The Background Behind the Increasing British Military Role in South Yemen


Wed, 18-08-2021 12:05 AM, Aden Time

Badr Mohammed (south24) 

One week ago, the Daily Express revealed ​the arrival of British Special Forces at the Ghaydah Airport (in Al Mahrah Governorate) in South Yemen. (1).This comes, according to the British newspaper, as part of “chasing the terrorists who are behind the drone attack on an Omani oil tanker in the Gulf, which killed a British security guard”. The British authorities concluded that the attack was launched from the Mahrah coasts, near Oman, in an indication of the responsibility of both the Houthis and Iran. This account was confirmed last week by the Deputy Assistant US Secretary of Defense before being denied by the Pentagon’s spokesperson.

The Yemeni religious groups put other justifications about the nature of the British role in Al Mahrah outside the context of the Yemeni crisis and the military intervention by the Arab Coalition led by the KSA, and backed by the UK and the US, which indicate efforts of regional parties to transform the eastern region of South Yemen to a new battlefield.

The British military presence

The beginning of the 19th century was the onset of the British military presence in the south of the Arabian Peninsula and the Arabian Gulf region. Britain decided to withdraw from the region in the second half of the 20th century for political and economical motives, which are largely similar to the reasons behind the current American withdrawal from the same region. However, the withdrawal from what the then so-called “Southern Arabian Peninsula sultanates” was different from pulling out from its eastern parts in the Gulf region. The first was characterized by violence due to an armed revolution, leading to violent and radical changes on the national and the political fields. On the other hand, the withdrawal from the Gulf region was peaceful and a result of a British-Gulf agreement, which justifies its peaceful and slight changes. This kept the British-Gulf friendship alive versus a permanent enmity with Iran. this was shown in the Iraqi long war against Iran on behalf of the Gulf states. However, following the last events in the region, and the outbreak of the Yemeni crisis in the beginning of 2015 due to the Iranian-backed Houthis’ control of the capital Sanaa and North Yemen, the Iranian threat further increased. Consequently, the British presence was needed in the context of supporting the Arab coalition’s operations in Yemen.

In the beginning of 2020, the British PM Boris Johnson announced 10% increases in military spending, on the other hand, the prominent British website “Declassified UK” revealed that the UK has a widespread network of military bases in the world. The website, specialized in criticizing the foreign policy, added that Britain has 15 bases in the KSA, and 16 bases in Oman, some of which under the direct control of the British Army, Moreover, the UK has military presence in the  Udeid Air Base in Qatar, the Minhad base in the UAE, the Ali Al Salim Base in Kuwait and a maritime base in Bahrain (2), According to the website, the British military presence in Oman is the biggest in the Gulf, as the UK spent 23.8 million Pounds to extend the Sultani Naval Base in Duqm allowing to absorb  British aircraft carriers. In light of backing the Arab Coalition operations in Yemen, the British forces increased their presence off the Gulfs of Aden and Oman as well as in the ports of "Nashton" and Qeshn ports in Mahrah after two separated attacks on British tankers off Al Mukalla coasts in May 2010, and off Al Mahrah coasts in December 2020 respectively. However, the attack which targeted the oil tanker Mercer Street, that killed a British citizen probably worth the revelation about the arrival of a 40-soldiers special force to counter the activities of Iran and its agents (“the Houthis:) in Yemen.

Is there a possible international intervention in the Yemeni crisis?

The Unilateral British measure has not provoked the US which asked the Affected countries from the Mercer Street attack, including Britain, Israel and Romania, to make “a proportional collective response” (3) The Yemeni government and the Arab Coalition in Al Mahrah, controlled by them, have not yet reacted to the British step.

With regard to the groups, affiliated with the internationally-recognized government, there have been some lower political- level statements rejecting the British presence in Al Mahrah. The Islah party’s Executive Office in Al Mahrah asked the government and the local authority in the governorate to provide a transparent clarification about what it called “the existence of foreign military forces outside the frame of the Arab Coalition which was called to intervene by the constitutional legitimacy in the country” (4). In contrast, the Houthis, who opposes Hadi government, has exploited the revelation opportunity about the British military presence to justify its hope of controlling South Yemen in the face of what they dubbed as “a foreign presence” the Houthi-affiliated Almasirah TV Channel said that “the parties of the Joint meeting condemn the British military presence, in particular, and the foreign presence, in general, in Al mahrah and other governorates. (5). The Houthi leader Mohammed Al Bukhaiti said that “the occupying Saudi forces’ hosting of British forces confirms that the KSA is a mere western tool, and the mercenaries are just a tool of the tool”. He concluded his tweet with an attached picture depicting what was said Arab Coalition soldiers during receiving British troops in the at the Ghaydah Airport. He added that “the picture became clear. The Yemeni people must unite to expel all foreign forces”. (6)

On the other hand, there has been a lot of talks recently about the possibility of overthrowing the legitimacy of the internationally-recognized president Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi, and to transfer his political powers to a consensual vice president or a presidential council amid statements for and against. The former Yemeni Foreign Minister Abubakr Al Qirbi tweeted that ““The appointment of the new UN envoy comes while a solution to the Yemen crisis is being discussed by transferring power to a consensual vice president or by forming a presidency council for that”(7). Moreover, the Speaker of Shoora council Dr Ahmed Obaid Bin Dagher warned against compromising the legitimacy of President Hadi. he said: “we should not do what the military coups didn’t” (8)

It worths mentioning that the appearance of the political controversy in Yemen came in conjunction with the appointment of a new UN Envoy to Yemen, as well as the America push towards an all-out political settlement, in which the Houthis is a recognized party besides the other active actors. According to international observers, this requires the abolishment of political solutions references for the Yemeni crisis, top of which the UN Resolution No. 2216. The new UN Envoy Hans Grundberg supposedly should start a new phase that completely omits the earlier ones. Therefore, the decision to appoint the Swedish diplomat Grundberg was delayed for more than a month, during which the continuing task to find a political solution to the Yemeni crisis was assigned to the Saudi-Omani consensus to pave the way for the new UN envoy. However, this did not happen, as there is evidence that the two Gulf states failed in this political mission. On the other hand, the British measure in Al Mahrah indicates the failure of the Arab Coalition on the military and security fronts, and thus, to some extent, this reinforces the hypothesis of international intervention in Yemen.

The Saudi-British coordination in Al Mahrah: competition or intersection of interests?

Based upon the Saudi desire to directly overlook the Arabian Sea and the Indian Ocean, the KSA intended, through its military penetration in Al Mahra, to secure its oil exports via the southern governorate, rather than the Gulf region and the Strait of Hormuz, where there are increasing tensions with Iran. But the international pressure to end the Yemeni war, and to push for a comprehensive political settlement abolishing the Saudi role in Yemen has frustrated the KSA’’s hopes. Therefore, the Saudi-Omani consensus in the Neom Summit allows the kingdom to make its way towards the Omani port of Duqm  and the Arabian Sea, as well as the Indian Ocean in the shape of investment projects, as a result of the summit, in an attempt to compensate the KSA, and urging it towards a political solution for the Yemeni crisis, But until this moment, there have been no practical indications of the economic rapprochement between the Kingdom and Oman, in light of the large British presence in Oman, especially the port of Duqm. Therefore, the KSA may show an accelerated reaction to the political solution in Yemen, which will reinforce the narrative of the immenet overthrow of President Hadi's "legitimacy", as the kingdom sees that the latter is no longer useful. Therefore, Saudi Arabia took the decision to deport Yemeni expatriates from the southern regions of the Kingdom, which constitutes an additional burden on the Yemeni crisis.

This is an apparent pivotal moment in the attempts of the Yemeni Foreign and Expatriates Affairs Minister Ahmed Awad bin Mubark to meet with his Saudi counterpart Faisal bin Farhan, as the different political statements reveal disagreement among the two sides according to observers.

In March, the British PM Boris Johnson Boris Johnson has not ruled out deploying troops in Yemen as part of a future United Nations mission, but stressed “conditions in the country would have to be “very different”.(9)

As Britain has kept, for years, its quiet presence in the Gulfs of Aden and the Arabian Gulf, some believe that the arrival of additional forces in South Yemen would enhance a notion of the Yemeni crisis moving to the square of direct international intervention.  Others do not rule out the hypothesis that the move’s aim is to save face, through which Britain wanted to send a message to Iran, following the killing of a Briton in the tanker attack off the coast of Oman, according to the Daily Express newspaper. Additionally, the move does not represent a military confrontation against Iran, especially since Iranian media outlets noted that London sent a message to Tehran, in which it affirmed that "it does not intend to take military action against it."(10).

A Prominent Saudi Expert, close to the Saudi government, hinted about the possibility of a Arab Coalition’s withdrawal from Yemen as a part of several scenarios, though he admits that this would mean the intervention of many countries in the Yemeni affairs and the worsening of the humanitarian situation, as well as a possible risks over waterways and straits according to what   Abdelaziz Al Saqr, the Head of the Gulf Research Center, told the Saudi newspaper Al Sharq Al Awsat earlier this month.(11).

Some observers fear that transforming new Yemeni areas to conflict hotbeds would deteriorate the people’s humanitarian suffering and duplicate the economical crisis in South and North 

Researcher on Yemeni political affairs

Photo: Saudi personnel receiving British forces, archive (Gulf media)