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A New Archival-based Look at the Old Federation of South Arabia

Leader: Prof. Clive Jones, Durham University

This is a new and exciting 2-year project looking at the archival record of the rise and demise of the FSA. Popular perceptions of Western intervention in both Iraq and Afghanistan have underscored the limits of what Michael Ignatieff termed ‘Empire Lite’. State capacity remains both weak and challenged, while good governance and resilient institutions able to reflect popular sovereignty amongst a heady mix of competing religious and ethnic identities remain conspicuous by their absence. From the high hopes that accompanied the push towards democratisation, Western leaders have certainly lowered the bar over what ‘success’ will now look like.

Over four decades ago, these themes would have been familiar to British Colonial official and military officers as they attempted to cohere the disparate political landscape that was the South Arabia, into a coherent state – the Federation of South Arabia (FSA). That this experiment in state creation too foundered on the rocks of popular resistance from the NLF and FLOSY is all too well known. However, unlike Iraq and Afghanistan, embracing popular sovereignty was never entertained as the foundation of state legitimacy; rather, Britain looked to empower the various Shaykhs and potentates whose tribal base was seen as the most effective platform on which to build state legitimacy.

A host of factors have been cited as both cause and effect as to why the Federation failed to survive. A strong trade Union movement centred around Ali Asnag which enjoyed Egyptian support certainly helped radicalise what passed as a Yemeni working class the serviced the BP oil refinery in little Aden. Equally, Cairo’s proved adept at suborning some of the tribes in the Radfan area. Even so, such external intervention, while a necessary condition, was never sufficient by itself to ensure the emergence of an independent South Yemen, particularly when Egypt itself had become increasingly debilitated by its involvement in the Yemen Civil War.

This in turn highlights some interesting points of comparison and debate, both over the nature of state consolidation and legitimacy as well as how external involvement impacted upon indigenous capabilities. For example, while under the broad if intellectually confused term ‘human security’, the intervention in Afghanistan at its heart aimed to develop state capacity and institution building through representative government. By contrast, in South Arabian, Britain looked to indigenous forces of governance – the tribes and loyalty to defined leaders ( and backed by judicious use of Colonial office funds) to develop those self- same institutions that, it was hoped, would enjoy legitimacy. This apparent sensitivity to what were perceived as ‘the local conditions’ still resulted in Britain’s ignominious withdrawal from Aden and with it, a sustained period of unrest and turmoil that continues to blight Yemeni politics.

© University of Edinburgh