Hamid al-Din Yemen & The United States in the Early Postwar Period: Diplomacy, Modernity and Challenges, 1946 - 1954

By Richard Harrod
Submitted to Session P5297 (Cold War, 2018 Annual Meeting
Arabian Peninsula; Yemen;
19th-21st Centuries;
LCD Projector without Audio;
Historians frequently slight the independent Hamid al-Din Imamate of North Yemen (1918 – 1962). Much of the current historical literature dwells on the idea that the Imams viewed the outside world with skepticism and suspicion, if not outright hostility. Thus, North Yemen in the first half of the twentieth century has become an example of state sponsored isolationism. Although recent scholarship by Paul Dresch, Uzi Rabi, John Willis and others has begun to reassess the Imamate’s place in the history of modern Yemen, these studies have had a domestic focus. Far too many accounts still accept that the Imamate pursued a policy of isolationism.

This paper builds on recent scholarship, but considers the Imamate from the perspective of diplomatic history in the post World War II period. While I do rely on secondary sources to establish a framework and chronology, my conclusions come from an examination of published primary sources in the form of declassified American diplomatic documents from between 1946 and 1954. These documents, including Foreign Service Officer dispatches, memoranda, reports and telegrams, were collected and edited by Ibrahim al-Rashid. To my knowledge, no one has yet utilized them to try and glean a better understanding of Yemeni foreign policy.

Examining this body of evidence, I conclude that the label of “isolationist” – so frequently levied against Hamid al-Din Yemen – is patently wrong. In fact, the Imamate sought US economic support in the postwar period and utilized the United States’ superpower status to bolster its successful bid for membership in the United Nations. Once at the UN, Yemen was quick to stake a position on global affairs by voting against the partition of Palestine in the fall of 1947. Furthermore, the American diplomatic sources contain Imam Yahya’s (d. 1948) direct cable to President Truman, expressing his displeasure when the partition resolution passed.

Beyond shedding light on the US-Yemeni relationship, a close reading of the American diplomatic sources shows that the Imamate as a whole, particularly under Imam Ahmad (d. 1962), embraced a cautious, but pragmatic foreign policy. This policy combined gradual modernization in Yemen, the promise of future reform – personified by the promotion of the relatively liberal prince Muhammad al-Badr (d. 1996) as heir-apparent – and discreet engagement with Yemeni dissidents abroad in an effort to lessen opposition. Taken together, these sources debunk the “isolationist” label and instead show a conservative regime navigating a complicated geopolitical environment on its own terms.