Queen Elizabeth II: Britain's complex colonial legacy in Yemen

7 min read
19 September, 2022

British imperialism in the 19th century dominated many regions worldwide. Yemen's south was a strategic British colony for 129 years.

The British seized Aden in 1839, overpowering fierce local resistance at the time. The city's strategic location and ports fuelled Britain’s desire to control it.

While Britain’s other outposts in the Middle East, such as in Egypt, Palestine, or the Gulf, were mandates or protectorates, Aden was the only Arab territory to have been a colony directly ruled by the British crown.

One landmark event throughout the British occupation of South Yemen was the late Queen Elizabeth II's visit to Aden. The Queen, who died at the age of 96 on 8 September, visited the port city in April 1954.

"Yemen's south was a strategic British colony for 129 years"

Thousands of people flocked to see her at the time, a key moment in the history of Britain’s empire in Yemen.

Nine years after the Queen's visit to the port city, a revolution against the British broke out in October 1963. It was a turning point in South Yemen which planted the seeds of independence, ultimately paving the way for freedom from British rule in 1967.

For those southern fighters who struggled for self-rule, it was a proud moment and a grand victory. However, since the declaration of independence, south Yemen has experienced several wars, and long-term stability has not materialised.

Indeed, some Yemenis believe the pains outnumber the gains over the last five decades.

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Post-independence ups and downs in South Yemen

The declaration of independence from the British was the prime gain for the southern combatants. In November 1967, the leading revolutionaries announced the country's official name, the People's Republic of South Yemen, and they formed their first government.

Such an occasion was a marked success for the people and leaders who had planned, coordinated, and led the struggle.

But with the fight against British occupation over, internal disputes between political movements continued. Coups, chaos, and violence would mark the decades to come, with a battle for power the root cause of instability.

The crisis in 1986, known as the South Yemen civil war or the events of 1986, was one of the bloodiest battles in the south, leaving thousands of people dead and forcing tens of thousands into exile.

A soldier from the Northumberland Fusiliers pulls a man out of a crowd in Aden on 4 April 1967 during a Yemeni uprising against British rule. [Getty]

As turbulence continued in Aden and the southern provinces, the southern leadership, represented by Ali Salem Al-Beidh, the president at the time, began negotiating with Yemen's northern leaders about unification.

The north was under the leadership of late president Ali Abdullah Saleh. The two leaders agreed in May 1990 to form one country, which is still recognised today as the Republic of Yemen. Saleh became the president of united Yemen and Al-Beidh his deputy.

Three years after Yemen’s unification, rifts over power sharing between northern and southern leaders began to surface. In 1994, a ferocious civil war between the two parts of the country began.

Northern forces swept through the entire south, defeating their rivals after two months of fighting. It marked one of South Yemen's most bitter setbacks since the end of British rule. For the southerners who had rejected unification with the north, the takeover was viewed as another form of colonisation.

"Southern secessionists still believe that just as the south obtained independence from the British more than five decades ago, they will also gain independence from northern Yemen"

After the southern rout in 1994, separatist voices remained silent for years. The first boldest move emerged in 2007 when the Southern Movement began, calling for secession from the north.

Late president Saleh maintained unity through force and diplomacy. He was open to listening to the demands of southern voices, but he considered the country's unity a non-negotiable red line.

When the 2011 popular uprising broke out in Sanaa and other Yemeni cities, the regime failed to quell it. Political instability rocked the country, compelling Saleh to concede power to his southern vice president Abdurabbu Mansour Hadi under a Gulf-sponsored political pact.

The shakeup of power did little to stem the turbulence, and chaos reached its height in 2015 when the Iran-allied Houthi group toppled the UN-recognised government.

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Those developments inadvertently served the aims of the southern secessionist agenda. The Houthis have tightened their grip on the north since 2015, whereas the separatists have deepened their dominance over the south, largely thanks to support from the United Arab Emirates (UAE).

In 2017, southern separatist leaders established the Southern Transitional Council (STC), a political and military body using diplomacy and force to wrest control of South Yemen and restore its independence. Hitherto, the progress of the STC is considerable, and its complete control of the south no longer appears far-fetched.

Southern secessionists still believe that just as the south obtained independence from the British more than five decades ago, they will also gain independence from northern Yemen.

Britain's legacy and the south

When the news of Queen Elizabeth II's death broke, the leadership of the southern separatists expressed heartfelt condolences and displayed a willingness to work with Britain’s new King.

Aidrous Al-Zubaidi, the founder and head of the STC, mourned the departure of the Queen, saying, "On my behalf and behalf of the people of the South, I offer my sincere condolences … on the death of the icon of peace and Queen of Humanity, Queen Elizabeth II".

He added, "We affirm our keenness to consolidate the historical relations that link our people in the south to the friendly United Kingdom, and our readiness to work with King Charles to maintain those distinguished relations between our two friendly countries and peoples".

Picture released on February 11, 1958 of Yemenite dissidents fighting against the British protectorate at the borders of Aden, South Yemen.
Picture released on 11 February 1958 of Yemeni dissidents fighting against the British protectorate at the borders of Aden, South Yemen. [Getty]

In March 2019, Zubaidi visited London for the first time and entered the House of Commons. In one of his remarks in London, he said, "Britain has a positive impact on the people of the south. Given the old partnership and the past British presence …we wanted the first visit to [be to] Britain as it was a partner, and the southern people have a long legacy with it."

The crux of this statement is that Britain was not an occupier but a partner. Zubaidi instead referred to unity with northern Yemen as an occupation.

Like separatist leaders, some civilians exhibit cordiality toward the British five decades after independence. Abdulla Khalil, an 82-year-old resident in Aden, recalls the era of British rule and the day of Queen Elizabeth II's arrival in Aden.

"It was such a historical day. I still remember how excited I was that day because of the good life we were living at that time," he said.

"The idea of having good roads and services does not mean they (the colonisers) were good"

Aden was a cosmopolitan city during British colonisation. It, alas, has since been marked by infighting, assassinations, and terror attacks over recent years. Many southerners find no embarrassment in praising the century-long British colonisation of Aden. "The Aden which Queen Elizabeth visited in 1954 doesn't exist today," Khalil said.

Others, however, question this narrative. “The idea of having good roads and services does not mean they (the colonisers) were good. They were occupiers who served their own interest at the first place,” Salem al Yamani, a schoolteacher in the southern province of Abyan, told The Associated Press.

“That the situation now is dire doesn’t mean we want them back again,” he added. “This is our own problem, and it will be resolved if foreign powers stopped meddling in our affairs.”

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Mohammad Qassem Numan, an activist against British rule during the 1960s and president of the Yemen Center for Human Rights Studies, said any colonial nostalgia was misplaced.

"Those who glorify the period where the British were in Aden, either are young and are unaware of the reality of what was happening in Aden and in the south back then, or are old people reacting to the reality we are living right now which is very tiring," the 72-year-old told AFP.

Today, the United Kingdom is no longer an occupier in Yemen. However, Yemeni rivals have still pinned their hopes on its role in helping end the disastrous civil war, which has created what the UN calls the worst humanitarian tragedy in the world.

The writer is a Yemeni journalist, reporting from Yemen, whose identity we are protecting for their security.