Chairman's Report 2001

Ninth Annual General Meeting, 21 June 2001.

Since the last AGM held exactly a year ago to the day, the Society has been active with a full programme of meetings and events. The autumn programme last year began with a lecture by Christopher Ward of the World Bank’s Rural Development, Water and Environment Department, on the water crisis inYemen. In October, Dr Salma Samar Damluji gave an illustrated talk to a joint meeting of our Society and the Society for Arabian Studies (SAS) on her return visit the previous February to Hadhramaut and Yafa’. We are grateful to SAS for their continued cooperation in arranging joint events.

Starting in late October an exhibition of paintings by Yemeni artists was held in Cardiff, London, where a number of British artists who had visited Yemen were invited to exhibit alongside them, and in Birmingham. Bill Heber Percy, who played a major role in organising this successful and rewarding event, has written a detailed account for the Journal. But I should like to take this opportunity of expressing our warm thanks both to him and to the other volunteers involved, to our financial sponsors who helped make the event possible, and to H. E. Dr Hussain al-Amri for his enthusiastic support.

The year ended with a well attended lecture by Carl Phillips on the archaeological work which he and his team continue to carry out in the Tihama.

Thanks are due to Alan D’Arcy for once again leading a Society tour to Yemen last October. This was the fifth such tour. It was arranged at shorter notice than we would have wished because of developments earlier in the year; it was a great success and I know that Alan, undaunted by a long spell of ill health — now happily behind him — is planning a sixth tour. The timing of it and notice to members will again be subject to local factors. I sometimes think that the wild men of Marib and elsewhere have prior knowledge of the date of our AGMs! Shortly before our meeting last year two kidnapping incidents occurred; last month a young German Arabic language student was kidnapped; he was released last week fit and well. I suspect that his unexpected immersion in the dialect and oral traditions of tribal society in Marib province, where he was detained for some three weeks, will have aroused the envy of not a few of his fellow students. But even ‘benign’ kidnappings can cast a long shadow, pulling the rug from under the feet of those of us who have lobbied for a relaxation of FCO travel advice. The Society’s October tour did not, of course, start auspiciously: on the morning of the party’s arrival in Sana’a USS Cole was attacked in the Port of Aden, and early the following day a bomb exploded in the British Embassy compound in Sana’a. Nevertheless, after consulting the Embassy, Alan D’Arcy and his party decided to go ahead with what proved to be a very successful and enjoyable tour. Their decision was influenced by the knowledge that the Yemeni security authorities have always taken very good care of organised groups of our members. But it was also made easier by the fact that as a Society and individually we have many friends in Yemen, and that between us we have considerable local knowledge of the country. For these reasons, while always bearing FCO travel advice in mind, we feel able to exercise a certain latitude in interpreting and applying it.

Before turning to this year’s activities, I should like to mention two events in last year’s social calendar: on 18 July our Vice-President, Dr Abdulla Abdul Wali Nasher, received an honorary doctorate from the University of Southampton in recognition of his exceptional services to medicine; and in late September, I and four other members of the Committee had the pleasure and privilege of calling on President Ali Abdullah Salih during his brief visit to London on his way to New York. We had a lively discussion with the President immediately before his own meeting with the Foreign and Home Secretaries. We are most grateful to Dr Hussain al-Amri for proposing and arranging this call.

In January we once again had the opportunity to listen to Captain Roy Facey address the Middle East Association on Aden Port development and the Free Zone. In February we joined with the Anglo-Omani Society to hear a talk by Sa’id el-Cheithy on ‘The Life and Writings of Sayyida Saline’, whose connection with Aden was described in last year’s Journal.

In March Dr Dionisius Agius gave an illustrated talk on ‘The Language of the Dhow’ to the Society for Arabian Studies, to which the Anglo-Omani Society and our own Society were invited. In April we showed the film ‘Only I returned’, a documentary about the life and achievement of the 18th century German surveyor and explorer, Carsten Niebuhr; we are grateful to the Royal Danish Embassy for making the film available to us. In May,Victor Henderson, who has now retired after completing his term as HM Ambassador in Sana’a, gave us the benefit of his experiences in a valedictory talk at the Middle East Association. We are most grateful to him for the support he has given us during his term as Ambassador and as co-President of our Society; many of our members have warm memories of the hospitality extended to them in Sana’a by Victor and his wife, Heather. As most of you will know, Victor Henderson has been succeeded in Sana’a by Frances Guy, and I should now like to read out a message which she has sent accepting our invitation to become the Society’s new co-President:

‘Thank you for inviting me to become co-President of the British-Yemeni Society It is an honour and a privilege. My first few weeks in Sana’a have been marked by the very kind hospitality shown to me by everyone, most notably by the Yemeni-British Friendship Association. The change in government has permitted a fresh look at some of the issues which have complicated our bilateral relations. While I cannot promise miracles for the immediate future, I hope we can build on the goodwill created by some recent visits, to gradually improve our relations. I have been struck by the genuine warmth felt by many Yemenis towards the United Kingdom, despite recent events, and I can hut undertake to do my best to build on that, and try and create some new areas of co-operation between our two countries. I wish you well with the ACM and look forward to meeting you all soon. ’

Last year we said farewell to Sa’id Hadi following his appointment as Yemen’s Ambassador in Kuwait, and we were grateful to Raid Salim for taking his place on the Committee until the arrival of the Embassy’s new Minister, Mr Ahmad Hajar.

As in all societies, our membership ebbs and flows but remains stable around the 225 mark. We have three corporate members and would like to increase the corporate element in our membership. But unfortunately few British companies are actively involved in Yemen at the present time. Inevitably, as members of our Society get older we lose some of them, and this year we were sad to see the passing of Gavin Young, Colonel ‘Bill’ Bowen, and, perhaps saddest of all because so unexpected, of Abdo Nagi.

Our next meeting will be on 10 October when ShelaghWeir will speak about the Crafts of Yemen, and on 7 November Dr T. Marchand has promised to give us an illustrated talk on the Minarets of Sana’a. The autumn programme will be sent out with the Journal in early August.

A very significant cultural event to which we can look forward next year will be an exhibition of Yemeni antiquities to be held at the British Museum between June and October. The exhibition follows those held in Paris, Vienna, Munich, Rome, Turin, Rotterdam and Madrid during the past three years, but will include material in British and other collections not previously displayed.

After the conclusion of our business this evening, we are very glad to welcome Charles and Patricia Aithie and to congratulate them on the publication of their book, ‘Yemen: Jewel of Arabia’, which they will be introducing to us to later. I would like to thank them very warmly for coming all the way from Cardiff to tell us something of the background to the book, and of their experiences in gathering the wealth of beautiful photographs which lies therein.

Finally, I should like to thank H. E. the Ambassador and his staff for hosting this meeting and for entertaining us here this evening. A few weeks ago His Excellency told us the sad news that he would be leaving London shortly to return to Sana’a. I hardly need say how sorry we will be to see him go; we will remember him very warmly; those of us travelling to Sana ‘a will hope to catch a glimpse of him there; meanwhile we offer him and his family our very best wishes for the future

Douglas Gordon

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