Ahmad bin Yahya

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Imam Ahmad bin Yahya
King and Imam of Yemen
Reign 17 February 1948 – 18 September 1962
Predecessor Yahya Muhammad Hamid ed-Din
Successor Muhammad al-Badr
Issue Muhammad al-Badr
Abdullah bin Ahmad
Al-Abbas bin Ahmad
House Rassids
Father Yahya Muhammad Hamid ed-Din
Mother Fatima Al-Washali
Born (1891-06-18)18 June 1891
Alohnom, Ottoman Empire
Died 18 September 1962(1962-09-18) (aged 71)
Ta'izz, Yemen
Religion Zaidi Shia Islam

Ahmad bin Yahya Hamidaddin (June 18, 1891 – September 19, 1962)[1] was the penultimate king of the Mutawakkilite Kingdom of Yemen, who reigned from 1948 to 1962. His full name and title was H.M. al-Nasir-li-Dinullah Ahmad bin al-Mutawakkil 'Alallah Yahya, Imam and Commander of the Faithful, and King of the Mutawakkilite Kingdom of the Yemen.

Ahmad's ruthless, arbitrary and inconsistent rule made him the subject of a coup attempt, frequent assassination attempts and eventually lead to the downfall of the kingdom shortly after his death. His enemies ranged from ambitious family members to forward-looking pan-Arabists and Republicans and from them he was given the name "Ahmad the devil."[2] He remained surprisingly popular among his subjects, particularly the northern tribesmen from whom he had the name "Big Turban."[3] For his remarkable ability to narrowly escape numerous assassination attempts, he was known as al-Djinn.[4]

Like his father, Ahmad was profoundly conservative, but nevertheless forged alliances with the Soviet Union, Communist China and the Republic of Egypt, all of which provided economic and military aid to the kingdom. These alliances were largely driven by his desire to expel the British from southern Yemen and recover the Aden Protectorate as part of Greater Yemen. In the end he turned against Egypt, which after his death supported a republican coup against his son and successor.


Youth and character[edit]

Ahmad bin Yahya was the oldest son of Yahya Muhammad Hamid ed-Din, of the Hamid al-Din branch of the al-Qasimi dynasty. Yahya had been imam of the Zaidi sect of Fiver Shia Islam practiced by tribes in norther Yemen since 1904, when he succeeded his father. Yahya had assumed the title of King of Yemen on the breakup of the Ottoman rule over the country in 1918.

From Amad's youth he was notable for his strikingly ferocious appearance. He was short and stocky and had prominently bulging eyes, which some claimed he induced.[5] Although he wrote poetry from his youth, he was known for his explosive temper. Stories circulated that when he was a student at law, he confronted fellow students at knife-point to swear to support him one day as Imam.[6]

Early career and 1948 coup[edit]

In the 1920s and 1930s, Ahmad assisted his father in putting together his kingdom through strategy, diplomacy, tribal warfare and intrigue. Ahmad was appointed governor of Ta'izz from 1918 to 1948. In 1927 he was named wali ahad, effectively the crown prince.

From his father, Ahmad learned a deep distrust for the new and a profound aversion to any change in medieval methods of governance. While governor he surrounded himself with reformers, however.[7] He always tried to keep the factions close to him but his volatile temper often betrayed him. In 1944 at his court in Ta'izz, he was heard to exclaim, "I pray God I do not die before I colour my sword here with the blood of these modernists." The outburst caused Ahmad Muhammad Nu'man, Muhammad al-Zubayri and other future "liberals" (in the Yemen sense of Yemeni independents and moderate reformers) to quit his court and flee to Aden.[8] There they founded the Free Yemeni Movement.

His arbitrary and erratic behavior, however, did not diminish his popularity in Ta'izz. While governor he razed the tomb of Ibn Alwan without any protest from Shafi'i clerics. He was not a doctrinaire Zaidi, however. In 1952 he imprisoned in the notorious Hajjah dungeons Zaidis who attacked a cleric in Ibb for a sermon praising the three caliphs before Ali. Although his soldiers were Zaidi and the population of Ta'izz Shaff'i, a British observer found "there is almost universal loyalty to the Yemen, if not to the person of the Imam ..."[9]

In February 1948 Yahya, three of his sons and his chief adviser were assassinated in a coup, in which the religious leader Abdullah bin Ahmed al-Wazir was proclaimed Imam. Yahya's son (and Ahmad's brother) Ibrahim bin Yahya was appointed head of the "constitutional government." Ibrahim had been in open revolt against his father for a year having fled and joined a group called "Free Yemenites" in the Aden Protectorate in 1946.[10] The plan to simultaneously murder Ahmad in Ta'izz failed, and he advanced on Hajjah where loyal tribes supplied his forces.

Abdullah was established in Sana'a. Yahya's third son, Hasan Hamid al-Din, then governor of the southern province of Ibb but beloved by the northern tribes, rallied those forces to his brother Ahmad's cause, entered Sana'a and ended the short-lived revolutionary government. Ahmad rewarded him with the offices of prime minister and governor of Sana'a.[11] With the support of the northern tribes as well as Ahmad's Shafi'i stronghold in Ta'izz, the conspirators were rounded up in four weeks. Most were beheaded. The new Imam Ahmad, all-Nasir li-Din Allah ("the Protector of God's Religion") would rule from Ta'izz, while Sana'a was given over to looters.[12][13] Unaffiliated liberals were also swept up in the net. About thirty were beheaded, while the rest were left in dungeons. Most were released in two years, often after writing obsequious flattery of the imam, but others were left in prison for much longer.[14]

His rule as Imam[edit]

As king Ahmad was more open to foreign contact than his father, but he never allowed free intercourse with other nations. His rule was autocratic and conservative; he never brooked suggestions. It was said that every detail, no matter how small or trivial, had to be approved by the Imam, even for a government truck to be moved in Ta'izz or mules to receive fodder. A governor of Aden reported, "Everything hangs on the King's nod. Yet his situation is pathetic, for he knows he has no friends."[15]

To the outside world, the Imam was virtually unknown, noted only for seemingly odd conduct. In 1950 a wire service report noted when he and his son Muhammad al-Badr married two sisters, nurses at the only hospital in Sana'a.[16] Although his father had banned aircraft after a fatal accident, Ahmad was fascinated by them and on taking the throne bought two DC-3s and another in 1951. All the planes, however, were at the personal disposal of the Imam. The Swedish crew were terrified of his inconsistent orders.[17] The museum which was once his palace (now no longer open to the public) supposedly contains his "bizarre collection of hundreds of identical bottles of eau de cologne, Old Spice and Christian Dior, an electronic bed, a child's KLM handbag, projectors, films, guns, ammunition and swords ... passports, personalized Swiss watches and blood-stained clothes."[18]

His mood swings and unpredictable behavior had several sources. Chief among them was his addiction to a mix of drugs, chiefly morphine, which he took for his chronic rheumatism. He lived in fear of sudden death and divine retribution. He was subject to beliefs in the supernatural, consulted astrologers and often would succumb to "mystical crises" during which he would fast and cut himself from the world for weeks.[15]

His one abiding policy guide as Imam (aside from his reactionary position on government) was to drive the British from Aden and recover the protectorate for "Greater Yemen" as his father saw it. Ahmad also believed Britain was behind the plot that killed his father.[19] Aden was also a center for the Free Yemen movement, a collection of intellectuals and republican-leaning nationalists expatriates from the north.[20] Rhetoric turned to border skirmishes and on March 26, 1955 Ahmad charged Britain with having killed a number of Yemenis in a "brutal attack" in southern Yemen. Ahmad became further alarmed by the British plan to federate 18 petty sheikdoms and sultanates within the protectorate, which would consolidate territory under British protection which Yemen still claimed.[21]

Imam Ahmad with King Saud and retinues

The tensions with British Aden caused Ahmad to overcome his antipathy for Saudi Arabia, which he also received from his father.[22] In 1955 Yemen began talks with a view towards entering a military pact with Egypt, Syria and Saudi Arabia.[21] The warming of relations coincided with a Saudi need for foreign workers to service its expanding oil industry, and in 1955 the Saudi government decreed that Yemenis could enter without work permits.[20]

Egypt and Syria signed their pact for a new Arab military alliance on March 3, 1955.[23] Egypt's interest was in putting together a pan-Arab league to counter the pro-Western tilt of the recent Iraq-Turkey pact (which, with the addition of Pakistan and Great Britain would become known as the Baghdad Pact). Three days later from their respective capitals Egypt, Syria and Saudi Arabia issued a joint decree announcing an agreement to "strengthen the Arab structure politically, militarily and economically."[24] Egypt wanted the remaining four members of the Arab League (Lebanon, Jordan, Libya and Yemen) but Lebanon with commercial interests in the West and the Arab world vacillated and Jordan was disqualified by the terms of British participation in her defense.[25] By the end of March Egyptian diplomatic sources conceded that Syria, under diplomatic pressure from Turkey and Iraq, was refusing to move forward on the plans for joint defense and might decide to withdraw if the agreement continued to prohibit signatories from entering into any defense treaty with any non-Arab nation.[26] Egypt was able to save face, when, on March 26, 1955, Prime Minister Hasan announced in Cairo that Yemen would join the Egypt-Syria-Saudi Pact and participate in the unscheduled premier's conference in Cairo to conclude the pact.[27]

In 1955 a coup by a group of officers and two of Ahmad's brothers was crushed. In April 1956 Ahmad bin Yahya signed a mutual defense pact with Egypt, involving a unified military command.

Death and immediate aftermath[edit]

On September 19, 1962 Ahmad died in his sleep. Ahmad bin Yahya's oldest son, Muhammad al-Badr was proclaimed Imam and King and took the title of al-Mansur, but a week later rebels shelled his residence, Dar al-Bashair, in the Bir al-Azab district of Sana'a, and set up a republic. In the 1962 coup imam Muhammad al-Badr was deposed by a group of nationalist officers. The Yemen Arab Republic (YAR) was proclaimed under the leadership of Abdullah al-Sallal.[28]


  1. ^ Royal Ark
  2. ^ "Yemen: After Ahmad the Devil". Time. October 5, 1962. ISSN 0040-781X. Retrieved April 2, 2015.  (Subscription required.)
  3. ^ Associated Press (September 20, 1962). "Imam Ahmad of Yemen Is Dead; Son, Who Seeks Reforms, Rules". New York Times. pp. 1 & 13. Retrieved May 8, 2015.  (Subscription required.)
  4. ^ Clark, Victoria (2010). Yemen: Dancing on the Heads of Snakes. Yale University Press. p. 62. ISBN 978-0-300-11701-1.  (Hereafter "Clark.")
  5. ^ Burrowes, Robert D. (2010). Historical Dictionary of Yemen. Rowman & Littlefield. p. 21. ISBN 978-0-8108-5528-1. 
  6. ^ Dresch, Paul (2000). A History of Modern Yemen. Cambridge University Press. pp. 31–32. ISBN 0-521-79482X.  (Hereafter "Dresch.")
  7. ^ Dresch, p. 78.
  8. ^ Dresch, p. 53.
  9. ^ Dresch, pp. 68-69.
  10. ^ Associated Press (February 20, 1948). "Yemen Ruler, Three Sons Die in Plot: Religious Leader Heads New Government as Nation's Unrest Ends". Hartford Courant. Retrieved May 8, 2015.  (Subscription required.)
  11. ^ "Prince Al-Hasan Hamid al-Din:Power Player in the Violent Politics of Yemen". The Guardian. July 25, 2003. Retrieved May 10, 2015. 
  12. ^ Dresch, pp. 56-67.
  13. ^ Clark, pp. 55-56.
  14. ^ Dresch, pp. 66.
  15. ^ a b Dresch, p. 67.
  16. ^ United Press (June 15, 1950). "King and Son Marry Sisters". New York Times. p. 12. Retrieved May 9, 2015.  (Subscription required.)
  17. ^ Dresch, pp. 66-67.
  18. ^ Clark, p. 56.
  19. ^ Dresch, p. 62.
  20. ^ a b Dresch, p. 70
  21. ^ a b Associated Press (April 3, 1955). "Action Attributed to Health". New York Times. p. 39. Retrieved May 9, 2015.  (Subscription required.)
  22. ^ The Saudi's became Imam Yahya's rival for the Emirate of Asir. After a border war in 1934, Yahya was forced to concede Asir to Al Saud by the Treaty of Taif. A more fundamental cause of friction was the clash between the severely orthodox Wahhabism of the tribes that formed the basis of Al Saud power and the Zaidi sect of Shi'a practiced by the tribesmen who supported Yahya. See von Weisl, Wolfgang (May 1, 1927). "New Light on Arabia". The Living Age. Retrieved May 11, 2015.  (Subscription required.)
  23. ^ Reuters (March 4, 1955). "Egypt-Syria Pact Signed". New York Times. p. 3. Retrieved May 10, 2015.  (Subscription required.)
  24. ^ Doty, Robert C. (March 6, 1955). "Three of Arab States Join In Military-Economic Plan; New Arab Set-up Slated in Cairo". New York Times. p. 1. Retrieved May 10, 2015.  (Subscription required.)
  25. ^ Doty, Robert C. (March 13, 1955). "Arabs Split Sharply on Plans for Defense: Egypt's Efforts to Form Alliance Fail to Arouse Much Enthusiasm". New York Times. p. E5. Retrieved May 10, 2015. 
  26. ^ Doty, Robert C. (March 24, 1955). "Egyptian Pact Bid Said to be Failing: Cairo Diplomatic Observers Cite Syria's Reluctance to Join Defense Group". New York Times. p. 12. Retrieved May 10, 2015. 
  27. ^ United Press (March 27, 1955). "Yemen Will Join Cairo's New Pact: Planned Alliance With Syria and Saudi Arabia Counters Turkish-Iraqi Accord". New York Times. p. 10. Retrieved May 10, 2015. 
  28. ^ Paul Dresch, A history of modern Yemen, Cambridge 2000, pp. 28-88 [1].
Preceded by
Yahya Muhammad Hamid ed-Din
King of Yemen
Succeeded by
Muhammad al-Badr