Robin Bidwell, The Two Yemens (Boulder: Westview Press, 1983).

Robin Bidwell was a British political officer in Western Aden Protectorate from 1955 to 1959, and has written five other volumes on the Arabian Peninsula. Most of this new work deals with the region subsequent to the British seizure of Aden in 1839, from the standpoint of British imperial interests.

The earliest pages set the tone. It is remarkable that such views still find their way into print. The introduction offers the quaint declaration that “all over South West Arabia a unique civilization arose in antiquity and many of its manifestations so conformed to the Yemeni temperament that they have lingered little changed, until the present day.” There is a reference to the “spirit of fierce independence which characterizes the South Arabian Arab,” but we are left to infer the character of this temperament from numerous allusions to the cruelty and prurience of Yemen’s ancient and medieval potentates. There are some dozen references to slave girls, concubines and sexual pecadilloes in the first 30 pages of the text.

The author cherishes a nineteenth-century vision of an exotic East, cast with imams, sultans, sharifs and sheikhs ineptly conspiring against the superior minds in the Colonial Office. His fondness for this romantic ideal perhaps explains his animus toward the United States, whose policies he blames for subverting this dated fancy. Bidwell’s sniping at Washington peaks when he discusses the republican overthrow of the imamate in North Yemen. President John F. Kennedy, in particular, was an “egregious dupe” for recognizing the new republic a scant three months after the September 1962 revolution. Washington’s view at the time, that backward regimes like that of the imam were unlikely to survive in the modern world, was not shared by some in the British Colonial Office, including, it would appear, the author, who had been attempting to salvage a fragment of empire in Southwest Arabia. The republican revolution certainly helped to undercut the legitimacy of the traditional elites in South Yemen and contributed to the collapse of the British effort.

The author provides no references, and his bibliography ignores some important sources. Bidwell’s book does add to our knowledge of events in Southwest Arabia, especially Aden, in the post-World War II period, not as a considered historical analysis but as a highly personalized memoir representing the obsolete views of one segment of British colonial officialdom.

How to cite this article:

Jon C. Swanson "Bidwell, The Two Yemens," Middle East Report 130 (February 1985).
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