A 2,000-year bond between the UAE and Yemen that will never break
In September 1938, Europe was on the brink of war because of the threats by Hitler's Germany against Czechoslovakia. War was avoided, then, because of a deal struck by British prime minister Neville Chamberlain, which he hailed as “Peace in Our Time”, an unfortunate choice of phrase. The Second World War broke out a year later when Hitler, having dismembered Czechoslovakia, invaded Poland.
In a broadcast at the time of the 1938 agreement, Chamberlain commented: "How horrible, fantastic, incredible it is that we should be digging trenches and trying on gas masks here because of a quarrel in a far away country between people of whom we know nothing."
That comment comes to mind with regards to the current conflict in Yemen, where the UAE, in association with its coalition partners led by Saudi Arabia, seeks at some considerable cost to re-establish the authority of Yemen's legitimate government, led by Abdrabu Mansur Hadi. For many UAE expatriate residents, the conflict may, indeed, seem to be "in a far away country between people of whom we know nothing".
There are numerous reasons, well-reported in local press coverage, for the UAE's engagement in the coalition, which need no detailed repetition here. They include those arising out of the concerns engendered by Iran's active meddling in the conflict, through its support for the Houthi militias and the forces supporting former president Saleh – who stepped down from office in late 2011 under the terms of an agreement negotiated by the UAE and its GCC partners following widespread protests against his rule. Quite naturally, the UAE and its allies in the campaign to restore Mr Hadi's legitimate authority view Iran's blatant interference with the deepest concern.
This approach, however, is not merely a matter of political calculations, important though those undoubtedly are. The ties between Yemen and the UAE are long-standing and deep-rooted, dating back to a time long before recent events. There is evidence of trading links from more than 2,000 years ago.
In 1977, I had the pleasure to accompany the late Sheikh Zayed on a state visit to both North and South Yemen, then still separate countries. One event on the programme was a cultural show in Aden, attended by Sheikh Zayed and the South Yemeni leadership. It began with the recitation by the Director of the UAE Presidential Court of a poem that celebrated the ties between the UAE and Yemeni peoples, noting the tradition that the ancestors of the UAE's Al Nahyan family had emigrated centuries ago from Wadi Nahyan in Yemen. There could have been no stronger statement of the ties between the people of the two countries.
Wadi Nahyan is not far from Marib. Perhaps the collapse of the ancient dam at Marib, more then 1,400 years ago prompted that ancestral migration. Certainly, Sheikh Zayed's funding of the construction of a new dam, recently liberated by coalition forces, was a response to his belief in that age-old connection.
Both from the distant past and more recently, many Emiratis can trace their connections to Yemen. As recently as a couple of decades ago, a friend from the Al Mansouri tribe invited me to join him on an overland hunting trip across the Empty Quarter to Yemen, following routes that he and his forebears had used for generations. I regret now that I did not take up his invitation.
Yemen is not "a far away country" and it's certainly not one with a people "of whom we know nothing”.
Instead, it is one whose history, culture, language and beliefs are intimately entwined with ours. That will remain so in the future, as it has been in the past.
Those UAE soldiers who have made the ultimate sacrifice in the current conflict have done so not only to protect the UAE of today but also the intimate relationship between the UAE and Yemen that will outlast us all.
Peter Hellyer is a consultant specialising in the UAE’s history and culture
Updated: October 13, 2015 04:00 AM