Al Mahrah: The Gulf Influence Conflict in South Yemen


Mon, 19-07-2021 07:48 PM, Aden

Salem bin Sahel (South24)

On September 21, 2014, the central regime in Sanaa collapsed after the Houthis took control of it, invading most northern areas, supported by their ally, the former President, Ali Abdullah Saleh. 

Consequently, the citizens of the southern governorates have been freed from the iron grip of Sanaa authority after about 25 years of holding power in South. However, this freedom has been restricted by the former Vice President, Hadi, who became a “compromise” President after the 2012 presidential election in which he was the sole candidate, for a peaceful power transfer, based upon the Gulf Initiative.

The Gulf initiative called on preparing for a “Comprehensive National Dialogue Conference”, including all entities and political parties. Apart from the participation of southern active players, this drew a new roadmap of the “Federal Yemen”, which is supposed not to be subjected to direct orders from Sanaa, through 6 regions, two of which in South, run by Aden and Mukalla, the biggest cities in the southern governorates.

However, the voices of peace disappeared amid the roaring of guns in the civil war that plunged the country into more catastrophes, when the Houthis attempted to control South, but they have been pushed back to the historical borders between North and South, supported by the Arab Coalition.

Too far from the circle of the civil war, Al Mahrah, the second biggest southern governorates, and the eastern gate of South, had distanced itself from the war, but during the last four years, it has approached a more complex regional conflict with the neighboring countries, which constitute an active part of its security and stability.

There are concerns that Al Mahrah would witness a regional proxy war, as any possible conflict on its soil would increase the disaccord possibilities among the GCC’s countries which take different diplomatic stances towards Yemen. Qatar, which being excluded from the Arab Coalition, “due to its acts that promote terrorism” (1), may not be the only crisis caused by the Gulf presence in the Yemeni War. For example, Oman, which claims adopting a neutral stance towards all parties, supports some Al Mahrah’s tribes, and has gotten closer to The Houthis after the Omani delegation’s visit to Sanaa in June. (2)

The outcome of the Omani talks with the Houthis in Sanaa has mitigated the Houthis’ international isolation, although the results are unknown, with the exception of those statements about “discussing the humanitarian situation and pushing forward the peace process”. 

Back to Al Mahrah, which borders Oman, Muscat has supported the establishment of Yemen’s Southern National Salvation Council (SNSC) in September 2020, to stand against the Saudi led-Arab Coalition’s existence in Al Mahrah, in light of the policies of the Islah Party which announced that “it won’t deviate from the Mahri consensus” to break the STC’s monopoly. 

The STC became the party that represents the “Southerners’ will” in the Riyadh Agreement, while the Mahrah’s local authority expressed its “absolute rejection of the SNSC considering this as “throwing Al Mahrah in the midst of regional and partisan conflict, moving the war and conflict towards it”. (3)

Players’ intentions

The Saudi forces, participating in the Arab Coalition, control the Ghaydah Airport and Shahan, the two border crossings of Shahan and Sarfayt, as well as Nishtun Port, since their presence in Al Mahrah in 2017, under the pretext of “combating smuggling” and “reconstruction” though the war has not reached the governorate.

The Saudi press revealed earlier intentions to “establish a huge oil pipeline, from the Saudi Al Kharkhir to Al Mahrah Coast”, to lower shipping costs, and avoiding Hormuz Strait in the transportation of Saudi Oil, as part of “the Century Project” (4) which has been met with rejection on part of smugglers increasing their feeling of anger towards KSA.

The geopolitical importance of Al Mahrah may be behind the meeting of Haitham bin Tarik, Sultan of Oman, with King Salman bin Abdulaziz last week, in his first foreign visit since taking the helm in January 2020. The two countries confirmed “having the same view about continuing their efforts to find an all-out political solution for the Yemeni crisis”. (5)

Through these moves, Oman intends to secure its western borders, without stirring clashes in Al Mahrah.  This may be the main demand Sultan Haitham bin Tarik wants to secure from King Salman in particular, to access the Saudi plans that aspire for “impose guardianship on Yemen '', in light of the American and British support of the KSA’’s presence in the Yemeni crisis.

In This regard, the political analyst Saeed Bakran told South24 that “Al Mahrah is in the heart of the Omani strategy, the governorate’s status and the Omani interest are the lateral translation of the phrase ‘Geography is the Mother of Strategy’, as Oman wants geographical controllable  range, on the security and economic fields,  for its borders with South Yemen, as it has heavily invested in the projects of Al Duqm Port and Salalah Airport, in light of its plan to transform both of them to a “giant economic central hub”.

Based on that view, Bakran added that “Al Mahrah and Shabwa Coast should remain away from the risks and competition odds caused by the establishment of ports, airports and economic zones, which will undoubtedly reduce the importance of its projects in Duqm and Dhofar in general. Hence, the significance of such an important visit could be understood”.

However, this is relevant with another important face “regarding Omani need for KSA, on the economic level, and not just securing the geostrategic range, and to keep it away from possible competition moves” according to Bakran.

“The Omani economy suffers a big crisis, represented in the deep tension felt in Omani cities for the first time, and the rise of unemployment rate, and the lowering income of the Omani citizen. That is why Oman needs rapprochement with KSA, to secure direct support for its economy. The Saudi Arabia has previously financed Oman to make it move away from the Iranian axis, and to make balance in favor of the KSA, which pushes Muscat towards Riyadh, away from Tehran circle in the region” Bakran said.

On the other hand, while new political dynamics are formed in Al Mahrah, which represents the vital depth of Oman, the advantage of the Omani presence in the Yemeni governorate, through the social ties between Mahri tribes and Dhofar people, has not been helpful. Therefore, according to South24’s sources, Oman resorted to support the Mahri tribes to pressure the KSA, for every now and then, by rejecting the presence of the Arab Coalition forces in Al Mahrah amid almost full absence of the Yemeni government.

Speaking to South24, Journalist and Activist Mohammed Kalshat said: “There are neighboring and family links between Al Mahrah and Oman, among some tribes. The facilities offered by Oman are numerous, including scholarships, relief and medical aid, as well as   moving patients from Al Mahrah to Oman through the Sarfayt and Shahan crossings, in addition to the establishment of the Sultan Qaboos Center in the Shahan District, and also by building  houses for poor families and people with limited income through the Omani Charitable Organization”.

He added: “Al Mahrah’s Sit-in Committee refuses the Saudi presence, despite the clear role of the Arab Coalition in backing many fields through the Saudi Construction Program. I believe that the Mahri society accepts this support and appreciates the efforts of brothers, whether KSA, Oman, or any other Gulf country.”

The large military Saudi forces’ deployment in the Mahri Coast districts makes the political scene more dramatic, through building about 10 camps within these districts, as well as the Saudi forces in Al Ghaydah Airport, including British and American experts and military vehicles. (6)

International interest in Al Mahra prompted the US. Ambassador to Yemen, Christopher Henzel to visit it on November 30 coinciding with the anniversary of the evacuation of the last British soldier from southern Yemen. Henzel's visit carried many implications, including the Mahris' fears of plunging the governorate into international conflict, especially that the American Ambassador, who inspected the American forces stationed at Al Ghaydah Airport, along with the Saudi and British forces, met with the local authority, stressing the importance of “combating Iranian and Houthis arms smuggling.”

However, the visit has further implications as the US wants to protect international waterways and expand its maritime influence, in light of the cold ocean war with major international powers, which makes Al Mahrah vulnerable to open scenarios.

The UAE, a member of the Arab Coalition, did not withstand staying for a long time in Al Mahrah, as it handed over the governmental complex in Al Ghaydah District to KSA. Its presence there has been limited on the humanitarian front through the Emirati Red Crescent only.

Alliances and effects

The Hadi Government presence in Al Mahrah is enhanced by the 137th and 123rd Infantry Regiments, which are part of the 2nd Military District. However, the governmental presence on the executive administration level has witnessed unpresented power rotation, as in the case of Al Mahrah Governor, Mohammed Ali Yasser, who was appointed in February 2020, although he held the same position in 2014 and 2015.

The Hadi Government, affiliated with the Islah Party, has used the policy of “power rotation” after its decision to remove former Governor Rageh Bakrit from office, in the wake of armed clashes between Saudi forces and tribal armed men, affiliated to the Islah, on the road which leads to the Shahan Crossing on Omani borders, resulted in no casualties. 

This dismissal has been rejected by the then STC’s President Hany Ben Brek who tweeted: “the dismissal of Al Mahrah Governor, away from its being a new violation of the Riyadh Agreement, added to the previous breaches which have obstructed its implementation, is considered a very strong evidence revealing the losing party from the Arab Coalition’s move to control the crossing and the smuggling borders”.

The intensity of the STC- Yemeni Government dispute in Al Mahrah has been fuelled after armed men, loyal to Salem Al Hrezi, the former Al Mahrah Governorate Deputy, obstructed the STC’s masses and prevented their access to Zafaran (Saffron) Square in the city of Ghaydah, the capital of the governorate, last July, to support “the STC’s autonomy in the southern governorates”. 

Reading Al Hrezi’s agenda clarifies his full agreement with Hadi’s policies, largely formed by his Vice President Ali Mohsen Alahmar, affiliated with the Islah Party. During the 1994 summer War, launched by Northern Forces on South Yemen, Hadi, the then Defense Minister, had appointed Al Hrezi as a commander of the Mahra’s Border Guards. This background indicates well the motives of the Mahrah Sit-in Committee against the Arab Coalition and the STC.

Regarding the STC’s popularity in Al Mahrah, the political Analyst Saeed Bakran told “South24”: “the Council has the most important card in the entire southern governorate including Al Mahrah, represented in the popular presence. Its significance increases in the governorate of Al Mahrah, which does not know the armed conflicts, making its peaceful rhetoric more influential. Accordingly, we can talk about the strong STC’s influence in Al Mahrah. It still considers this as a power surplus to use it when required.

In an attempt to move Al Mahrah away from Aden, leaks have revealed calls for announcing ‘Hadhramaut Region”, as part of the Federal Country Project, based upon the results of the “Comprehensive National Dialogue Conference” held in 2014. Achieving this appears far-fetched at the moment, but those voices try to impose the “Yemenization projects”on the southern governorates, in spite of the failure of the “National Dialogue” to realize the aspirations of all political entities, resulted in a devastating civil war which has so far no clear end regardless to the peaceful paths.

Journalist and editor at South24 Center for News and Studies

- Photo: Banners with pictures of the Saudi Crown Prince and his father at the Nishtun Port in Al-Mahra, South Yemen (The Wall Street Journal)

AlmahrahSouth YemenSaudi ArabiaOmanSouthern Transitional Council