Al-Ahram Weekly Online   11 - 17 March 2004
Issue No. 681
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Al-Ahram: A Diwan of contemporary life (537)

Monarchs in war

War between Saudi Arabia and Yemen in 1934 had repercussions throughout the Arab world. The two countries were the only genuinely autonomous Arab states at the time, Yemen in particular was strategically located and both were led by charismatic rival leaders. Professor Yunan Labib Rizk* relives the clash of piety and poverty

Yunan Labib Rizk

It was a brief war that broke out between the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the Kingdom of Yemen in 1934 but it was one that caused widespread concern in Egypt and elsewhere in the Arab world. One reason for this was that throughout the Middle East, the term "independent" only had true credence when applied to these two countries. Regardless of their nature, one a religious state; the other mired in poverty, it was a pity to watch two independent Arab nations fighting one another. A second was the strategic location of Yemen. Overlooking the southern entrance to the Red Sea, it was of great importance to the colonial naval powers of the time -- Britain, Italy and France. Britain had a naval base in Aden and its presence there complicated Yemen's relations with its northern neighbour. Indeed, it is probably no coincidence that the Yemeni-British accord over a common border between Yemen and Britain's colony in the southern Arabian Peninsula was signed only weeks, perhaps days, before the outbreak of the Saudi- Yemeni battle. Some historians have Yemen's primary purpose in concluding that accord was to focus its attention on its northern borders at what are today the Saudi provinces of Asir and Najran.

Italy, meanwhile, had embarked on an expansionist drive in the Red Sea emanating from its base in Eritrea. With the rise of Mussolini's Fascist Party to power in 1922, Rome aspired to establish an imperial province in this strategically sensitive quarter of the world. Part of this plan entailed extending its influence to the Asiatic shore of the Red Sea, and with the treaty signed with Yemen on 2 September 1926, Rome gained the foothold it was looking for. The third article of that treaty states, "The Government of His Majesty the King of Yemen declares that it desires to acquire from Italy the technical machinery and equipment, as well as the technicians it needs, to promote the welfare and development of its economy. The Government of Italy pledges to do its utmost to ensure that technical equipment, experts and other such requirements it sends will be of the most acceptable quality."

Although France, too, was in the neighbourhood, in Djibouti to be precise, its aspirations in the region were limited. Nevertheless, it was prepared to intervene if only because it was wary of leaving the affairs of that area to be determined by Britain and Italy alone.

A third reason why the outbreak of even such a brief war would rivet attention to that corner of the Arabian Peninsula resided in the repute of the rival monarchs. King Abdul-Aziz Al- Saud had stunned the Arab world with his lightning takeover of the Arabian Peninsula in the early 20th century. Sweeping out of Kuwait in 1902, he seized Riyadh and, within the next three years extended his campaign to other parts of the peninsula. With the annexation of the Hijaz in 1926, he brought nearly the entire peninsula under his unified control as the "King of the Hijaz and Najd". In 1932, he changed the name of his country to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

The other monarch, Imam Yehia Hamideddin was elected imam by the powerful Zeidi tribes in Yemen in 1904 and subsequently earned the admiration of Arab nationalists through his numerous battles against the Ottomans who ruled Yemen at the time. The conflict ended with a truce signed in 1911. Although the Ottomans under this truce retained nominal suzerainty over the country, for all practical purposes the country was not under the effective authority of the imam who had succeeded in obtaining an annual tribute from Istanbul in exchange for permitting the continued presence of Ottoman officials and troops. But this too ended after Turkey joined the Central Powers in WWI, forcing it to withdraw its troops from Yemen so that they could be deployed on the various war fronts. Then, with the defeat of the Central Powers, Turkish sovereignty over Yemen ended entirely, as it did in the rest of the Levant, and Hamideddin became the official head of state in Sana'a.

It was perhaps only to be expected that the ambitions of these intriguing monarchs would clash eventually. In The Rise of Modern Yemen: 1904-1948, Al-Sayed Mustafa Salem writes that, following Abdul-Aziz's take over of the Hijaz, tension between Riyadh and Sana'a came to a head over the area of Asir. Yehia claimed that Asir was an integral part of Yemen and had launched a military expedition to expel the Idrisis who had established their rule in the area. The Idrisis turned for help to Abdul-Aziz who, in all events, regarded Asir as a natural extension of the Hijaz, and concluded with him what has become known as the Mecca Treaty. This treaty could not have come at a more delicate time for the Yemeni imam. As Salem recounts, Yehia's forces at the time were laying siege to Sabya and Jizan, the two most important centres of Idrisi power. "The treaty took the Imam completely by surprise and he was forced to choose between two alternatives: either recognise the Idrisi- Saudi treaty and let that region slip from his hands or order his commander, Abdullah Bin Al-Wazir, to continue the campaign, which would bring his forces into direct conflict with those of Ibn Saud. The dictates of reality prevailed and Yehia ordered his commander to cease hostilities. He then responded to the Saudi monarch's invitation to attend the Islamic Conference in Mecca."

Nevertheless, the Asir dispute remained alive and in 1933 the two sides continued their efforts to resolve it. Indeed, it was this problem that ultimately led to the eventual collapse of their negotiations to establish a 20-year-long mutual defence pact, thereby, in the words of Al-Ahram, "dispelling the hopes the Arabs had pinned on an agreement between the two great monarchs of the Arabian Peninsula and their joint efforts in the defence of the Arab cause in the Arab East".

King Abdul-Aziz Al-Saud
King Abdul-Aziz Al-Saud

Al-Ahram took this occasion to enlighten its readers further on the history of Asir and Najran, the areas under dispute. "The first is divided into two districts, Al-Surah and Tihama . The former was occupied in 1922 by Ibn Saud's forces, under the leadership of his second son, Faisal, who succeeded in routing the Beni Shahr tribes and in capturing Harmala, the fortress of Emir Ibn A'ed, routing the emir's forces and seizing control of his lands up to the borders of Yemen in the south, of the Idrisis in the West and of the Qanfadas in the north. Tihama, known as the province of the Idrisis, was placed under the protection of King Ibn Saud and later annexed to the Saudi Kingdom in 1930."

Najran, located between Asir, Yemen and the Najd, was the site where the forces of Yehia and Ibn Saud almost clashed following the incursion of Yemeni forces into the northern portion. "However, the forces backed off in order to spare bloodshed while the two sides pursued negotiations in Abha towards the treaty it was hoped they would conclude."

Following the collapse of talks at Abha, King Ibn Saud ordered his forces to march southwards in order to recapture the locations occupied by Yemeni forces in the Tihama mountains. "If he succeeds in this, whether through peaceful or military means, then negotiations will probably resume in order to forestall the outbreak of a war that both these great monarchs have expressed their desire to avert by all possible means," Al- Ahram commented, adding: "This is the only remaining hope for preventing a catastrophe, the only victims of which will be the Arabs, both in the Arabian Peninsula and elsewhere."

The London Times was not optimistic and featured an analysis of the causes of the impending war. If war did erupt, Al- Ahram 's British counterpart held, that would largely be the fault of the Yemeni monarch who had allowed his forces to occupy areas bordering the Saudi Kingdom. In so doing, Imam Yehia "may have been seeking to strengthen his bargaining position, but he miscalculated, having misinterpreted the patience and forbearing of his neighbour as signs of weakness". Still, the commentator found it difficult to predict the outcome of a military engagement. While the Wahabis had easily swept aside all enemies they had encountered up to then, they had yet to face the Yemenis, "known for their courage, valour and speed, as the Turks discovered to their great detriment in the war of 1904 and afterwards".

The Times' rival, the Manchester Guardian, was in this situation of a similar opinion. Although King Ibn Saud was a skilful fighter, it wrote, "Yemen is very rich in its resources. In addition, if Najran is more than 400 kilometres from Mecca it is only 200 kilometres from the Yemeni capital. Consequently, communications will be far more difficult for King Ibn Saud than for the imam. On the other hand, the Guardian picked up on a factor that had not caught the attention of other British newspapers. This was the ideological zeal that fired the Saudi monarch's fundamentalist supporters who regarded the Yemeni Zeidis as heretics.

The first news of the flare-up of hostilities came from London. On 6 April 1934, Al-Ahram 's correspondent in the British capital reported that the Saudi commissioner there had issued a statement announcing that, after having given up hope of reaching a satisfactory agreement with Imam Yehia, King Ibn Saud ordered his forces to attack Yemen's forward defences. "Thereupon, Prince Faisal, the son of the Saudi king's brother Saad, advanced to Baqem and the son of his other brother Mohamed, Prince Khaled, advanced to Najran and Saada. Although we have received no news on the progress of these battles, it was reported that the forces of Emir of Tihama Hamad Al-Shuweiar, marched on and occupied Harad to the great jubilation of that city's inhabitants. It was also reported that Prince Faisal, King Abdul-Aziz's second son, assumed command of the forces on the coast of Tihama and that Prince Mohamed, the king's younger son, had advanced from Najd at the head of a reserve force to support his brother Prince Saud."

Al-Ahram relayed another statement issued directly from Mecca explaining why the Saudi forces had suddenly moved into action. According to the statement, Yemeni forces under the command of the imam's son, Seif Al-Islam, had taken advantage of the Saudi withdrawal during the period of the Abha conference to occupy a number of positions in Asir in the hope that this would strengthen the Yemeni bargaining position. "When King Ibn Saud asked Imam Yehia to evacuate his forces from those positions, the latter did not respond. The Saudi king, therefore, issued the order to his troops to regain those positions by force and cast the blame for the consequences on the Yemeni monarch."

Although the two armies had yet to clash, Al-Ahram surmised that the confrontation was imminent and that the main theatre of battle would be in Asir around those positions that had been seized by the Yemenis. "As for Najran, it is doubtful whether the engagement will exceed minor skirmishes in which the Najrani tribes will participate. It is also likely that both kings will attempt to plant the seeds of sedition and strife in the country of their adversary."

The newspaper also predicted that the conflict would be protracted because the Yemeni army could not advance into the plains beyond its borders in order to defeat the Wahabis, and because Yemen's mountainous terrain would impede a Saudi advance on Sana'a, "that is unless in one of these two countries disturbances break out and facilitate an offensive".

On 11 April the Saudis issued another statement on the progress of military operations. Coming from the Saudi Embassy in Cairo this time, the statement announced, "The first victory God granted his soldiers was the conquest of Harad by Hamad Al-Shuweiar, commander of Tihama. Two bases in that city had continued to hold out. Then one fell while the other, in which was stationed the commander of the forces of the imam, remained under siege." The statement went on to report that the forces of Prince Faisal Bin Saad captured the citadel at Al-Shatba and proceeded from there to occupy Yabad, after which they laid siege to Baqem. Most of the fortifications in that city had already fallen and "artillery is currently battering the last stronghold of which one corner has collapsed and which will soon fall too, God willing."

The following day, Al-Ahram announced that Imam Yehia had wired King Abdul-Aziz seeking a truce and saying that he had ordered his forces to evacuate Najran. The Saudi monarch responded that he would agree to a truce only if the Yemeni monarch met four conditions. He must evacuate his forces from Najran, hand over the hostages he had taken from the tribes under the authority of Ibn Saud, sever Yemeni relations with these tribes and, finally, hand over Al-Sayed Hassan Al- Idrisi in accordance with the terms of the treaty of 15 December 1931.

The Yemenis rejected these conditions and Saudi forces continued their march southwards. After occupying Najran, they entered the border port of Midi, seized Al-Lahya on 1 May and three days later entered Hodeida. Saudi forces had encountered no resistance in this major Red Sea port because Yemeni forces had withdrawn into the surrounding mountains to rally.

Fully aware of the risks of attempting to penetrate the Yemeni mountain strongholds in Sana'a and Saada, the Saudi king confined his efforts during this phase of the war to more congenial fronts, particularly as the Sunnis of Tihama and the Ismailis of Najran did not oppose the arrival of Wahabi forces. But it was not just that the Saudis were leery of taking on the Yemenis on their treacherous home terrain. The major powers were getting anxious and wanted the two sides to conclude a settlement as soon as possible, before any escalation in the conflict could jeopardise their strategic interests in the region.

News of mediating efforts filled large portions of Al-Ahram during and even before the short-lived war in the Arabian Peninsula. On 2 April the newspaper announced a meeting in Cairo hosted by the Muslim Youth Society and attended by "a large gathering of political and religious officials, members of the press and others". In addition to many of the members of the host society, there were representatives from the Arab Federation, the Muslim Brotherhood, the Society for the Preservation of the Qur'an, the Public Prohibition Society, as well as "many Syrians, Palestinians, Moroccans and Indonesians". Following several speeches, participants passed a resolution charging one of their numbers to travel to Mecca, after which they formed a committee to monitor the progress of that visit and "furnish all legitimate means of support". One of those means was to contact all Islamic organisations in Egypt and elsewhere "in order to rally support for the end for which this meeting was held".

Also, in Jerusalem, the Islamic Conference was also taking steps to mediate. "Assiduous efforts are under way there to form a delegation of prominent Arab and Islamic figures for this purpose," Al-Ahram reported, adding that it would be wise for the Arab Federation to delegate a member to take part in the Islamic Conference delegation.

It appeared that these efforts were having an effect. Hopes rose with the report that the Yemeni imam had dispatched a delegation to Mecca to settle the dispute. They were just as quickly disappointed when the Saudis denied the report, which prompted an urgent meeting of the central committee of the Muslim Youth Society on 4 April during which the committee members resolved to wire the imam asking for clarification.

At the same time, the Saudi and Yemeni monarchs were bombarded by missives from individuals and organisations throughout the Arab world urging them to spare further Muslim bloodshed. Of particular note was that from Prince Omar Touson to the Yemeni imam, to which the latter responded, "We have accepted your counsel and will only act in self- defence." Another was the telegram from Egyptian Wafd Party leader Mustafa El-Nahhas to both monarchs expressing "the hope of the Egyptian people that you will use your sagacity to spare the bloodshed of Muslim peoples and avert a war between two neighbouring Islamic nations". In their responses, the Saudi and Yemeni rulers attempted to cast the blame on each other. From King Abdul-Aziz came the charge that the Imam Yehia "greeted our peaceful efforts with nothing but deceit and aggression". From Yemen it was the other side that moved on to the offensive and attacked, "but in spite of that we have taken your advice and we pray to God to rectify the affairs of the Muslim peoples".

On 13 April, the Islamic Conference delegation boarded the SS Boulaq bound from Suez to Jeddah. The delegation was headed by Amin Al-Husseini and included a number of other prominent figures such as Prince Shukeib Arsilan, Mohamed Ali Aluba and Hashem Al-Atasi. Meanwhile, given their vying interests, the situation among the "Great Powers" -- specifically Britain and Italy -- was more complex. British opinion was voiced in the Spectator whose editorial of 10 May 1934 was translated into Arabic in Al-Ahram. King Ibn Saud was a great friend of Britain, it said, "and throughout his astounding career he has proven that British subjects are always safer under his care than in any other part of the peninsula". The newspaper further noted that Britain had no direct stake in the developments that were taking place, "but, if we were to suppose that King Ibn Saud was ultimately able to annex the Yemen to his kingdom and thus become a neighbour of Aden, there is no evidence on which to base a claim that his position toward Britain, which has remained consistent since before the Great War, would in any way depart from his customary friendship and affection." It added, "Britain has remained neutral and it can continue to monitor developments from afar without considering the need for intervention."

From Rome, the Al-Ahram correspondent reported that official and public opinion was growing increasingly anxious over developments in the Arabian Peninsula. Italian newspapers, he said, were filled with lengthy commentaries lauding the Yemenis' stalwartness in their resistance against Saudi ambitions on their country. One newspaper went so far as to suggest that Britain was supplying the Saudis with massive assistance.

Both Britain and Italy sent crafts from their respective navies to the Yemeni ports of Hodeida and Mocha, claiming that the intent was solely to protect their expatriate subjects in those cities. However, having determined that the Saudi forces there had secured law and order sufficiently to protect the lives and properties of foreigners, London and Rome withdrew their forces.

In all events, Imam Yehia eventually caved in to the four conditions stipulated by the Saudis, hostilities ceased and on 15 May 1934 the two sides entered into negotiations in Taif. Negotiations lasted more than a month -- it has been suggested that the Saudis deliberately prolonged them in order to secure more concessions from the Yemenis -- and ended with what became known as the Taif Agreement.

A month later, Al-Ahram presented a summary of this "Treaty of Arab friendship and Islamic brotherhood", as it was officially called. Under the treaty, the two parties resolved to end warfare and establish a permanent bond of friendship between the two nations. Towards this end, they would reach a permanent settlement of their border dispute and relinquish any previously held claims or rights inside the other country. They further pledged to prevent their respective countries from becoming a "theatre of intrigue or other illegitimate activities aimed at the other party".

The Taif Agreement drew the curtain on that brief but dramatic Arabian war. Sadly, it would not be the last instance of internecine Arab warfare. Indeed, with his invasion of Kuwait in 1990, Saddam Hussein dragged his country, and with it the rest of the Arab world, into a far worse calamity.

* The author is a professor of history and head of Al-Ahram History Studies Centre.

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