Map: South24 Center

Wadi and Desert Hadramout: Playing on Contradictions Regionally and Locally


Thu, 05-01-2023 01:12 PM, Aden

The Political Editor (South24) 

Since the moment in which the "Hadrami Elite Forces" expelled AQAP from Hadramout's capital city of Mukalla in 2016 and the terrorist group's escape to scattered areas in Hadramout's Wadi and Desert districts, people there have demanded the departure of the First Military District (FMD) forces whose operation zone is based in the Wadi and Desert.

The FMD has been managed by commanders affiliated with the Islah Party (Muslim Brotherhood) under the slogan of the National Army. The latter was long run by General "Ali Mohsen Al-Ahmar" who is known for his close ties with the extremist groups. Several AQAP elements took Wadi and Desert districts as a safe haven after leaving Mukalla. They were able to rearrange themselves for repositioning and heading towards numerous governorates during the latest years including districts in Hadramout, Abyan and Shabwa in South. They have only targeted security and military gatherings of the Southern forces who are affiliated with the Security Belts and the two Shabwani and Hadrami Elites.

However, the STC-led operations, commanded by the Southern military and security forces in late August 2022 under the so-called operation "Arrows of the East" with its four stages, destroyed a large number of these groups' pockets in Abyan and Shabwa. This has encouraged the Hadramis to continue demanding for the departure of FMD forces to enable the people to basically manage their own affairs by themselves as well as securing districts of Wadi and Desert from the extremist groups. Local sources told "South24 Center" that FMD still embraces AQAP suspected elements and releases some of them if required. For example, after deposing General "Ali Mohsen Al-Ahmar" from his position as the Vice President in April 2022, 10 AQAP suspected elements escaped from a prison affiliated with the FMD. Many observers believe that the escape was not an accidental one but it was premeditated with an aim to reject the dismissal decision and distract the newly-formed PLC at that time.

Moreover, the continuous popular anger in Hadramout districts who demanded the departure of the FMD forces led to threats delivered by the latter to increase the state of alert and prepare for confronting any moves or decisions that aim to drive them out. The deposed FMD commander "Yahya Abu Auja" threatened to deter the popular demands stressing that they will be under his forces' watch. Parallel to that, FMD has continued confronting protests in Wadi Hadramout districts by using repression, arrests and live bullets. Moreover, a large number of Southern military and security commanders were targeted by ongoing assassination operations. For example, the Head of the STC in Mukalla Brigadier General "Saeed Al-Muhamadi" survived an assassination attempt in which he was injured after being attacked by two unknown armed elements who were on a motorcycle when he got out from his home in Mukalla in mid-December. This is part of dozens of similar operations against influential Hadrami commanders over the past years.

FMD in return for what ?

It has been increasingly clear that there is a real tension in Hadramout regarding FMD. The indicators of this are as mentioned before in addition to the mutual exchange of statements and the counter media campaign. Since the STC President "Aidrous Al-Zubaidi" declaration - in a TV promo in an Emirati channel - about heading towards Hadramout and Al-Mahra after securing Shabwa and Abyan, FMD has been on standby to confront any possible scenarios. It seems that the military units there apparently won't give up or leave a vacuum which can be filled by their rivals. FMD won't do that without a deal which maintains it as part of the power balances on the ground, especially that Hadramout's Wadi and Desert are the last bastions of the Islah Party who manage FMD forces in South Yemen.

Recently, Hadrami voices announced that Hadramout is an "independent state". Many critics believe that such voices aim to break and distract the Hadrami ranks amid growing demands to expel FMD. It is remarkable, according to the same critics that these voices accepted Hadramout's Wadi and Desert to be run from Marib which is the bastion of Muslim Brotherhood while refusing to be run by the state in Aden. Moreover, the December 20th ceremony or the so-called "the Hadrami National Day" which was announced by Hadramout Tribes Alliance was live streamed by Hadramout Channel owned by Saudi businessman Abdullah Bugshan who has Hadhrami roots. This figure who has close relationships with Riyadh would not have made such a move without a Saudi green light.

Thus, the question is no longer whether KSA supports these voices or not but one should ask why did it tend to overlook the Hadrami popular demands for the departure of FMD in the biggest side of the governorate? This could be attributed to several aspects, the first of which may be related to the influential Emirati role in the governorate and the big influence of its allies there, top of which are STC, the Hadrami Elite and other Hadrami components who support the uprising. Riyadh may believe that if it blesses the departure of FMD forces-even though not being close to them - would mean losing an important strategic governorate- which is economically rich and shares more than 700 km of borders with KSA - in favor of UAE's close allies. This was clear through Saudi tweets affiliated with the Saudi regime. They launched a campaign against the Southern forces and their regional allies who demand the departure of FMD military units. The logic says that the Southern forces are the biggest real guarantor of the KSA borders. This refutes all allegations about any security concerns for many reasons, not least the STC's commitment by what it describes as "the strategic partnership" with KSA and UAE.

The second aspect may be related to Al-Jawf governorate and the attempt by the Islah’s leaders to pressure Saudi Arabia in this file. For example, after appointing a new governor for Al-Jawf in October, the Islah Party in the governorate announced its objection to PLC's decision to sack former Governor of Al-Jouf, Amin Al-Akaimi who was replaced with "Hussein Alaji". Furthermore, the Central Bank Director in Marib refused to approve his appointment. The new governor saw this as an insurgency against PLC decisions. It is important to say that a large governorate such as Al-Jawf which shares extended borders with Saudi Arabia is very important for Riyadh. This includes two things, the first of which is securing the Saudi borders while the second one is ensuring the formation of military forces directly loyal to it, such as the Al-Jawf Military Axis. The Islah Party also renounced the new appointments in the latter's leadership and refused to implement the Presidential decisions towards it.

Therefore, the ongoing refusal by the Islah Party in Al-Jawf to allow the inauguration of the new governor is a sort of pressure against Saudi Arabia in the FMD file in Hadramout. It attempts to make a bargain with Saudi Arabia by handing over Al-Jawf to the new governor in return for keeping FMD in Hadramout at the hands of the Islah Party. They are aware that Saudi Arabia's interest in Al-Jawf is at equal footing with Hadramout. In the foreseeable future, Riyadh may feel more threats in Al-Jawf than Hadramout if forces affiliated with the Islah remain there. They had a previous experience in Marib related to the assassination attempt of the Prominent Salafi commander Abdulrazaq Al-Baqma who is a commander of one of the "Happy Yemen brigades". The latter were formed and directly supported by KSA. This leads us to understand that any forces affiliated with Saudi Arabia there may not be safe as long as the parties who hold control there are not satisfied. The approach to keep Hadramout’s Wadi and Desert into the grip of the Islah Party may serve as a temporary guarantor to Saudi Arabia if the latter pressures the opposing parties and attempts to make some understandings among them amid the Islah Parties’ insistence to maintain its influence and interests in Hadramout after being coercively expelled from of Shabwa. 

Decisions and guarantees

Despite the PLC decisions to sack "Abu Auja" and appoint "Amer Bin Haitian" instead, the anti FMD local parties considered it a cunning attempt to calm down the Hadrami street even if this meets part of the goals sought by the "Hadrami Uprising". These decisions come as if they constitute a final solution for Hadramout's problems and that the Hadrami parties have to accept them and not to resort to other escalatory measures. It is important to say that maintaining the FMD presence is not only related to military and security commanders there or the Islah Party but it is linked with a network of interests of those who financially benefit from its continuous presence, whether investors or company managers or tribal leaders or others whose financial budgets for many years have been supported by the revenues of the concession areas.

On the other hand, the question which has to be raised is what are the guarantees which can be provided by other Southern forces in Hadramout, top of which is STC, to the oil companies there in case of the departure of FMD forces linked to these interests peacefully or through war? These forces have been responsible for the security of foreign companies in particular for a long time. It is important for the forces who oppose the FMD presence to reassure these companies that they will protect their interests, especially since these companies have influence over their countries with regard to economic interests.

Accordingly, it is more likely that the oil-rich governorate remains as a bargain card for a long time among the conflicting parties at both local and regional levels. A solid settlement among the local parties is not expected to happen unless the regional parties reach prior understandings regarding this and if the Southern local political and military forces won't impose a fait accompli in the Hadramout's Wadi and Desert, which would change the remaining balances on the ground in South Yemen.

However, it can be said that the Shabwa lesson should not be repeated in Hadramout. Sticking to the failed tools will inevitably lead to a big security failure which has hard and costly repercussions.

South24 Center for News and Studies

South YemenFirst Military DistrictFMDWadi HadramoutSTCSaudi ArabiaUAE