MODERN HISTORY AND POLITICS: British Policy in Aden and the Protectorates, 1955-1967: Last Outpost of a Middle East Empire

By Brobst, John | The Middle East Journal, Spring 2006 | Go to article overview

MODERN HISTORY AND POLITICS: British Policy in Aden and the Protectorates, 1955-1967: Last Outpost of a Middle East Empire


Brobst, John, The Middle East Journal


MODERN HISTORY AND POLITICS British Policy in Aden and the Protectorates, 1955-1967: Last Outpost of a Middle East Empire, by Spencer Mawby. London, UK and New York: Routledge, 2005. xiii + 191 pages. Map. Abbrevs. Bibl. to p. 204. Index to p. 210. $75.

What sells Aden? The answer, to invoke the old realtor's aphorism, is location, location, location. At least that is what a glossy advertisement for the port and its oil refinery in a 2005 issue of Foreign Affairs claims. Aden is "strategically placed very close to most of the major oil producing countries and is easily accessible from the Eastern Mediterranean, Persian Gulf and South East Asia." Aden has "one of the world's best natural harbors only four nautical miles off the major shipping routes of Europe and South East Asia."1 Judging from Spencer Mawby's informative monograph, one might wonder whether the ad's text was not actually lifted right out of a 40 or 50 yearold Foreign Office brief. In the mid-1950s, when it was a British Crown Colony, Aden was reputedly the second busiest port in the world, measured by ship calls, after New York. In addition, Aden seemed ideally situated as a military base from which to project British power into the Gulf and throughout the greater Middle East. In fact, Aden's apparent geo-strategic advantages buoyed British advocates of a revitalized empire in the Middle East, sustaining and to some degree selling their vision for nearly a decade after the Suez debacle of 1956.

Yet, as Mawby points out, for most of the period of British rule, beginning in 1839, Aden remained an imperial backwater. The British governed Aden as an outwork of their government in India until the 1930s, when the rise of Fascist Italy as a threat in the Red Sea and Horn of Africa attracted more serious attention to southern Arabia in London. Whitehall took over administrative responsibility for Aden and Britain's indirectly controlled protectorates behind the colony shortly before World War II. But it was not until the 1950s that the view of Aden as the keystone in Britain's Middle Eastern empire emerged full blown. Ironically, the zenith of imperial enthusiasm for Aden coincided with the high tide of Arab nationalism and British decolonization. On consideration, this makes sense. Retention of Aden seemed to its proponents to provide a concrete symbol of Britain's continuing world role in general and of its resilience "east of Suez" in particular. For the British armed forces, Aden provided a practical substitute for the lost facilities in Egypt's Canal Zone. The colony's reputation as a backwater actually added to the attraction; imperial authorities reasoned that Aden occupied a location that Britain could isolate and insulate against the nationalist politics and pressures of the wider region.

Although more complicated in practice, this basic view transfixed British policy on Aden during Harold Wilson's Labour government as well as in the preceding Conservative governments under Harold Macmillan and Alec Douglas-Home. Mawby suggests that Wilson and his Conservative predecessors shared an outlook and set of goals for Aden more similar than historians and other observers have typically allowed. "Scuttle" no more characterized Wilson's policy in Aden than an atavistic insistence on permanent, direct governance did Conservative policy. …

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