Old Ghosts Return to Yemen

Tuesday, February 4th, 2014

Aden had been a crucial part of the British Empire since 1839:

In 1963 a rebellion began. A nationalist group called the National Liberation Front started an armed revolt against the British army. The NLF were followers of Colonel Gamal Abdel Nasser who was the president of Egypt. Nasser was an extraordinary figure who inspired the whole of the Arab world. He wanted to unite all the Arab countries and use that power to force the western colonial powers out of the Middle East.

By the mid 60s the revolt had developed into a bitter and vicious insurgency as the NLF used terror against British civilians as well as attacking the soldiers.

As the insurgency continued both sides turned to terror. An Amnesty report in 1966 alleged that the British were torturing prisoners including beating them and burning them with cigarettes. The British soldiers were also stripping the Arab prisoners naked to humiliate them.

The terrorists meanwhile had resorted to throwing grenades into childrens’ parties and had blown up a DC3 civilian airliner over the Yemen killing everyone on board.

At the same time as the insurgency began in the south, in Aden, another revolution happened in the North Yemen. A group of republicans who were also followers of President Nasser overthrew the ruling royal family. Nasser then sent Egyptian troops to support the republicans.

Many in the British government wanted to recognise the new regime, but a small group in the security services, led by David Stirling, persuaded the Prime Minister, Harold MacMillan, to let them organise a covert war in the deserts and mountains of Yemen in support of the royal family.

These men had a romantic and simplified view of the world. They did not see this war as a nationalist struggle but as part of a much wider fight against a communist takeover of the world. Engaging in this global conflict would be a way of recapturing Britain’s power and greatness.

Stirling also believed that selling arms and planes to the Saudis would not only help fight the war, but would also re-establish Britain’s influence in the Middle East in a new way – through the arms trade.

And he was right. Although the mecenaries failed to restore the royalists in Yemen, they did help defeat Nasser and destroy his anti-colonial project. But more than that, their secret war also helped re-establish western influence in the Arab world in a new way. In a post-imperial age the British returned to the Middle East by supporting and propping up regimes through selling arms and through mercenary armies. Just as Stirling had intended.

But it had a terrible price.

The regimes that Britain, and America, would support for the next forty years were mostly corrupt and despotic. The very regimes that Nasser had told the Arab world were a part of the past which the modern world would sweep away.

The Mayfair Set explores how “buccaneer capitalists” shaped world events:


  1. Toddy Cat says:

    Here we go again. As if Nassar wasn’t a tyrant and a despot who did more than anyone else to get Egypt into its current mess, and who used nerve gas against the Royalist rebels. Nassar was also backed by the CIA, but this doesn’t fit Curtis’s preconceptions, so he doesn’t mention it. And isn’t this “they weren’t Commies, they were Nationalists!” schtick getting a little old? As Mao, Ho, Tito and Stalin all proved, it was eminantly possible to be both. What do you guys see in this joker?

  2. Isegoria says:

    Toddy Cat, I’m not sharing these excerpts from Curtis’s work because I agree with his world view and everything he says, but because he brings up interesting historical tidbits. You don’t have to share his center-left BBC sensibilities to get something out of his work.

    As Anomaly UK has pointed out, you can learn a lot from Catholics, Marxists, etc.:

    I have a bit of an interest in Catholic theology, on the basis that since this is what the brightest minds half the world could produce spent about a thousand years on, it is likely to have some value, even if it is fundamentally flawed.

    In the same way, a large proportion of political science in the twentieth century was carried out in a Marxist framework, and while it is no doubt the worse for it, it is a stretch to dismiss it as worthless, less worthy as a point of comparison than Hobbes or Machiavelli, or to examine Lenin and Mao as political practitioners without giving any attention to the theories they expounded before coming to power.

  3. Toddy Cat says:

    Yeah, I understand, I’m not criticizing you, certainly, but this guy doesn’t even get his facts right, as others have pointed out, and that makes me question the value of his work. I totally agree that we can learn from Marxists and others on the left, but I just don’t see how cherry-picking factoids to prove that everything that’s gone wrong in the world since 1917 is the fault of the Right is really very useful. It’s not like the guy is a really intelligent leftist like Christopher Lasch or Jaques Ellul – it’s all just Oliver Stone type stuff. I’ll shut up about Curtis, we’ll obviously just have to agree to disagree. But honestly, I still just don’t see it.

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