Mahra: Grassroot Movement and Regional Race


Sat, 22-01-2022 06:47 PM, Aden

Mahra (South24) 

Despite being far from battlefronts and conflicts since 2015, Al-Mahra enjoys geopolitical importance due to its distinctive location on the border with Oman in South Yemen's eastern coast on the Arabian Sea. 

However, this also makes Al-Mahra a scene for local political complexities and regional tussles. 

Over the past periods, this governorate has been one of the most prominent paths for smuggling weapons to the Iran-backed Houthi rebels. Previous accusations were leveled against tribal figures in Al-Mahra of standing behind these operations.

Several Northern brigades spread across the governorates along with limited presence for the Saudi-led Coalition and local security forces in some facilities. Additionally, British troops are deployed in the governorate's capital airport.

In late October 2021, KSA withdrew large numbers of their troops from Nishtun sea port and Shahan according to sources who spoke to "South24". 

Houthi's influence

On July 16th, Mahra Coast Guards Forces announced the seizing of a boat after detecting large number of ammunition and advanced weapons on their way to the Houthis. 

On April 17th 2020, the Saudi-led Coalition announced that it thwarted an attempt to smuggle Iranian weapons on a boat off the coast of Al-Mahra governorate, eastern Yemen, on its way to the Houthis. 

Those two failed smuggling attempts are just tip of the iceberg of the activities related to providing supplies of weapons, drone components and ballistic missiles to the Houthis.

Former Deputy Governor of Al-Mahra Governorate, Ali Salem Al-Huraizi is accused of facilitating and implementing those smuggling operations in favor of the Houthis. He calls for expelling what he dubbed “the Saudi and Emirati occupation” from the governorate.

A draft report issued by the Security Council’s Committee of Experts On Yemen indicated that the Houthis use the Omani territories for smuggling weapons coming from Iranian ports.

According to the draft report, the team of experts documented the Houthi's use of transmitters in missiles that targeted Saudi cities similar to previous missiles that were tracked in Iran and Turkey.

Those transmitters which were imported from China according to the document, were bought by a company based in Oman

There is a prevailing belief among the local and popular levels that Al-Huraizi receives financial fund from neighboring Gulf states. He has a constant media presence on Al-Jazeera which broadcasts from the Qatari capital, Doha. 

STC officials in Al-Mahra stated that operations relating to smuggling weapons and drugs through the governorate are still going according to Hassan Balhaf, Deputy Director of the STC's local leadership in the governorate. 

He told “South24” that “weapons and drugs smuggling gangs have connections with groups and influential figures in North Yemen.

A hub for attacks?

For the Houthis, who have good relations with Oman, the importance of Al-Mahra is not limited to smuggling weapons but they are accused of carrying out attacks from the governorate’s territories. 

In August 2021, in the wake of an attack that targeted the Israeli ship “Mercer Street” off the Omani Coast, which killed a British soldier, the Daily Express Newspaper revealed that Britain deployed special forces in Al-Mahra to arrest those who carried out the attack. 

After the Houthis attacked oil tanks in the UAE capital, Abu Dhabi, on Jan 17th, an analysis about the drones’ starting point from Yemen suggested Al-Mahra as one of the possible scenarios due to its being the nearest point to the UAE. 

Fragmentation of Al-Mahra 

In July 2018,  Al-Huraizi established a sit-in committee which tried to be a copy of a “National Council” to eradicate the grass root support around the “General Council of Mahra and Socotra’s people” founded in July 2012 and headed by Sultan Abdullah Al Afrar. 

It is worth mentioning that Al Afrar is also a Member in the STC’s Presidency. 

In this regard, the Mahri Journalist, Nafahat Al-Qamiri, said that Al-Huraizi’s Council “used the same logo and seal affiliated with the General Council of Mahra and Socotra’s people”. 

Al-Qamiri claimed that during past years, several external parties played a prominent role in fueling the conflict in Al-Mahra through their proxys. 

Moreover, Hassan Balhaf accused foreign intelligence bodies of “planting local opposition against the KSA interests by establishing entities and groups”.

He revealed to "South24" that “there are training camps and Houthi trainers who chant the group’s slogans”.

“South24” was unable to contact Al-Harazi to comment on these claims, but he announced during a meeting in Al-Ghaydah last Sunday that he has "trained and fully equipped troops which are ready to confront any emergency in the governorate” in a reference to the STC which accuses him of spreading chaos in Al-Mahra. 

Balhaf said that Gulf states such as Qatar have supported attempts to “deepen the rift inside the Al-Mahra’s tribes and community layers so as to provoke division within every house and family”. 

Balhaf gave an example for that by referring to “Almahriah TV”, broadcast from Istanbul, which is believed to be funded by Doha. According to him, “they established the channel for that purpose”.  

Grassroot body

In early January, a consultative meeting was announced in Al-Ghaydah city. The meeting came out with the formation of a grassroot body for the people of Al-Mahra. 

According to Al-Qamiri, “It was agreed to enable the people of Al-Mahra in this meeting to manage their governorate and its civil, security and military institutions.” On January 10th, it held its first meeting, and demanded the empowerment of the people of Al-Mahra.

The role of local authority

On January 15, the local authority in Al-Mahra, led by Governor Mohammad bin Yasir, called for a consultative meeting to discuss the situation in the governorate and the risks it faces.

In response, the STC's local branch in Al-Mahra refused to participate unless the local authority adopt a decisive position towards the Houthis which attacked the Arab Coalition.

Commenting on the invitation, sultan Abdullah Al Afrar tweeted: "The Governor had to respect his commitments and determine his stance towards the anti-Arab Coalition abuse campaigns before calling for a consultative meeting.

On Monday, the local authority held the meeting which was boycotted by the STC and the "General Council of Mahra and Socotra’s people”. 

Al-Mahra's local authority likely wanted to precede any moves that adopt popular and security demands by the grassroot committee in the governorate.

In his speech during the meeting, Al-Mahra's Governor called for the first time for renouncing what he described as "racial behaviors".

He added: "I look at Yemen from Al-Mahra to Saada as a united country not a divided one between North and South".

Foreign presence

On Jan 2nd, Al Afrar called for the formation of a 5000-soldiers military force from Al Mahra's residents to drive out the Northern Forces.

This came in parallel with unprecedented grassroot escalation in Hadramout since November which also called for expelling the Northern forces from Wadi Hadramout and deploying local troops instead.

Al Afrar expressed his fears that military camps could be handed over to the Houthis like what happened in Shabwa in which the group seized three of its districts last September.

In mid-January, Yemeni Defense Minister Mohammad Al-Maqdashi, who has close ties with the Islah Party, appointed Salem Ali Rafeet as Commander of Air Base Operations in Al-Mahra Governorate.

Rafeet is accused of having close ties with the Islah Party and Ali Salem Al-Huraizi after the convergence of both parties interests in the governorate according to STC official sources there.

Likewise; sources told "South24" that the Head of Al-Mahra police replaced Al-Mahri security staff with Northern members similar to what occurred in Al-Damkh in the western entrance to Al Mahra.

On the other hand, people of Al-Mahra complain about the exacerbation of the economic crisis, increased prices and the lack of services. The local and regional tussles in the governorate could lead to more deterioration.

Along with those challenges, Al-Mahra has witnessed huge demographic changes with the movement of about a quarter of a million people, including IDP Yemenis and those fleeing from the conflict areas, since 2015. This led to an increase in its population to 650,000 in 2019. 

Abdullah Al-Shadli and Jacob Al-Sufyani 

Editor and journalist 

Photo: Malcolm H. Kerr Carnegie Middle East Center

South YemenMahraPoliticalSmugglingWeaponsTusslesCoalitionHouthisSTCIslah