Chairman's Report 2006

Fourteenth Annual General Meeting, 22 June 2006.

The Society has had another active year at a time when there are some signs that our government is putting more effort into developing bilateral links. This has been noticeable in the business field, where a small government-backed scoping mission, organised by the British Consultants and Construction Bureau, visited Yemen in the Spring to look at the prospects, particularly in the engineering field. I hope that before long it will be possible to mount a larger trade mission to Yemen.

Another promising sector that ought to be developed is tourism to Yemen. Like all of you, I would wish that the FCO Travel Advice for Yemen were more positive than it is. But, at least I can say that it is better than it was, and all those involved in the promotion of tourism in both countries have a job to do. There have been some positive articles about Yemen in the British press in recent months – I can think of a couple on Soqotra and another on Rada’a. We need more of them to whet the appetites of people who are looking for somewhere new to spend their holidays – and perhaps we should lobby for an outward tourism mission. Your committee will explore the possibilities.

Of course, the Society makes its own contribution to the development of tourism. In November last year Alan D’Arcy, to whom I take my figurative hat off, led another successful tour to Yemen. This was the eighth tour organised by the Society, and the ninth tour is being planned for later this year.

In October we enjoyed an illustrated lecture by Carl Phillips entitled ‘Big Birds, Bees and Trees in South Arabia past and present’. His talk was derived primarily from results of archaeological excavations in Tihama where he has worked for several seasons and has been supported by the Society.

Your committee is all too aware that most of our meetings take place in London and that many members find it difficult to travel from far away places. We were therefore delighted that two of our members, Nick and Jill Hammans, gave a talk describing their travels in Yemen entitled ‘Frankincense, Amazement and Myrrh’, to the Exeter branch of the Royal Geographical Society in December. We need more such initiatives, and your committee would welcome suggestions from members of the Society.

In January this year we were grateful to the Middle East Association (MEA) for the invitation to a discussion group meeting led by Captain Roy Facey, the Aden Port Development Adviser, and Abdulrab al-Khulaqi, the Marketing Director, entitled ‘Aden in a Changing Region’. Roy Facey’s presentations have become a permanent feature of the MEA’s calendar and are always informative and entertaining. In March, Frank Gardner OBE, the BBC Security Correspondent was invited to give an illustrated lecture on his ‘Impressions of Yemen’. It was particularly striking that Frank’s affection for the Arab World and for Arabs in general survived, absolutely intact, his dreadful experience in Riyadh a couple of years ago, which so transformed his life.

The Islamic Art Circle at the School of Oriental and African Studies invited the Society to attend a lecture by Dr Salma Samar al-Damluji, a long-standing member of our Society. Her subject was ‘The Yemen Architecture Project from Yafa’ to Hadramaut’.

In May, Pat Aithie was to have launched her new book The Burning Ashes of Time in London with the support of the Society. Unfortunately she was taken into hospital just before the meeting and an alternative programme had to be devised. We are grateful to Bill Heber Percy for coming to the rescue with an account of last year’s Soqotra visit and a report on the Society’s support for the Hadibu Training Centre. John Mason, our Hon. Treasurer, could not be present but kindly provided a selection of his excellent photographs of the Island to accompany the talk. We are also very grateful to Bill for his untiring and fruitful work on behalf of other Soqotran NGOs.

Looking forward, and returning to the subject of tourism, we hope that members will be able to visit the Soqotra exhibition in Edinburgh this summer. Under the title ‘Soqotra, Land of the Dragon’s Blood Tree’, this will be formally launched at the Royal Botanic Garden on 30 June – next week – and will be open to the public from 1 July until 29 October. If you know of any tour operators specialising in eco-tours, I hope you will do your best to persuade them to visit Edinburgh to see what a golden opportunity awaits them!

Our first meeting after the AGM will be the launch of Peter Hinchcliffe’s account, with co-authors John Ducker and Maria Holt, of the last days of British rule in South Arabia, entitled Without Glory in Arabia: The British Retreat from Aden. This will take place at the Royal Society for Asian Affairs, 2 Belgrave Square, on 20 September.

At long last the exhibition of Nigel Groom’s photographs, displayed here at last year’s AGM, was opened in Sana’a in late May. The Society was represented by our Vice-Chairman, Julian Lush, and Alan D’Arcy, and the event was presided over by Michael Gifford, the British Ambassador, and Dr Elizabeth White, Director of the British Council in Sana’a. Our thanks are due to the Government of Yemen and Sharif Haider al-Habili for their support for this exhibition which is later intended for permanent display in Bayhan.

Over the year the Society has continued to support a number of projects, which are gradually coming to fruition. Details of the grants made by the Society are included in the accounts presented by our Hon. Treasurer, John Mason, whom I warmly thank for looking after our funds. Thanks are also due to the other societies and individuals who have supported us, in particular Ann Thomson at the MEA for arranging the meetings that we have held there, but we are also greatly indebted to our host today, the Ambassador of Yemen, and to the staff of the Embassy for the hospitality extended to us once again on the occasion of our AGM. As the new Chairman of the Society I am delighted to have been able to welcome HE Mohamed Taha Mustafa as the new ambassador of Yemen. He arrived in Britain after ‘Id al-Fitr last year and presented his letters of credence in February this year. May I also mention that Khalid al-Yamani has now replaced Faisal al-Abdali as the Embassy’s representative on your committee.

I take the opportunity here to thank Julian Paxton for soldiering on as Hon. Secretary of the Society for an additional year, which is way beyond the call of constitutional duty. We urgently need to find a successor for him.

I am sad to record the deaths of Dr Derek Harvey OBE, who will be remembered for his knowledge of the birds of Yemen and for his keen interest in wild life conservation; of John Hewitt MBE, who wrote a fascinating account for the Journal in 2004 of his ‘First Footsteps in Yemen – 1947’; and of Philip Allfree, whose vivid and entertaining memoir of his time as a political officer in the former Eastern Aden Protectorate, Hawks of the Hadhramaut (1967), is a modern classic of Arabian travel literature.

But to end on a happier note: I am sure you were as delighted as I was to learn of Sultana al-Qu’aiti’s appointment as MBE in HM The Queen’s Birthday Honours List – a richly deserved award for her charitable work in Yemen.

Victor Henderson

Abdullah Saadat, renowned lute (‘ud ) player and singer from the Tihama, at the Horniman Museum, London, on 5 July 2006.

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