visit of newly-elected President Ali Abdullah Saleh to London last November – I was glad to see that he was re-elected with only 76% of the popular vote rather than the fantastic 97% he won during the last election seven years ago. President Saleh played a major role in the aid donors conference held in London that same month, organised jointly by the World Bank and the Yemeni government. The conference was an enormous success, with multilateral and bilateral donors pledging $4. 73 billion to assist Yemen. Shortly before the conference, the British government announced that it was increasing its own annual aid to Yemen from £10 million to reach £50 million by 2011. My only sadness about this is that I could not lay my hands on even the present annual amount of aid when I was serving as Ambassador in Sana’a. The planned increase over the next 4-5 years is the best possible indication of a change for the better in HMG’s attitude towards Yemen.
The second visit which I want to highlight was that by my good friend, Foreign Minister Abu Bakr al-Qirbi, who was here in London only last week. It was gratifying to see that such a prestigious institution as Chatham House gave Dr al-Qirbi a platform from which to present a Yemeni view of what is happening in the Middle East, including of course his own country.
I want to say just a few words here about trade and tourism. The Middle East Association is looking again at the possibility of sending a trade mission to Yemen in the next year or so, and I have confirmed that I am ready, willing and available to lead it, if the project takes off. As for tourism, what Yemen has to offer goes without saying to this gathering of committed friends. But there are a lot of people who need to be made aware of Yemen’s potential, and I am glad to see continuing coverage of Yemen in travel supplements of the major newspapers. The FCO Travel Advice for Yemen still dwells overmuch, in my view, on kidnappings and bombings and so on; I wish, for example, that it would say that no Briton has been kidnapped in Yemen since January 1999 (when I was Ambassador in Sana’a), which is not, I hope, giving a hostage to fortune! But although the Travel Advice contains much to put off the timorous, it is, nevertheless, better than it used to be, and the only place to which it advises against all but essential travel is the Governorate of Sa’ada in the north. Who knows whether even this prohibition will endure for long if the present ceasefire in the area holds and peace returns to it.
Those of you who managed to get to Edinburgh last summer to see the magnificent exhibition on Soqotra at the Royal Botanic Garden, will know what a stimulus the exhibition must have been to people to go and see one of the world’s unique wonders. And in a Soqotran context I would like to thank Bill Heber Percy, on your behalf, for the substantial funds which he has continued to raise under the umbrella of our Society in support of the Computer and English Language Training Centre in Soqotra. Finally, on the subject of tourism to Yemen, let me mention two more points: first that a novel such as the unpromising- sounding but amazingly successful Salmon Fishing in Yemen should play a part in creating the right climate; and, secondly, let me again pay tribute to my fellow Committee member, Alan D’Arcy, for having arranged yet another Society tour to Yemen last autumn. Earlier this year Alan, having kindly donated his valuable collection of books on southern Arabia to the National Library in Sana’a, was received and decorated by President Saleh, and has thus become something of a celebrity in Yemen. I should also mention that there are periodic events in the UK with a strong Yemeni element, such as the participation last summer of a group of Yemeni musician/singers and dancers in the Salaam Music Village Festival in London. One forthcoming event of this nature is the Liverpool Arabic Arts Festival which is to be held during the first half of July, and which I commend to your attention.
Yemeni communities in major British population centres play an important role in strengthening the links of which I have been speaking. I should like to invite a representative of these communities to speak about their institutional activities at one of our future meetings. Meanwhile, I shall just mention that the community centre in Sandwell, West Midlands, celebrates its tenth anniversary on 13 July; and that the community in Cardiff was very much involved in an event at the Welsh Assembly in February this year. The latter, which was attended by First Minister Rhodri Morgan, was to launch The Enchanted Lake and was the culmination of two years’ work by Pat Aithie and Bill Heber Percy, amongst others. We owe them a great debt of thanks. The book, to whose costs the Society contributed, was part of the children’s section at the recent Hay-on-Wye literary festival. It has now sold 489 copies in English and 238 copies in Welsh. I hope to see those numbers increase after the reception kindly hosted later this evening by HE the Yemeni Ambassador, at which copies of The Enchanted Lake will be on sale.
The event in Cardiff was an example of a British-Yemeni Society (BYS) event outside London, something we must try and do more of in future. Other BYS events during the twelve months under review – all in London – were: the launch last September of the book, Without Glory in Arabia: The British Retreat from Aden by Peter Hinchcliffe, John Ducker and Maria Holt – a joint event with the Royal Society for Asian Affairs (RSAA); a lecture in November on Yemen’s fisheries by Stephen Akester of MacAlister Elliott & Partners – an excellent lecture, and anyone who missed it may care to go to the RSAA at lunchtime on 4 July when Stephen will be speaking on the same subject; Roy Facey’s annual update in January on the development of Aden Port; a lecture by Carl Phillips on the archaeologist Olga Tufnell (who took a special interest in Yemeni pottery) at a joint meeting with the Society for Arabian Studies and Palestine Exploration Fund; a richly illustrated lecture at the beginning of March by Kay Van Damme (of Ghent University) to launch the book which he edited, Socotra: A Natural History of the Islands and Their People; and a lecture in April by Dr Miranda Morris on The Pre-literate languages of Oman and Yemen: their current situation and uncertain future, which was a joint event with the Anglo-Omani Society.
I would like to have been able to add to that list an address by Keith Vaz MP, Chairman of the Yemen Group in the Houses of Parliament, who had hoped to speak to us in May, but in the event was unable to do so, and now hopes to talk to us later in the year. The programme for the autumn will be sent out during the summer, together with the Society’s 2007 Journal, but one date for your diaries is 24 October, when my fellow committee member, Shelagh Weir, will deliver a lecture at SOAS to launch her book, A Tribal Order: Politics and Law in the Mountains of Yemen, of which a few advance copies are available here today. Looking even further forward, I hope that Tim Torlot may have the time next year, once he has got his feet well under the table in the splendid new Embassy in Sana’a, to give us his impressions of Yemen in the first decade of the 21st century.
Let me now return to the theme I mentioned in my opening remarks: that the Society could have been even more active than it was during the period under review. I am conscious that this is a rather top-down organisation, with initiatives from my Committee colleagues being handed down, so to speak, but not much in the way of ideas coming up to us from the body of the membership, apart from the efforts by the members whom I have mentioned. The Society could, I believe, become more active if it were more interactive. So please, do let us have your suggestions for events, lecturees and suitable recipients of donations from the Society’s very limited funds. I say this in particular to new members of the Society, of whom I am glad to report there have been 37 since last year. This is your society, and we want it to be something that you feel is really worth your while belonging to.
Finally, some of you will remember that I said in my last report that we urgently needed to find a successor to Julian Paxton, who had soldiered on as Honorary Secretary for a year beyond his constitutional duty. Well, cometh the hour, cometh the woman. Rebecca Johnson answered our prayers and is now a tower of strength, and rapidly making herself indispensable. Thank you, Rebecca, very much indeed!
It only remains for me to thank HE the Yemeni Ambassador once again for the hospitality extended to us on this occasion. I look forward, as I am sure you all do, to sampling the culinary delights which, thanks to the Ambassador and his staff, await us outside [in the Baden-Powell Institute].