The New York Times reports today that the U.S. is opening a third front against Al Qaeda in Yemen. With the Afghanistan-Pakistan region under U.S. and allied assault, it seems Al Qaeda is working hard to turn Yemen into their base.
With this as a backdrop I am reminded of how Aden, the major Yemeni port on the Red Sea, used to be a happy hunting ground for many Gujarati businessmen. The most successful among those was Dhirubhai Ambani, whose birth anniversary falls today. Ambani went to Aden as a 16-year-old. He began his career as a dispatch clerk with A. Besse & Co. that used to run gas stations. Aden is where Dhirubhai sharpened his entrepreneurial skills.
When I first met him at his opulent office in Maker Chambers in Nariman Point, Bombay in 1984 he was already a folk hero for millions of Indians. He told me many stories that day, including the one about how he quickly spotted an opportunity to make money in Aden. In the Yemen of the 1950s the official currency rial was made of pure silver. The silver in the rial's minting made it highly attractive to bullion traders in London looking for the metal. Sitting in Aden Dhirubhai barely out of his teens figured that if he bought the rial in large quantities and turned into silver ingots it may be worth something. It was. He made a tidy profit by shipping silver to London.
The Yemeni authorities, troubled by the rapidly disappearing silver rial, eventually found out that a young man in Aden was partly responsible. Nearly two decades later Ambani could afford to laugh about his Aden days. "Bapuji (Gandhi) had South Africa. I had Yemen and Aden in particular," Ambani told me, his tongue firmly in cheek about the deliberately provocative comparison.
Gujarat's trade links with Yemen go back to the 14th century and a large number of merchants made big fortunes selling goods in and around Aden. Ambani, of course, remains its most illustrious legacy.
And to think that the same Yemen is now in serious danger of collapsing and being overrun by misanthropic religious bandits.