A History of Modern Yemen

A History of Modern Yemen 

by Paul Dresch

Cambridge University Press, 2000. Pp. 285. Illus. Maps. Appendices. Glossary. Notes. Bibliog. Index. Hb. & Pb. ISBN 0 521 79482 X.

Having thoroughly enjoyed Dr Dresch’s previous, primarily anthropological book, Tribes, Government and History in Yemen (1989), I expected good things of his work on the modern country. I was not disappointed. This is an attractive and readable publication, with photographs, maps and other useful illustrations. Above all, it is well written and as appealing to the general reader as to the specialist academic. In some ways it could be described as an updated version of Robin Bidwell’s The Two Yemens (1983), but presentationally, organisationally and stylistically, I prefer Paul Dresch’s approach.

The book concentrates on the Yemen of the twentieth century (Bidwell delved into the earlier history more extensively) and is part of a Cambridge University Press series on the modern Middle East. I particularly enjoyed Dresch’s treatment of Imam Yahya’s time and his stormy relationship with the British. Given my own involvement with the last years of British rule in South Arabia (‘rule’ may have been something of a misnomer towards the end!), I tended to concentrate on the author’s coverage of the late 1950s and 1960s. Here he has done well although hampered by a lack of reliable primary source material from the Arab nationalist ‘side’ in South Arabia, as opposed to extensive English language accounts. Someone needs to persuade the chief actors in the National Liberation Front to come forward with an objective first hand version of their activities before the surviving main players leave the stage altogether. Inevitably in a book spanning a century, this short if traumatic decade marking the twilight of Empire is covered somewhat superficially. But the sense is clear enough. The sad history of muddle, lack of vision, indecision and, in the end, a fatal loss of will by HMG, emerges starkly from the thirty or so pages dealing with the 1962 revolution in the north, entanglement of the Egyptians, and the demise of the British in the south.

Perhaps the most valuable feature of this excellent volume is Dresch’s account of the post-colonial period - especially when he carries on from where Bidwell stopped and explains how the two Yemens, neo-Marxist in the south, inherently conservative in the north (despite years of ‘republicanism’), finally merged. As a young political officer in the 1960s, I would have wagered my entire (albeit modest) gratuity against unity in my lifetime, dismissing the prospect as a chimera induced by fleeting anti-colonial sentiment rather than anything more substantial and enduring. The post-imperial road to scenes of crowds chanting on both sides of the former border: ‘ba’d al yawm ma’ad baramil’ (‘after today no more barrels’ i. e. concrete ftlled drums marking the frontier checkpoints) was a rocky one.

Obstacles included the unequal balance of populations - 11 million in the north overwhelming the 2. 5 million in the south; opposition from Saudi Arabia; the conflicting ambitions of politicians and tribal leaders; the divisive effect of the dying years of the cold war on Arab regional development. But against all odds union came about, in the shadow of Saddam’s adventure in Kuwait and the emergence of the United States as sole superpower in the so-called ‘New World Order’.

Peter Hinchcliffe

Paul Dresch