Today part of the Republic of Yemen, Aden was for 128 years a vital British strategic base and commercial staging post. In the immediate aftermath of World War II, Britain was still the predominant foreign power in the Middle East. But in 1967, overwhelmed by crises, the Labour government abandoned Aden. This precipitate withdrawal left the newly formed Federation of South Arabia to the mercies of rival national socialist revolutionaries who, after a period of bloody civil war, established the Arab world’s only Marxist-Leninist tyranny, and left a 27-year legacy of impoverishment and repression.
Roads to Nowhere is a candid account of the author’s experiences as a young British colonial officer, describing a bizarre world of outsize colonial characters and desert adventure during Aden’s moment of glory as the “Hong Kong of the Middle East”. It focuses on the flawed Federal constitution unequal to its avowed purpose of bringing Aden and its hinterland to orderly independence, and the fatal mismatch between Aden’s politicians and the traditional tribal rulers. Along the way, we are treated to tales of tribal feuds and dissident skirmishes, feudal rule, intelligence and internal security failings, frustrated reconstruction schemes, and the valiant efforts of the British armed forces to hold the ring. Written with a sharp eye for the tragicomic, and ranging deftly between the political and the personal, this is above all a book about individuals, both British and Arab, and how they interacted as they tried to make the best of their impossible predicament.