How a War in Egypt Sank Yemen's Once-Bustling Port

How a War in Egypt Sank Yemen's Once-Bustling Port

Why you should care

Aden had the world’s second-busiest port before the Suez Canal was abruptly closed.

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Geo facts & figures

It was just before 8 a.m. and most pilots in the Egyptian Air Force were at breakfast when the little radar blips representing Israeli jets disappeared. The region was on the edge of war, and tensions between Israel and its Arab neighbor couldn’t have been higher. The radar anomaly wasn’t unusual; it happened every morning as the daily patrol dropped to desert-skimming altitude.

But what happened after was unusual. Instead of reappearing on radar and heading back to base, the Israeli jets launched an attack they had been planning for months. They hit runways and Egyptian air bases with rockets and bombs. They strafed planes before they had a chance to take off. Egyptian aircraft that made it into the sky were quickly shot down. It was a decimating attack, in effect destroying the entire Egyptian air force in the first day of what would later be known as the Six-Day War.

On the day of the surprise attack, June 6, 1967, the Port of Aden in Yemen, as on most other days, was booming — its blue waters providing a sparkling contrast to the surrounding black volcanic rock. Restaurants were full, and the docks busy. Workers chewed khat, turning their mouths blood red as cargo ships anchored in port, some on their way to Europe. The ancient city had been a bustling hub for millennia. But after the 1869 opening of the Suez Canal connected the Red Sea and the Mediterranean, the Port of Aden became one of the busiest in the world, said to be second only to New York, right at the heart of modern trade routes.

Saudi Arabia had a de facto blockade for two years on the port … and as a result the city is wracked by unemployment and high prices.

“In the 1960s you might say it was on its way to becoming [like] Dubai of today,” says Dr. Noel Brehony, chairman of the British Yemeni Society. Great Britain, which had ruled Aden as a colony since 1839, moved its main regional military base to the city in 1958. Immigrants from elsewhere in the British empire, including India, poured into Aden for work.

And the British still had military ships in Aden’s harbor that June day in 1967 — though they wouldn’t for long. British troops had been battling a nationalist insurgency and, following years of grenade attacks, protests and street battles, were on their way out. By the end of November, the communist People’s Republic of South Yemen would be in full control of the city. When the British left, they took with them around 20,000 jobs, according to Brehony. It was the beginning of an economic decline. Tens of thousands would leave the city in the following years as the unstable new government instituted hard-line Marxist doctrine.

The Six-Day War itself also had long-lasting economic implications. “In ports all over the world yesterday, radios crackled with orders from shipping companies for vessels to alter their courses,” The New York Times wrote on June 7, 1967. Following the Israeli attack, United Arab Republic President Gamal Abdel Nasser closed the Suez Canal for just the second time in 98 years. The article notes that a ship traveling from the Persian Gulf to Europe would now need to travel around the southern tip of Africa, adding 16 days and 4,800 miles to the journey — and cutting Aden out of the process entirely.

If the canal had closed only for a short while, it would have been inconvenient for Aden’s port. But it remained blocked until 1975. By this time, competitors in the region with more access to investment — from Djibouti to Dubai — had taken Aden’s position as the preferred long-distance port. In the 1990s, Aden tried to claw back its prominence with a proposal to become a hub of super-container ships, as Aden was far better placed geographically than places like Dubai to receive ships going between Asia and Europe. But there just wasn’t enough investment to create the infrastructure needed, Behony explains. “It has never really had a sufficient level of investment and support,” he says.

Today, Aden is in exceptionally dire straits. A civil war in Yemen has left thousands dead. Saudi Arabia had a de facto blockade for two years on the port, preventing important humanitarian supplies from getting through, and as a result the city is wracked by unemployment and high prices. Cranes in its harbor that once swung full containers now stand empty.

But despite calamity after calamity, Aden has one very important thing going for it: Even when the civil war and famine have subsided, the port’s gleaming volcanic rocks are still situated at one of the most geographically strategic points on the globe when it comes to shipping routes, waiting quietly for another chance to contribute.

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