Sixteenth Annual General Meeting, 19 June 2008.
In many ways this has been an active year for me and the Society, but this and the vexed question of the FCO’s Travel Advice I shall turn to later. I shall begin by looking at the positive aspects of coverage of Yemen in the British media, and the way in which Yemen is returning to the international travel and tourism map.
Positive coverage has included: an edition of Sandi Toksvig’s excellent Excess Baggage programme on BBC Radio 4, which was entirely devoted to Yemen; a feature on Shibam, ‘the Manhattan of the Desert’, in Dan Cruickshank’s Adventures in Architecture series on BBC2; evocative footage of the Old City of Sana’a and other places in Yemen in Professor Tudor Parfitt’s Quest for the Lost Ark series on Channel 4; and travel features on Yemen in the Financial Times and other newspapers.
30 November 2007 was the fortieth anniversary of the departure of British forces from Aden. This also generated a significant amount of media coverage, including a half-hour programme on BBC News24, presented by Brian Barron. Meanwhile, a noteworthy commemorative publication was issued by the Aden Veterans Association – essential reading for students of the history of that time – and the only publication anywhere at any time which has included separate photographs of HM The Queen, President Ali Abdullah Saleh and your Chairman!
One Adeni who was prominent on our TV screens last month was Amani Zain who lives in the UK. Her programme on Adeni women in her BBC2 series, Women in Black, showed them, in my view, in a positive light, but I know that many Muslims thought otherwise. Other Yemenis in the news included Nashwanal Maghafi, owner of Yemen Bookshop, who won the British Council’s International Young Publishing Entrepreneur Award, 2008, at the London Book Fair; and last year Ali Hussain Saleh Muhammad from Sheikh Othman, Aden, won the English Speaking Union’s International Public Speaking Competition in which sixty young people from 34 different countries took part.
The travel features on Yemen which I mentioned earlier were proof that Yemen has regained the attention of the travel business. As a fan of Saga tours, I was particularly struck by the inclusion of Aden and Hodeida in the itineraries of two of their longer cruises: ‘African Odyssey’ next February, and the ‘Commonwealth World Cruise’ next April. The lucky passengers are scheduled to have the opportunity of seeing Aden, then cruising to Hodeida with the option of visiting Zabid. Or they can travel overland from Aden to Sana’a, whose status as a UNESCO Heritage site is highlighted on the Saga website as one of these cruises’ selling-points, staying the night there and re-joining the cruise at Hodeida.
Meanwhile, Yemen’s Tourism Promotion Board announced the other day that it had appointed an Edinburgh company, Dunira Strategy, as its marketing consultants in the UK and Ireland. Dunira and the Tourism Board are organising a Yemen roadshow across Europe, which will include what their press release describes as ‘an event’ in London in September. I hope it doesn’t matter that this will coincide with Ramadhan! In any case, I wish the venture all success.
Notable Yemeni events that have been held in the UK during the last twelve months included an exhibition entitled Arabia Felix: the Architecture of Yemen which opened on 8 November at the Royal Institute of British Architects, London, and which, due to its popularity, was extended until early February. The exhibition celebrated Yemen’s spectacular architecture and unique building culture, and was accompanied by the publication of Dr Salma Samar Damluji’s splendid new book, The Architecture of Yemen: from Yafi’ to Hadramut, which I strongly commend to anyone who missed the exhibition.
In the middle of that period – from 4 to 6 December – we had the first London Yemen Film Festival at SOAS, organised by Leila Ingrams in cooperation with the London Middle East Institute. Nine films were shown during the Festival including A New Day in Old Sana’a by Bader ben Hirsi; and Last of the Dictionary Men, by the Iranian-American director, Tina Gharavi. The latter was about the Yemeni community in South Shields, which dates from the l890s when Yemeni seamen on British boats started settling there. Tina Gharavi was the driving force behind an exhibition under the same name held at the Baltic Centre for Contemporary Arts in Gateshead from 2 April to 5 May. This multimedia presentation about the Yemeni community in South Shields was the peg on which Sandi Toksvig hung her Excess Baggage programme on Yemen at the end of March.
Sheffield, another northern city with a long-standing Yemeni community, was also the scene of an exhibition in April. This one, Coal, Frankincense and Myrrh, featured some fine photography by Tim Smith, and explored the links between Sheffield and Yemen.
Let me now mention one future event, to whose costs this Society and our sister in Sana’a, the Yemeni-British Friendship Association, have contributed: the visit by a group of musicians and singers from Seiyun, who will perform in July at the International Eisteddfod in Llangollen, Wales, and at the Arab Arts Festival in Liverpool, another northern city with a large Yemeni community. Some of you will remember this group from their previous visits to the UK. If they are new to you, believe me, they are well worth making an effort to see. I hope that Paul Hughes-Smith will be able to tell us more about their visit at the end of this meeting.
Turning now to the Society’s meetings during the last twelve months, I should mention that if the programme was not as full as I and fellow members of the Executive Committee would have liked, this was because on more than one occasion people whom we had lined up as guest speakers failed to materialise, for one reason or another. A case in point, of course, is Keith Vaz MP, Chairman of the All-Party Yemen Parliamentary Group. Those of you who were here this time last year will recall me saying that I had hoped Mr Vaz would be our guest of honour the previous month, but that was not to be. However, I expressed confidence that he would be able to come to talk to us in the autumn – that was not to be, either. Nothing daunted, I agreed with Mr Vaz – as long ago as February – that he would, exceptionally, be our guest of honour at this AGM. He had insisted that he should talk to us only after he had led a delegation from the Yemen parliamentary group to Sana’a at the end of May, although I understand that this visit did not take place because of the FCO’s Travel Advice. It was only on Monday evening that I learned that the demands of parliamentary business would prevent him from being with us this evening.
Nevertheless, we have had some good speakers, as I am sure those who heard them will agree. They included my fellow Committee member, Dr Shelagh Weir, who discussed her book, A Tribal Order: Politics and Law in the Mountains of Yemen,* in a joint lecture and book launch with the Society for Arabian Studies, at SOAS in October; then in November at the Middle East Association (MEA) Professor William Clarence-Smith, Professor of the Economic History of Asia and Africa at SOAS, lectured to the Society on ‘Hadhramis as agents of religious change in the Indian Ocean World’. In January this year Captain Roy Facey gave his annual update on Aden Port to the MEA who once again invited Society members to attend his presentation. And in May, Dr Adel al-Aulaqi gave us a very informative and entertaining talk at the MEA on the role of the Aden Refinery Medical Division during the period 1978–1982.
The full programme for the coming autumn – after Ramadhan and ‘Id al-Fitr, of course – will be sent out with this year’s Journal. But I can give you now two dates for your diaries: 16 October, when Fernando Carvajal will lecture to us at the MEA about his recent research in Yemen; and 20 November, when Quentin Morton will give an illustrated talk on the early years of oil exploration in southern Yemen.
Some other Society news for you: first some good news – 26 new members have joined during the past twelve months, some of whom are here this evening and are most welcome. Those of you who were present last year will remember hearing about the launch of the children’s book, The Enchanted Lake, at the Welsh Assembly in February 2007. I am glad to be able to say that the Jerboa publishing house in Dubai is about to go to print with the Arabic version of the book. Other good news is that during the past year the Society’s Appeal for funds for the Soqotra Training Centre, which we renewed last Christmas and to which members and both private and institutional donors have generously contributed, has raised some £17, 000 – a tremendous result.
But there is also the sad news of the deaths of four members of the Society since the last AGM: Ms Trudy Weaver, Colonel John Stevens, Professor Arthur Finch and Dr Malcolm Panter-Brick. ** I should also mention the deaths of two towering figures from Yemen’s modern history: Dr Faraj Sa’id bin Ghanem, a former Prime Minister who died on 5 August 2007 – I well remember calling on him on my 57th birthday! – and Shaikh Abdullah bin Hussain al-Ahmar, Speaker of Parliament, leader of the Islah party and paramount chief of the Hashid tribal confederacy: one of the great heroes of the Revolution in the 1960s and provider of much of the essential cement of Yemen’s democracy, who died on 29 December 2007. They will both be greatly missed.
Mention of Soqotra a few moments ago reminds me that the Royal Botanical Garden, Edinburgh’s highly successful exhibition on the Indian Ocean’s answer to the Galapagos islands has been transplanted to Yemen. It was shown, first, in Aden from 16 December to 31 January – where it attracted 5000 visitors. And just last week it opened in the National Museum in Sana’a, where it will run until 10 August.
One important occasion which I omitted from my calendar of events a few minutes ago was an address in January to members of the MEA by our host this evening, His Excellency the Yemeni Ambassador. His address on opportunities for British businessmen in Yemen helped to pave the way for the trade mission which went to Yemen in late March under the aegis of the MEA, which I had the honour to lead. Those who heard me speak about the mission at a meeting of this Society on 23 April may rest assured that I am not going to talk at equal length about it here. Suffice it to say that the first full British trade mission to Yemen in ten years – I was involved in the previous one being Ambassador in Sana’a at the time – made a significant impact and left me and all those involved with the mission in no doubt at all of the genuine desire of the Yemeni authorities and Yemeni businessmen to have close commercial ties with Britain. We very definitely had something to build on. But how? The obvious answer was to encourage more British businessmen to emulate our example and get on the plane to Sana’a and Aden. But here looms the vexed question of FCO Travel Advice.
Little more than a week after the mission left Yemen on 10 April in euphoric mood, the FCO was advising British citizens against all but essential travel to Yemen. As the British Ambassador, Tim Torlot, acknowledged when he fielded questions after my address on 23 April, the tightening of the Travel Advice works against all he is seeking to achieve in Yemen. But he emphasised that his primary concern had to be the safety of British citizens living in, or visiting, Yemen, and said that he supported the tightening of the Travel Advice as a necessary response to a number of incidents in Sana’a and elsewhere, before and after the visit of our trade mission. Some of these have been claimed by a group alleging affiliation to al-Qa’idah.
As the British Ambassador’s predecessor but two in the hot seat in Sana’a, I know the sort of considerations which he has to weigh and the sort of judgements which he has to form. In the light of recent developments which include reported clashes with the al-Huthi rebels fairly close to Sana’a itself, I am not going to suggest people ignore FCO Travel Advice. I merely express the fervent hope that the Yemeni authorities will speedily get on top of all the causes of conflict, so that the Travel Advice can return to where it was before 10 April, prudently warning of the risks involved in travel to particular areas e. g. Sa’adah, but not advising against ‘all but essential travel’ to the country as a whole.
We have already heard of cases where individuals or companies, including a film crew who were going to make a documentary about Yemen, have decided to ignore the Travel Advice but have been unable to get travel insurance, except at prohibitive rates. So the journeys have not been made. Clearly the longer this situation lasts, the more frustrating it is going to be to those of us who are striving to further Yemeni/British ties.
Of course, the British-Yemeni Society has a direct interest in this issue. Every year there is a tour to Yemen in its name, the next one being planned for this coming October/November. Alan D’Arcy already has half a dozen people lined up for it, and I hope very much that it will be possible for the tour to go ahead.
Travel Advice and related issues apart, the British-Yemeni relationship has developed well in the last twelve months, when there were two Ministerial visits from Britain to Yemen: by Shahid Malik, the Minister for the Department for International Development, last August; and by Kim Howells, FCO Minister for the Middle East, at the beginning of May. It was good to see Dr Howells travelling to Aden and Hodeida during this, his third visit to Yemen, in spite of the Travel Advice. Indeed it could be argued that this Advice is only one of the factors which should influence a decision to travel. We shall see how things turn out, and I very much hope that this time next year I shall be able to say that the Yemeni authorities have demonstrated that they have the security situation under control and that the number of Britons visiting Yemen has increased substantially.
* We are delighted to report that Shelagh Weir’s book, A Tribal Order: Politics and Law in the Mountains of Yemen, published by the British Museum Press, was joint winner of the British-Kuwaiti Friendship Prize for books published on the Middle East in the UK in 2007. The Prize is administered by the British Society for Middle East Studies. For details visit www.brismes.ac.uk.
** We also much regret to record the recent death of Mr Abdulmalik Eagle, a long-standing member of the Society and valued contributor to the Journal.