Sheba Revealed: A Posting to Bayhan in the Yemen

Sheba Revealed: A Posting to Bayhan in the Yemen

by Nigel Groom

The London Centre of Arab Studies (63 Great Cumberland Place, London W1H 7LJ), 2002. Pp. xii + 292. 40 b/w photographs. 3 Maps. Appendix. Glossary. Bibliog. Index. Hb. £24.95. ISBN 1-900404-31-1.

The pacification of Aden’s Western Protectorate in the period immediately after the Second World War, is poorly documented. With its long and uncontrolled frontier with the Imam’s Yemen, and its plethora of little States, each with its own Treaty of Protection, the area had been largely ignored by the British authorities, who maintained only a tenuous influence there through a modest outlay of rifles, ammunition and Maria Theresa dollars. In the aftermath of the war this policy began to change. Nigel Groom’s book records this period of change in Bayhan, the most far-flung of the Western Aden Protectorate (WAP) States.

In 1948 Groom, aged 23, was posted to Bayhan which was ruled (nominally on behalf of his son Amir Salih) by Sharif Hussain bin Ahmad al-Habili, one of the most ambitious and enigmatic of the Protectorate rulers, who later became Minister of the Interior in the Federal Government of South Arabia. Groom’s immediate task on arrival was to persuade the Bal Harith, one of the main tribal groupings which made up the State of Bayhan, of the desirability of accepting Sharifian rule which they were rebelling against. How he managed this is graphically described.

Once peace had been established, Groom had to turn his attention to delineating the borders of the State which in 1903 Her Majesty’s Government had solemnly promised to protect, and, at the same time, to dealing with the Imam’s representative in nearby Harib. His area of responsibility stretched beyond Bayhan to Wadi Markha and the Upper Awlaqi States where inter-tribal feuding was an almost daily occurrence. In addition to all this, he was given the thankless task of persuading Sharif Hussain of the advantages of representative government and of having a ‘constitution’. This finally stretched the relationship between Ruler and Political Officer to breaking point, while it demonstrated the limitations of a political officer’s powers, despite the theoretical obligations of the Advisory Treaty signed in 1944. The introduction of accepted methods of accounting in the State treasury was another challenging task which met with only limited success (the writer of this review can testify that the treasury books were still a fine example of creative accounting in 1966!).

Groom covered his extensive territory either on foot or on horseback (there was only one jeep in the whole State); and as well as mapping its borders he recorded its many pre-Islamic sites and inscriptions, some of which have since been destroyed. It was Groom’s reports which inspired the Wendell Phillips’ expeditions to Bayhan and Marib in 1950 and 1951.

This is an enthralling snapshot by a young political officer of the State for which he was responsible, at a time when British policy was moving hesitantly from neglect to parsimonious involvement. He records the first steps towards the introduction of an educational system, and the first mention of ‘federation’; and he illustrates the considerable problems of dealing with a ruler who was ambitious, autocratic and very jealous of his ‘sharaf’. One is left with the impression that the support which Groom received from his taskmasters in the WAP Office was less than wholehearted.

A traveller to Bayhan will see few horses and camel convoys today, but with the help of the excellent photographs included in the book, he or she will still be able to find many of the places described by the author. For those interested in the first stirrings of economic and political development that finally culminated in the Federation of South Arabia, of which Sharif Hussain was a major architect, this eloquently written and handsomely printed book is required reading.

Bill Heber Percy

Author: 
Nigel Groom