Yemen’s Useful Tyranny – The Forgotten History of Britain’s ‘Dirty War’: Part 2

Using declassified government files, historian Mark Curtis has exposed Britain’s ‘dirty war’ in Yemen in the 1960s, which he describes as one of the ‘least known aspects of recent British history’. The war lasted almost a decade under both Tory and Labour governments, and cost around 200,000 lives.

Even today, Curtis notes, the files are heavily censored: ‘probably more so than in any other foreign-policy episode I have looked at.’ The official reason for the secrecy is ‘national security’. The actual reason is to protect the reputations of ‘the people with blood on their hands’: the leading politicians of the day, including Harold Wilson, Denis Healey, Alec Douglas-Home and numerous other officials. (Mark Curtis, ‘Unpeople’, Chapter 16: ‘Arabians: Dirty Wars’, Vintage, 2004)

Curtis describes how, in September 1962, the Imam of North Yemen was overthrown in a popular coup. Until then, 80 per cent of the population had lived as peasants under a feudal system of government, with control maintained by graft, a coercive tax system, and a policy of divide and rule. The coup was led by Arab nationalists within the Yemeni military who supported Egypt’s reformist president Gamal Abdel Nasser. In turn, Nasser sent troops to bolster the new Republican government. Royalist forces supporting the deposed Imam fled to the hills and began an insurgency backed by Saudi Arabia and Jordan.

Curtis notes that Britain ‘soon resorted to covert action to undermine the new Republican regime, in alliance with the Saudis and Jordanis’. British officials privately recognised that they were thus supporting a ‘monopoly of [royal] power’ that was ‘much resented’ by the Yemenis. But the Foreign Office’s ‘pragmatic’ concern was that the nationalist uprising might spread to neighbouring Aden, then a UK colony, where Britain was ‘supporting similarly feudal elements against strong popular, nationalist feeling.’   

Why? For longstanding reasons of ‘national interest’. Curtis explains:

‘The military base at Aden was the cornerstone of British military policy in the Gulf region, in which Britain was then the major power, directly controlling the sheikhdoms of the Persian Gulf and with huge oil interests in Kuwait and elsewhere.’

Aden was surrounded by a ‘protectorate’, the Federation of South Arabia: feudal fiefdoms controlled by autocratic leaders like the overthrown Yemeni Imam, and all ‘kept sweet by British bribes.’ Britain feared that a progressive, republican, Arab nationalist Yemen would act as an inspiring example and so threaten other feudal sheikdoms in the region and throughout the wider Middle East. British ministers feared ‘a collapse in the morale of the pro-British rulers of the protectorate,’ putting ‘the whole British position in the area … in jeopardy.’ The rulers of oil-rich Saudi Arabia were similarly concerned about the possible domino effect of neighbouring monarchies being overthrown by Arab nationalist forces.

Early in 1963, working with the Saudis, Jordan and Israel, Britain began covertly arming and supplying the Yemeni royalist forces against the new Yemen Republican government. A British mercenary operation was set up, funded by the Yemeni royalist foreign minister, the Saudi prince Sultan, the British Foreign Office and the Ministry of Defence. SAS volunteers were given temporary leave from official duties and French mercenaries were also recruited.

In early 1964, SAS forces undertook their first clandestine air-drop of arms and ammunition, with the discreet backing of MI6 and the CIA. UK Defence Secretary Peter Thorneycroft spoke of the need to organise ‘tribal revolts’ in the frontier areas and to initiate ‘deniable action … to sabotage [pro-Yemeni Republican] intelligence centres and kill personnel engaged in anti-British activities.’

Curtis adds that a top-secret document in the government files went even further. Entitled ‘Yemen: The range of possible courses of action open to us,’ it considered ‘assassination or other action against key personnel’ involved in subversion in the federation. As these options were being debated in private, Prime Minister Douglas-Home lied to parliament on 14 May 1964:

‘Our policy towards the Yemen is one of non-intervention in the affairs of that country. It is not therefore our policy to supply arms to the Royalists in the Yemen.’

Curtis notes that the election of Harold Wilson’s Labour government in October 1964 ‘seems not to have upset the covert operation.’

Secret RAF bombing took place in retaliation for Egyptian attacks on camel trains supplying weapons to French and British mercenaries. As part of an arms deal with Saudi Arabia, Britain agreed a £26 million contract with a private company, Airwork Services, for the training of Saudi pilots and ground crew. Airwork also recruited former RAF pilots as mercenaries on missions against Egyptian and Yemeni targets along the Yemeni border. And by 1965, MI6 had a secret agreement with Israel to use its territory for launching attacks against the Yemeni Republicans.

Following Egypt’s defeat by Israel in the 1967 war, Nasser withdrew his troops from Yemen. In November, Britain withdrew from Aden. Then, in March 1969, the Saudis cut off supplies to the Yemeni Royalists. A treaty was signed, and hostilities ceased. As mentioned, a total of around 200,000 people had died.

As far as current reporting on Yemen is concerned, none of this exists. On March 29, we conducted searches using the LexisNexis newspaper database for mentions of ‘Yemen’ in UK national newspapers since the start of the Yemeni protests in January. We found 898 articles. Apart from two reviews of a new book from an imperialist perspective (see next section), not one of these articles contained any mention of the key names from this grim episode of British history. Nor was there any mention of Mark Curtis. The war has been effectively erased from the record.

It is the same phenomenon of media blindness and adherence to state ideology that would have us believe that Iran’s history began with the Islamic Revolution in 1979. This also neatly and conveniently omits the UK-US role in the 1953 overthrow of the democratically-elected leader Mossadeq after he nationalised Iran’s Western-controlled oil industry. History is reduced to an elite-friendly script that minimises public understanding of the background to current events.


An Exchange With The BBC’s Sarah Montague

A segment of the Radio 4 Today programme on February 16, 2011 was a rare exception in even referring to this shameful history of British involvement in Yemen. But its cavalier treatment of the events was telling, as the exchange below reveals.

The radio piece comprised a discussion between Today presenter Sarah Montague, author Duff Hart-Davis and the former British mercenary Kerry Stone. It was conducted in an almost light-hearted tone of ‘look at the scrapes these old boys got into back in the days of empire.’

We emailed Montague the same day:


Dear Sarah Montague,

I listened to your interview with author Duff Hart-Davis and the former mercenary Kerry Stone this morning about Britain’s ‘secret war’ in Yemen in the 1960s.

You said to Stone: ‘And was it an adventure because I mean it sounds exciting?’

Duff Hart-Davis’s biased account is summed up in the subtitle of the book [‘The War That Never Was’] he was promoting: ‘The heroic true story of Britain’s greatest secret victory’. He told us that British colonel Jim Johnson ran the [mercenary] operation from a basement in Sloane Street.  And then you indicated to listeners that this secret war took place:

‘Purely because he [Johnson] looked across [to the Gulf] and didn’t like the loss of empire.’

This assertion, and your ill-advised use of ‘adventure’ and ‘exciting’, is a misleading description of a war which was motivated by longstanding UK ‘national interests’ in the region. It was not merely the personal mission of a few disgruntled imperialists or greedy mercenaries.

There was no mention in the Today piece of the realpolitik that natural resources in the region were a prime motivation, and that profits were being made in arms deals. The serious diplomatic historian Mark Curtis has presented the evidence of all of this from previously secret government files (see pp. 288-301 of ‘Unpeople’, Vintage, 2004). As Curtis notes, the war cost up to 200,000 lives with British complicity in those deaths.

There was surely time in the 4 min : 30 sec piece to provide some serious account of these crucial facts and thus proper balance?

Perhaps you could invite Mark Curtis on to the Today programme to provide the balance that was so lacking this morning?


There was no response for a few days, so we nudged her gently on February 22 and she then responded that day:


Apologies for not replying sooner.

You may very well have a point. It occurred to me during the interview that I may have been making too light of it.  I shall have a word with our planning editor and forward your email, but he may judge that given the way the story was told and the time elapsed since it happened it was not too serious an error.  

I am on holiday at the moment  but shall follow it up when I get back next week.

Thank you for the email.


Despite a couple of gentle nudges in the month since then, we have not heard back from Montague, her editor or anyone else on the Today programme.

Curtis notes in ‘Unpeople’ that Yemen and the other case studies he examined in declassified government files illustrate the three basic principles that guide British foreign policy.

The first is the systematic deception of the public by British ministers, which is ‘deeply embedded in British policy-making.’ (Curtis, ‘Unpeople’, p. 3). Blair’s lies about Iraq fit comfortably as part of this trend.

The second principle is that policy-makers are typically open and frank about their real goals in secret documents. The glaring gap between state realpolitik and government claims of benevolence is rooted in a fundamental contempt for the general population. As Curtis says:

‘The foreign-policy decision-making system is so secretive, elitist and unaccountable that policy-makers know they can get away with almost anything, and they will deploy whatever arguments are needed to do this.’ (Ibid., p .3)

The third basic principle is that humanitarian concerns do not feature in the rationale for foreign policy. Curtis observes bluntly:

‘In the thousands of government files I have looked through for this and other books, I have barely seen any reference to human rights at all. Where such concerns are evoked, they are only for public-relations purposes.’ (Ibid., p .3)

When such concerns are not evoked for PR purposes, it is because a focus on human rights would throw an unwelcome light on the West’s support for oppression. Saudi Arabia is a classic example, of course – as is modern-day Yemen, where Saleh’s thirty-year record of oppression has been facilitated by Western ‘defence’ companies and soft-pedaled by Western diplomats. As noted in Part 1, Saleh has been a ‘useful tyrant’ for the West. He, or an acceptable replacement, will remain a favoured figure – unless democratic forces become uncontainable, both in Yemen and in the West.

The framework for understanding Britain’s war in Yemen in the 1960s, then, remains valid for the situation there today as it does for much of the world: namely, that control and geostrategic dominance – routinely sold to the public as ‘humanitarian intervention’ and maintenance of global ‘security’ – continue to be the key concerns guiding Western policy. 



The goal of Media Lens is to promote rationality, compassion and respect for others. If you do write to journalists, we strongly urge you to maintain a polite, non-aggressive and non-abusive tone.

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Sarah Montague, BBC Today presenter,

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Alan Rusbridger, Guardian editor

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