Shabwa Is the Target of the Houthis: the Game of the Coalition and the International Community


Fri, 30-07-2021 12:46 AM, Aden Time

Badr Mohammed (South24)

The Yemeni crisis witnessed great American and international interest at the beginning of this year, in conjunction with the rise of the Biden administration to power. However, since the middle of June till July 26th, there have been no American and the international visits for political discussions on the Yemeni crisis, as the Americans has adopted a policy of remote release of statements, along with direct and brief political discourse from lower diplomatic level, like the message issued by the Chargé d'Affaires for the U.S. Embassy to Yemen, Cathy Westley to the two parties of the Riyadh Agreement.

During this period, the Yemeni scene witnessed a lot of political and military developments, simultaneously with the Saudi-Omani emphasis on continuing the efforts, and seeking for a solution to the Yemeni crisis, in light of their recent compromise during the Neom Summit [1]. This pushed the American Envoy to Yemen, Tim Lenderking, to confirm- in his Eid Al Adha- congratulation to Yemenis- “the unparalleled regional and international consensus” towards the Yemeni crisis [2] befor visiting the KSA again on Tuesday, July 27th. At the same time, the United States Deputy Secretary of State, Wendy Sherman, met her Omani counterpart Khalifa Al Harthy in Muscat.

This indicates that the American Administration focuses on the Saudi-Omani consensus about the Yemeni crisis, apart from the local active circumstances. In addition to the continuous Houthi attacks on Marib, there is military escalation in South Yemen and the northern governorate of Al Bayda, as the Arab Coalition has recently seeked for opening new fighting fronts against the Houthis in Al Bayda. This resulted in the advancement of the Houthis towards South, on more than one front, such as the strategic Nati' District, the most dangerous front, as it is located in Al Bayda, adjacent to the oil- rich governorate, Shabwa which enjoys a distinctive geographical location.

The geopolitical importance of Shabwa

Shabwa is located in the middle of South’s governorates, adjacent to the regional water and the international navigation line. The government has a coast which overlooks the Gulf of Aden and the Arabian Sea for a distance of 233 KM. This vast coastal view has remained out of interest for decades before the Yemeni crisis, with its regional and international parties, which reveals its strategic importance in securing world trade. This redefines Shabwa from the security and geopolitical levels.

Prior to that, the focus on Shabwa based upon an economic perspective, due to its oil wealth which is concentrated far from its southern coast, as its capital Ataq is located behind mountain ranges that extends from the far Northwest to the far Southeast. In addition to this geographical factor, the government’s capital center and its political and social weight seems more relevant to its desert depth, which extends east towards Hadhramaut, and north towards Marib.

However, the nature of the Yemeni conflict, which can’t be separated from the regional and international one, adds geographical importance to Shabwa, regarding control and influence, as well as its economic importance as a source to finance this influence. Therefore, the Houthis’ tireless attempts to bring down the oil-rich Marib has an economical and probably political dimension, while their attempt to control Shabwa has a strategic one which is more important, worrying the Arab Coalition and the international community.

The Shabwa’s coastal strip has witnessed a feverish competition among the disputing parties in Yemen, as well as the remarkable activity of the extremist groups. During March and April, the AQAP launched various attacks in the Southern Coast. According to international reports, 2019 witnessed an increase in maritime accidents off the Arabian Sea, pushing Washington and other states to conduct a military maneuver there in March 2020.[3]

Moreover, Shabwa’s coast was a safe haven for African immigrants, and also witnessed widespread arm smuggling activities. On March 25th, the bad weather forced two arm-smuggling boats to dock off the eastern coasts of Ahwar District, in Abyan, during their way towards the nearby coast of Shabwa that has witnessed several arm smuggling operations.[4]

All of these things enhance the strategic importance of the southern governorate, where the international interests concentrate. Therefore, the advancement of the Houthi forces to the outskirts of Shabwa from the North stirs fear, as controlling Shabwa is still relevant to regional and international parties of the Yemeni crisis.

How did the Houthis reach the outskirts of Shabwa?

The way by which the Houthis reached the outskirts of Shabwa, from the strategic Nati’ District and the strategic front of Al Qanza, which directly overlooks Bayhan, in the direction of the governorate brought to mind the 2015 scenario, when the Southern governorates fell dramatically and rapidly in the hands of extremist groups and organizations, as the Houthis shared Shabwa governorate with the AQAP.

In this regard, Ahmed Omar Bin Farid, an STC official, wrote through his Twitter account: “it is sad to find the military circumstances which surrounded Shabwa, and allowed the Houthis to enter it before the beginning of Operation Decisive Storm in 2015, recur again risking a similar scenario”.[5]

According to Bin Farid, there is a repeated scenario that makes the hypothesis of bringing down Shabwa in the hands of the Houthis possible. In this regard, the 2015 events, which led to the Houthis’ control of Shabwa can be compared with the current events, with the Houthis standing in the outskirts of Shabwa.

All of this indicates that the Houthis walk on the same path which leads to the control of the southern governorates, though Bayhan and Oseilan Districts. On the political level, the Houthis allied at that time with the former Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh, the former Leader of The General People's Congress Party, and who was enjoying political and military influence in Shabwa. This facilitated the Houthis’ task to control it.

Currently, Shabwa is witnessing a feverish struggle between the forces affiliated withPresident Abd Rabbo Mansour Hadi and the forces loyal to the Vice President, Ali Mohsen Al Ahmar. Events indicate that the latter, which is linked to the Islah Party, the political arm of the Muslim Brotherhood in Yemen, has a stronger political and military influence, espicially that the governor of Shabwa Mohammed Saleh bin Adyo is a leader in the Islah party and he also heads the so-called the “Security Committee” in Shabwa.

However, this political and military influence, which is related to the Islah party and Yemeni Vice President Ali Mohsen Al Ahmar, appears isolated from the popular incubator in Shabwa, where the northern agenda dominates over the southern one, which is more connected to Shabwa. There is a political dynamic that is linked to the north and the Islah party more than it is to Shabwa.

If the repressive measures by Ben Adyo and the Islah party against Shabwa people added to that, we will find them rely on outside forces against the Shabwani internal community, especially in case of going through an uprising, such as the one that Shabwa recently experienced against the authority of Ben Adyo and the Islah. Accordingly, the Latter does not have great popularity that enables it to tighten its grip on Shabwa, which boosts the narrative of handing over the governorate control to the Houthis once again.

On the other hand, some Shabwani figures appeared alongside the Houthi forces in the Al Qanza front, which until recently was active in Shabwa alongside its local authority led by Bin Adiyo and the Islah Party, which share with the Houthis hostility to the STC and the Shabwani Elite Forces, and accordingly, they share repressive practices against a large segment of Shabwa residents.

the most obvious step for the rapprochement between the Islah party and the Houthis, according to observers, is the appointment of the Houthi group, Mohammed bin Awad Al Tusli, as Governor of Shabwa, as the latter heads the Security and Defense Department in the Shabwa National Salvation Council, which was established in late 2019 under the auspices of Shabwa’s local authority and with Qatari-Omani support, according to informed sources. It is remarkable that the announcement of this political component came only two months after the battle launched by the Islah party in Shabwa against the Shabwa Elite Forces, which ended with the latter's withdrawal from the governorate.

On the other hand, the Saudi forces do not appear concerned about the increasing possibility of Shabwa falling into the hands of the Houthis, compared to the Saudi and the international community’s concern about the attack on Marib.

The Saudi presence in Shabwa, a lost card or bargaining chip ?

When it comes to the future of the war on Shabwa, the governorate’s people recall the scenario of its fall to the Houthis in 2015, and the scenario of it falling again in August 2019 in the grips of the Islah party forces, and the dubious silence that accompanied this by the Saudi forces in Shabwa.

Therefore, the Houthis’ advancement towards the outskirts of Shabwa raises the concerns of many residents of the governorate. While the battle against the Houthis is carried out with a defeatness spirit, its parties end up exchanging accusations of collusion and treason. A few days ago, the head of the Supreme Council of the Islah Party, Mohammed Al Yadoumi, wrote a post on his Facebook page, justifying the Houthis’ control of Sanaa and northern Yemen with the international conspiracy [6]. This reveals that he and his party have a greater political horizon than any national motive.

Therefore, the arrival of the war machine to the outskirts of Shabwa would stir more of people’s anger and resentment against all the forces present in the land of Shabwa. On the other hand, there are political and ideological factors that will erupt in a way that is difficult to control, if the Houthis penetrate into Shabwa. Therefore, the international community’s reliance on certain regional parties does not seem a right decision amid indications that the Yemeni crisis has returned to ground zero due to the Houthi attack on Shabwa.

On the other hand, the laxity of the international community and the silence of the Saudi forces, regarding what is happening on the outskirts of Shabwa, seem to be a political reference to the practical implementation of the security and military aspects of the Riyadh Agreement. This enhances the exit narrative of the forces loyal to the Yemeni presidency and the Islah party from Shabwa to fight the Houthis, while the local security formations in the governorate will remain. 

However, this hypothesis remains pending on the nature of developments on the ground, as these forces can still evade and create many crises, or most likely will direct their attention to other areas, raising the degree of danger even more, given that the plan for the practical implementation of the Riyadh Agreement would raise the possibility of the Yemeni presidency and the Islah party responding with a plan to hand over Shabwa to the Houthis faster.

Badr Mohammed

Resident Fellow at South24 Center for News and Studies, political affairs researcher.

- Photo: The director of security for the Markah district in Shabwa governorate, who is affiliated with the Yemeni government, and related to the commander of the Special Forces in the governorate, Lakab Al-Sharif, raises a sectarian banner in support of the Houthis, January 2020 (local media)


ShabwaSTCThe HouthisSouth YemenKSAUSAYemeni Government