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Britain and the Yemen Civil War, 1962–1965

Ministers, Mercenaries and Mandarins: Foreign Policy and the Limits of Covert Action

Clive Jones is Professor of Middle East Studies and International Politics in the School of Politics and International Studies (POLIS), University of Leeds, UK. His other published works include Soviet Jewish Aliyah 1989-92 (1996), (with Emma Murphy); Israel: Challenges to Democracy, Identity and the State (2002), (with Caroline Kennedy-Pipe co-editor); International Security in a Global Age (2000 ), (with Ami Pedahzur co-editor); The al-Aqsa Intifada: Between Terrorism and Civil War (2005), (with Sergio Catignani co-editor); and Israel and the Hizb’allah: An Asymmetric Conflict in Comparative Perspective (2009). He has published widely on Middle East politics, intelligence and national security issues and in March 2010, Britain and the Yemen Civil War was the subject of the BBC Radio Four history programme, Document, which examined Britain’s clandestine involvement in the Yemen Civil War.


Between 1962 and 1965 Britain engaged in covert operations in support of Royalist forces fighting the Egyptian backed Republican regime that had seized power in the Yemeni capital Sana’a in September 1962. Covert action was regarded as a legitimate tool of foreign policy as Britain attempted to secure the future of the newly formed South Arabian Federation against the animus of Nasser. The use of covert action, as well as the quasi approval given to the use of mercenaries to support the Royalist cause, was the inevitable result of policy differences within Whitehall (most notably between the ‘mandarins’ of the Colonial Office and the Foreign Office) as well as international constraints imposed upon the UK in the aftermath of the Suez crisis. The book examines the extent to which British policy, while successful in imposing a war of attrition upon Nasser in the Yemen, contributed to the political demise of the very objective covert action was designed to secure: the future stability of the Federation of South Arabia.

Hardback ISBN: 978-1-903900-23-9
Hardback Price: £50.00 / $69.95
Release Date: September 2004
Paperback ISBN: 978-1-84519-198-6
Paperback Price: £19.95/$39.95
Release Date: August 2010
Page Extent / Format: 292 pp. / 229 x 152 mm
Illustrated: No


Key Terms, Acronyms and Abbreviations

Introduction: Themes and Issues

1 Britain and the Yemen Civil War: Prelude to Intervention

2 The Legacy of Yemeni Irredentism: The Debate over Recognition of the YAR

3 Between Whitehall and the White House: Anglo-American Relations

4 A Constrained Response: The Limits of Covert Action

5 The Mercenary Operations: British Subterfuge and the French Connection

6 ‘A Very British Affair’: The Guerilla Campaign, October 1963–September 1964

7 ‘Plus ça change, plus la même chose’: The Labour Government, Aden, and the Yemen Civil War

8 ‘From the Jaws of Victory’: The Political Defeat of Britain in South Arabia

Conclusion: Political Conviction and the BMO


In addition to telling the story in great and often fascinating detail, the reader learns much that is unknown about the inner workings of the Royalist forces, as well as the shuttle diplomacy of key members of the Aden group negotiating with the anti-Nasserite forces, including Saudi-Arabia, Jordan, and Iran … For Jones, the Yemen civil war was a forerunner to present-day civil wars, in terms of the difficulties encountered by the Egyptian Expeditionary Force and the emergence of mercenary or private military organizations. While covering much well-trodden ground on the coup and early debates on whether Britain should recognize the new regime in Yemen, Jones’s important and significant contribution is his analysis of the British Mercenary Organization (BMO) inside Yemen.
The International History Review

Clive Jones describes how British covert – official and unofficial – involvement providing cash and materiel for Royalist forces had the objective of keeping the Republican government and its Egyptian backers so preoccupied with a civil war of attrition that Nasser in particular would be frustrated in his attempts to rid South Arabia, of both the British military presence and HMG’s protégé, the Federation of South Arabia … Jones’s descriptions of mercenary activities, the machinations of the Saudis and Jordanians, is all derring do and a rattling good yarn. A rare combination of a sober academic study and a riveting page-turner!
Asian Affairs

A fascinating work. As Jones shows, the extent to which policy-makers were willing to support private clandestine activity to secure what were perceived to be British interests in the region is the ‘untold story’ of this conflict.
Middle Eastern Studies

An impressive book that makes a real contribution to the historiography of Britain’s role in the Middle East.
Small Wars and Insurgencies

Within the narrow topic of British covert operations, this book makes a useful contribution toward understanding the specific details and political goals of British counterrevolutionary activities in Yemen.
... After the September 1962 republican revolution in Yemen overthrew the Zaydi-based imamate, and policymakers in London debated over the appropriate response (i.e., whether to recognize the new Yemen Arab Republic), a small coterie of Tory officials started both to push policy toward more hostile diplomatic positions and champion covert operations to undermine the revolution. They quickly found key political and material supporters among the Jordanian, Iranian, and Saudi monarchies – and even Israeli policymakers, as Jones claims – who saw the revolution in Yemen as a Nasserist thrust into the Arabian peninsula. For these British officials, the revolution clearly threatened their colonial position in nearby Aden – even more important now that they had lost Suez – and the Federation of South Arabia.
... Smiley and McLean were former members of the special Operations Executive (SOE) from World War II. This group, referred to as the ‘Aden Group,’ worked at cross-purposes with the Foreign Office while trying to bolster policy initiatives proposed by the chiefs of staff and Colonial Office. The covert operations designed by these men were not officially British operations, although the Aden Group’s operatives were principally former British and French intelligence. Essentially, the operations were ‘a sustained mercenary involvement in the Yemen Civil War, to be paid for mainly through Saudi largesse’ (p. 67). To pre-empt possible criticism of the protagonists, Jones writes, ‘It has become fashionable to deride McLean and his associates as little more than right-wing zealots, driven by “a nostalgia for lost causes” and keen to extract revenge against Nasser for the humiliation of Suez. . . . The revanchist nature of the Aden Group was undeniable, but equally a sense of patriotic probity which refused to accept a determinism that posited the inevitable triumph of Arab nationalism in general and Nasserism in particular’ (p. 32).
... The Cold War framework is all around this story. The existence and scope of the covert operations were affected by London’s need for agreement with Washington, now that the latter was the hegemonic power in the region. Yet, London could neither rely on the United States to initiate covert operations nor officially condone the types of covert operations that the White House opposed and felt threatened regional stability (pp. 57–60). Furthermore, as Jones repeatedly argues, the ‘legacy of Suez imposed severe limitations’ on London’s usage of covert operations (p. 86), although ironically, as mentioned previously, Suez was one of the driving impetuses of the Aden Group.
International Journal of Middle East Studies

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