Friends of South Yemen

Pattern strip

Oil: the real reason for the war

Aden Future Channel shows why Yemen’s unexploited oil reserves and the desire to control the Bab Al Mandab are the real reasons for the war in Yemen.

November 2020

Yemen: Dare to dream

By Tony P Restall

Tony Restall, aka Mr Free Zone, reflects on whether Yemen (and Aden) can be the New Dubai, Singapore or Hongkong.

I have been asked by a Yemeni expatriate colleague and close friend to say something about Yemen and more specifically about the City of Aden. Aden was in its prime before the introduction of continental air flights as it serviced the many passenger ships operating between Europe and the Middle East/Far East and Australia & New Zealand. My own brother was a ‘Ten Pound Pom’ (what the Australians referred to as the exodus of Brits who emigrated from Southampton for a new life down under). Waving goodbye to a relative in those days 60s and 70s it was hard to imagine even seeing your family member ever again. Many tears were shed at the docks of Southampton as the vessel let go her lines and the tugs pushed the ship into deeper water and the outward-bound channel. I stood on the quayside waving until the vessel was out of sight. Thinking to myself would I ever see my brother John ever again?

That journey would take the vessel through the Straits of Gibraltar and stopping in Athens to pick up Greek passengers also wanting to start a new life in Australia. Heading through the Suez Canal and Red Sea with a technical stop in the Port of Aden. Aden to many was their first taste of the Middle East and hearing the Arabic Greeting as the traders of Khormaksar tried to sell you a tourist trinket from Arabia. The history of Aden is well recorded and was at one time a British Military base and all the associated infrastructure that such a place required. The success of Aden spread into the interior of Yemen and became the commercial hub of the wonderful Country.

My first exposure to Yemenis was after I landed in Dubai after being rescued by the Royal Navy from Bander Abbas during the Iranian Revolution. I went to the Dubai Police station to obtain a Dubai Driving Licence. I guess I looked a bit lost as to what to do when this ice police sergeant came up to me and spoke in perfect English asking how he could help me. I was to later find out that he was an expatiate Yemeni working in Dubai and so a new friendship developed. The second encounter was when I was General Manager of a Shipping Line and we were discharging out ships in Dubai in Port Rashid. I first came across my lifelong friend (and Yemeni) Captain Mohammed Saleh. He was a Pilot in Port Rashid and I still remember to this day his Officer beret that he wore and his pleasant greeting to me. Somethings are forever etched into your memory. Of course Captain Saleh (Mohammed Saleh) are much older now and have a few (quite a few) grey hairs on our head. Later Capt. Saleh became the Marine Director at Sharjah Port and we had many shared experiences and much laughter.

When I left London in 1976 I had no intention in spending too much time in the Middle East and saw it as a way of earning an attractive Tax Free Salary and putting some much needed funds into the bank. In my life I am one of those people – ‘That Things Happen to’… First being rescued from Iran then an array of other such life changing events. It’s no good fighting these things as what is written cannot be changed.

In 1984 I joined the New Port Team at Dubai’s new Super Port – Mina Jebal Ali and took a lot of criticism from my colleagues as to why would I want to join a Port so far out from Dubai when Dubai already had a perfectly good Port – Port Rashid. I recall driving through the Port Main Gates (akin to the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin an Iconic Structure) and on reaching the other side – NOTHING !!! in fact a lot of nothing – 67 Berths – No Ships and No Customers. Jebel Ali was the brainchild of His Highness Sheikh Rashid Al Maktoum and father of Dubai’s current Ruler His Highness Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid.

“What happens when out Oil Runs Out?” were the iconic words of Shk Rashid which triggered the construction of the World’s Largest Manmade Port at a cost of $2.5 Billion. I recall very vividly the many management meetings when we evaluated the competition and the commercial threats. Dubai was very dominant and the American Management of PAJA – Port of Jebel Ali (Sealand Shipping) were instructed to make Jebel Ali work. * I guess that’s why I was hired from Sharjah as I was stealing much of Dubai’s Shipping business to the benefit of Sharjah Emirate.

“Who is our Biggest Threat?” – was commonly questioned. The reply was always ADEN – because if ADEN had ever gotten its act together the Gulf Ports would all have been ‘Also Ran’ Ports. ADEN’s lack of organisation and efficiency provided the rapid growth of Dubai Jebel Ali and later other Gulf Ports. I never once realised that I would one day be asked by the European Union to accept an offer to consult on the ADEN Free Zone (a two-year contract from 2002-2004).

Aden Free Zone
Aden Free Zone (Pic:

My planned short term commitment was now stretching into decades but also came with it opportunities that I would never have been afforded if I had returned to the UK. 1976-thru 2002 on joining The EU mission in Aden had already exceeded 26 years – So much for a quick short term middle east assignment.

As is customary in heading an EU Project Mission I met with the British Ambassador to Yemen – a lovely lady called Francis Guy. She made me very welcome as we laughed about the intense security to even enter the British Embassy in Sanaa – On entering her office she had opened her windows onto the street below and security seemed somewhat forgotten. She said to me – “Yemen – A Country of 22 Million People and 66 Million Guns”.

Based out of the EU Embassy Building in ADEN where security was very intense (always seven heavily armed guards) – well that was until ’QAT’ Time when they sat under the Embassy tree for shade and left the gates unmanned while they chewed QAT and drank Red Fanta. I always found that highly amusing. “Be careful where you go” I was told as they assigned me a driver/security guard. However, I used to regularly go out through the gates across the Aden Central Square and into the bazaar/market. Not once was I ever bothered and the banter between the market traders and the ‘Englishman’ was always friendly and courteous with lots of laughter (probably due to my limited Arabic).

How can one describe YEMEN? I leave that to the Editor of the Tourist Book Collection – Lonely Planet – who wrote – There are two places you must see before you die – One is Yemen and the other is Mongolia.

As far as Yemen is concerned, I have to wholeheartedly agree and have had the opportunity to tour extensively throughout Yemen. The capital City of SANAA and its Biblical Walled City (Not sure if biblical is the right word in a Muslim Country) but this wonderful walled city is straight out of days of old. A must visit place.

Likewise, my first visit to the City of Taiz and the Green Grand Canyon – The Taiz Valley – where the narrow pass mountain road rises about the valley floor as well as the cloud ceiling. Look down one and half miles to the valley floor and see the terraced plantations of Coffee and QAT. The Taiz valley was where the original MOCCA COFFEE was grown and transported by 250 Camel Train pack animals to the Port of MOCCA (Hence the name).

One thing always strikes me when I visit any country are the faces of its people. Yemenis in general have their lives etched onto their faces. A very hard life spent under the hot sun and not an easy life by any standard especially those fellow Arabs in Saudi Arabia and the UAE (Gulf) – A totally different lifestyle. A country with NO Oil as such but an abundance of population.

My mission was to work with the Director General/Chairman of the ADEN Free Zone to develop Aden’s and ultimately Yemen’s Economy. Aden Free Zone (The Old Offices) were offsite and the personnel were mainly women. The DG stipulated that anyone working in the FZ Offices should not wear the Full Head Covering. So, of course I recognized my work colleagues by their faces. It took some skill to meet them outside the Free Zone when they approached and greeted me with full head covering ( all I could see was their eyes).”Hello Mr Tony” was usually followed by a short pause while I tried to work out whom I was speaking to.

Much of the World were Anti Yemen because before my arrival the USS COLE was attacked by Yemeni (Al Quida) and this resulted in a huge Insurance Premium for Vessels calling into Aden Port. Seemed somewhat ironic to me that a multi million dollar state of the art battle ship could be taken out by a five thousand dollar wooden abra but sadly there was loss of life.

The City and Port of Aden was the most scenic location of any port I had ever visited – a natural harbour protected by surrounding mountains in what would normally consider ‘PRIME REAL ESTATE’. Another attack on a tanker off the port of Massawa added only to the bad PR associated with doing business in YEMEN.

Around the World there are certain ideal locations fit for purpose – those being- SINGAPORE / HONGKONG – COLOMBO – SUEZ and PANAMA. The other one should have been ADEN – just 4 nautical miles off the Worlds busiest shipping routes ADEN was a natural HUB Location but the World had decided to by-pass Aden and Yemen was considered a High Risk.

Meantime Oman and the Gulf States were pumping Millions of Dollars into their Ports and Airports infrastructures - with funds generated from their oil & gas wealth. Yet, there was one crucial element missing from these massive developments – Manpower and Labour Availability. Surely, the obvious place to source these labour and manpower needs should have been Yemen (and its 22 Million population). But it wasn’t to be and most of the 5-6 Million Guest Workers just for the UAE ( Emirates) were sourced from the Indian subcontinent (India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka).

Fast forward to today – Saudi Arabia and the UAE has been bombing Yemen and hitting civilians and to add even more bad events the Corona Virus Pandemic hit Yemen. Turn on your TV and most people are immune to seeing emaciated kids looking like skeletons. For those of us that have worked in Yemen and worked amongst these lovely people it is heartbreaking and makes one angry at the same time.

What Aden and Yemen could have been – and Should Have been was selectively blocked by foreign powers whom it suited to see Yemen internal political struggles equate the Country to a failed State. Can Yemen rise above all this? I truly believe so – as when the shipping trade was replaced by international air travel those successful Yemeni Traders moved on as well. Go anywhere in the World and I would wager you will come across a Yemeni Trader (probably with Family roots in Aden) running a successful business. The Yemeni Government even has a Ministry for Yemeni Expatriates who could be tempted to return home to invest (Estimated $35 Billion Dollars of Funds).

I am merely a simple Port and Free Zone man who sees and still sees great and overwhelming opportunities in Yemen but how do we convince the Yemenis to believe in what they have and what they can do with it. Is it too late? I certainly hope not but amongst all these Great International YEMENIS one such leader must emerge and unite the Country.

Can Yemen (and ADEN) be the New Dubai or Singapore or Hongkong? – I truly and sincerely believe so. Self-belief is something I can’t install but of all the places I have been and set up successful Port and Free Zone Operations – ADEN remains my GREATEST CHALLENGE… Work in Progress – NOT COMPLETED…

30th August 2020

Aden has the potential to be the new Singapore

A comment from Tony Restall, President & CEO DSI Group Holdings - Free Zones & Economic Development

Tony Restall Tony Restall's comment about Aden

9th August 2020