Yemenis: The longest established Arab community in the UK

Yemen history
7 min read
17 December, 2021
Arabs in the UK series: Continuing our dive into British-Arab history, The New Arab examines the arrival and settlement of the Yemeni community, from South Shields' ship workers to Birmingham factory labourers, and their struggle for acceptance.

Birmingham hosts the biggest Yemeni diaspora in the UK, with the latest census by Birmingham’s Yemeni Society stating that today 33,000 live in Birmingham and its surrounding suburbs.

Yemenis were attracted to the city because of the jobs in the car and steel industry, but despite Birmingham hosting the biggest Yemeni community, it wasn’t the first destination they arrived at.

The city council of Sheffield states that Yemenis have been settling in the UK for more than a century and a half, making them the longest established Arab community in the UK and their arrival to the nation took place several decades before they moved to the midlands.

"The city council of Sheffield states that Yemenis have been settling in the UK for more than a century and a half, making them the longest established Arab community in the UK"

While researching Yemeni history in the UK, I came across many documents that tell many stories about how Yemenis settled in the United Kingdom. However, no one tells the story better than Dr Abdullah Al-Shamahi, a respected Yemeni historian and a veteran in the Yemeni community in Birmingham. Dr Al-Shamahi arrived in Birmingham more than 42 years ago and witnessed two generations of Yemenis and their quest to find a home in Britain.

From one port to another 

The first group of Yemenis arrived at South Shields as early as 1860 when the port of Aden was controlled by the British Empire, Dr Al-Shamahi explains. 

The British occupied the Yemeni port of Aden in 1839 in what was a strategic move to provide Britain with a base between the Suez Canal and British Occupied Bombay. By taking control of Aden, the British had immediate access to African and Arabian coasts as well as a place to refuel their ships mid-voyage. 

1864: A view of Aden near the port area. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
1864: A view of Aden near the port area (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
Expedition Of A British Force From Aden To Shugra, 1866
Expedition of a British Force from Aden To Shugra, 1866. (Photo by: Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

Yemeni migration to Britain was, to a great degree, the consequence of British colonial policy. Most of them came from Aden to work on the ships that were fuelling the economy of the British Empire, predominantly based in the engine rooms.

White British sailors would try to avoid these roles due to the heat and low paid wages, so Yemenis were employed instead.

Soon after, Yemeni sailors started to arrive at other ports like Cardiff, Liverpool and Hull. In the 1920s, an estimated 1,500 Yemenis were living in Cardiff, making up half of its ethnic minority population.

Yemeni UK

Arab Boarding Houses 

It is in the docklands that Yemenis started to establish boarding houses after they couldn’t find shelter in the neighbourhoods of their British peers. The first Yemenis struggled to co-exist with British society. They were not welcomed as neighbours, would not hang out at pubs and also faced a language and culture barrier.

"The first Yemenis struggled to co-exist with British society. They were not welcomed as neighbours, they usually would not hang out at pubs, in addition to the language and culture barrier"

They then established what was known as the “only Arab Boarding Houses” which were simply sleeping areas, restaurants and cafes for Yemeni sailors.

According to The Yemeni Project, Ali Said was the first person to open the first seaman's boarding house for Arabs in 1894 in the Holborn area of Laygate, South Shields. This became an area largely associated with its Yemeni residents.

By 1920 there were eight boarding houses and the appearance of more Yemeni-run cafes led to the formation of a Yemeni community, with around 300 and 600 Arab residents now in South Shields. The boarding housemaster – usually former sailors who had chosen to settle in South Shields and set up their cafes and shops – played a key role in the lives of the Arab seamen, as they would offer them vital help like assistance in securing their next ship, or money and advice, when needed. 

Yemeni history infog

Sacrifices made 

During the First World War, Britain entered the war on the side of the Allies and it needed to recruit more Yemenis for the merchant navy, who were providing supplies for the British military and therefore were targeted by the Germans.

Historians believe that more than 3,000 Yemenis were killed while attempting to provide supplies to the British troops. A big figure in comparison to the limited number of Yemenis living in the UK at the time.

After the First World War, Britain came out with an exhausted economy. White British seamen returning to their normal lives were finding that some of their jobs were taken by the Yemenis, while the latter felt that they have sacrificed for Britain as much as their fellow British men and therefore deserved to be treated equally.

Tension rose over the British seamen's sentiments that Yemenis were taking their jobs and competing for higher salaries. The Yemenis who were initially welcomed during the war were now being faced with racism and Islamophobia.

The strain continued to rise and in 1919, Yemenis faced street violence with attacks on the Arab Boarding Houses and cafes.

Meanwhile, the South Shield Gazette pushed racist and hostile messages against the Arabs. It was around this time that the Yemeni sailors joined the Minority Movement – a left-wing group formed to challenge the National Union of Seamen, which they felt was failing to represent them.

The tensions kept broiling and in the 1930s the Yemenis in South Shields took part in the riots that had broken out. Amid a police crackdown, some were arrested while others were deported back to Yemen.

Second chances and new beginnings 

After the Second World War, more commercial ships started to run on diesel instead of fuel, which meant that Yemenis were on the hunt for new jobs.

The steel and car factories in the midlands were attracting Yemenis to leave the sea and go to the land, as factories were recruiting more workers.

"By the late seventies and the beginning of the eighties, the economy in the Gulf began to boom due to high oil production. This meant better-paid jobs and in countries that share a lot of similarities to Yemen in terms of language, culture and lifestyle"

Yemenis found work in heavy industries, especially jobs that required hard labour. Leyland factories and the Black Country in the midlands, in reference to the coal mines, were happy to hire Yemenis willing to take low paid jobs.

Dr Al-Shamahi explains how in the 1970s it was hard to find an unemployed Yemeni. Many of them were still coming individually, saving their income and then sending it back to their families in Yemen as it was far higher than what their families would be earning back home.

However, by the late seventies and the beginning of the eighties, the economy in the Gulf began to boom due to high oil production. This meant better-paid jobs and in countries that share a lot of similarities to Yemen in terms of language, culture and lifestyle.

Saudi Arabia was one of the favourite destinations for Yemenis who were trying to leave the UK. But, this did not last long as the 1990 Gulf crisis changed the special bilateral arrangements that these countries had with Yemen. Many of them were forced to leave the Gulf and to start searching for a new life elsewhere.

The Yemenis who had left the UK began to return but this time with their families, as they started to settle down and start their new life in Britain. 

Fast-forwarding to more current times, Dr Shamahi says that the new generation of Yemenis, although born and raised in the UK, are somehow still haunted by their past. As a result, he feels that the community’s influence over the UK's politicians and lawmakers is limited. Where it is true that the community has managed to preserve many of Yemen’s traditions and are not conflicted in their identity, the downfall has been the lack of influence and not fully benefiting from the opportunities in education, development and the new industries that are present in the UK today.

Baraa Shiban is a Yemeni political consultant and a caseworker with the human rights group Reprieve. He has served as a member of the Yemeni National Dialogue 2013-2014 and participated in the Yemeni uprising 2011. He writes in an independent capacity.

Follow him on Twitter: @BShtwtr

This article is part of a special series called Arabs in the UK: An exciting new project that sheds light on the Arab population in the United Kingdom and aims to showcase their continuing contributions to communities. Follow here to read more articles from this series: 

Arabs in the UK