Saudi Major General Sultan Al-Baqami accompanied by the Defense Minister and Yemeni military commanders during a visit to Abyan governorate, March 2, 2023 (official)

Analyzing the Latest Saudi Moves in Yemen


Sat, 11-03-2023 11:14 AM, Aden Time

Farida Ahmed (South24) 

Over the past months, the relationships between Saudi Arabia and the UAE have received much attention by media platforms. Each meeting or summit that is supposed to gather them is followed by talks about the positions and moves adopted by the two countries. Growing attention was drawn after President Mohammed Bin Zayed missed the two summits “The Gulf-Chinese” and the “Arab-Chinese” last December. Although he sent Ruler of the Emirate of Fujairah, Sheikh "Hamad bin Mohammed Al Sharqi", to represent the UAE, Bin Zayed’s remarkable absence raised many questions about the reasons behind that. A month later, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman missed the Middle Eastern Leaders’ Summit held in Abu Dhabi last January. This has stirred wider controversy, especially that the leaders of Egypt, Oman, Qatar, Bahrain and Jordan attended the summit.

Observers believe that the absence of the leaders was deliberate and came as a result of tensions and real disputes. This was remarkable by the tweets of influential figures and media figures during the past period. Wall Street Journal said: “The snubs exposed a growing rift between neighboring U.S. security partners that for years marched in lockstep on Middle East foreign policy”. The newspaper added: “Still formally allies, Saudi Arabia and the UAE have diverged on several fronts, competing for foreign investment and influence in global oil markets and clashing on the direction of the Yemen war."

It has been clear that the Hadramout file is the clincher point where the interests of the two countries intersect. This has not been limited to the level of Yemen’s regional allies but extended to include international attention. This was remarkably clear in the repeated Western visits by some ambassadors to the capital of the governorate last year. Hadramout enjoys a heavy strategic weight as it overlooks the Arabian Sea and the Indian Ocean as well as being an important energy source in Yemen. The attacks by the Houthi militia against the oil ports in Hadramout and Shabwa created other reasons for the presence of more than a military force in the governorate including US forces according to local sources who spoke to “South24 Center”. 

Recently, a recorded video featured “Khaled Bahah”, the former Yemeni Vice President and former Prime Minister during the Hadi era, while talking with military and civilian figures in Hadramout. "Bahah" called them to support the local authorities and the First and Second Military districts. Both of them, according to Bahah, serve as pillars of what has remained from the state. The video stirred a tidal wave of anger by many Hadramis in particular and Southerners in general. This is because he specifically called to back the First Military District (FMD) which constitutes a military and security threat to Hadramout. Over the latest years, thousands of Hadramis took to the streets in a number of districts in the governorate to call for the expulsion of these forces led by the Islah party. They accused them of harboring “terrorist and jihadist” elements in a way that threatens the security and stability of the governorate and South Yemen as well as the regional security. 

At the core of this, Amer Bin Hatian, Chief of Staff of the FMD, resigned in early March. He attributed his decision to his inability to establish a military brigade for carrying out his tasks including imposing security and stability in Wadi Hadramout. He said that the leadership of the FMD is based upon partisan loyalties, in an indication to the Islah party. He added that the FMD follows the party’s instructions. He also accused it of committing financial and administrative breaches which have not yet been met with proper measures. Instantly, the Hadrami Uprising (Haba) Command stated that the resignation confirms their warnings about the “patching solutions” which don’t fully eradicate these forces that are perching on Hadramout and sowing chaos within it according to the statement. They added: “The war by the FMD against Hadramout’s citizen Amer Bin Hatian, who held this position through a presidential decree, underscores the rebellious nature of these forces who follow only their private agenda".

Khaled Bahah’s latest appearance with a new role in the Hadrami arena has raised speculations about the reasons behind the emergence of the man at this time. He described the Southern forces as being “militias” even though they are “governmental” according to him. This is despite the big and influential role played by these forces including “the Hadrami elite” in expelling AQAP out of Mukalla and the districts of the Coast of Hadramout as well as securing wide proportion of the governorate. In this sense, Bahah doesn’t apparently speak on his own as he stresses that Hadramout has to remain under the influence of military forces that severely damaged Hadramout’s valley and desert. It is clear that this is the same approach adopted by Hadrami-Saudi businessman “Bugshan '' which reflects the general Saudi position towards the governorate. Riyadh is looking for Hadrami figures who have political ambitions and play roles related to that. This is although “Bahah” had adopted positions which are more akin to the “Southern stances”, especially STC, towards the Northern military presence in the governorate. This also contradicts with his former position towards the FMD forces. He previously described their presence in Hadramout as being “dubious” and that “they are occupation forces produced by the July 7th War in 1994”. 

It is not unlikely that Khaled Bahah will be used as a “consensus character” among the conflict’s parties to accept him if they find a comprehensive peace reference including the Houthis. The man attempted to play this rule after the Houthis invaded Sanaa and the subsequent Arab Coalition’s intervention. This came especially after former US Secretary of State John Kerry delivered his initiative to save the Yemeni peace consultations in 2016. Reports said that the initiative included transferring Hadi’s powers to “Bahah” to enable him establish a proposed national unity government in agreement with the Houthis. This is one reason which pushed Hadi to quickly oust him and appoint “Ali Mohsen Al-Ahmar” as "Vice President”. Priory, he was agreed upon within the “Peace and Partnership” deal in 2014 among many figures nominated to lead the government. Most warring parties at that time, including the Houthis, saw the man as a figure who doesn’t form any political danger. He maintained an approach which doesn’t adopt a fixed stance, either to be in the middle or he will be replaceable.

Therefore, it seems that “Bahah” wants to return to power again through the gate of Hadramout. He accidentally found himself in the political circle in 2006 before he became on top of the political pyramid later. He previously was managing one of, the Saudi business man, Bugshan’s companies. He probably seeks to create influence inside the Hadrami society. This approach is preceded by the Hadrami leader “Essam Bin Habrish” who is accused of establishing close links with the Islah party. He was dismissed from his position as the Assistant Governorate Deputy for the Affairs of the Wadi and Desert districts last September. There is a clear resemblance in the stances of both men which obviously serve the Saudi position in the governorate.

At this time, Saudi military leaders made several field meetings in South Yemen and some governmental areas in North Yemen. They include meetings with military commanders from Shabwa who left the governorate during the last August events. They were accused of engaging in relationships with the Islah party and opposing the new governor. Moreover, Maj. Gen. Sultan Al-Baqami, Commander of "Back and Support" forces” affiliated with the Arab Coalition, visited confrontation areas with the Houthis in northern Abyan, accompanied by the Yemeni Defense Minister. In Aden, Al-Baqami also met with Bashir Mudhrabi, the Commander of the newly-formed “Nation Shield Forces”. In Mocha, he met with PLC’s member Tariq Saleh. This came after Saleh returned from a visit which was the first since the beginning of the war in which he apparently made rapprochement with the military and political leaders of the Saudi-backed Islah. In Hadramout, the governor met in Seiyun with the Commander of the Coalition Operation Room in the Wadi and Desert of Hadramout, Saudi Lieutenant Colonel Ali Al-Mutairi in the presence of the Commander of the FMD, Major General Saleh Timis.

For Riyadh, building a political and military approach in the Southern governorate of Hadramout, in particular, is extremely important as it is the only regional state which has no military influence through the allies on the ground, except for its recent establishment of “Nation Shield Forces” led by the PLC Chairman Rashad Al-Alimi. It is one of the late signs felt by the Saudis by which they want to correct the military scene after more than 8 years of the conflict. The importance of Hadramout as a wide border strip with Saudi Arabia that extends more than 700 km and controlled by influential forces close to the UAE such as “the Hadrami Elite” and the Southern military forces affiliated with STC is a main factor that leads it to withdraw from Abu Dhabi balance in the border areas. It seeks to reduce the UAE’s influence over these areas even if this will empower political and military forces which endanger the governorate’s security and have not been compatible with Saudi interests in Yemen at any time. 

Regardless of other pretexts related to Riyadh’s recent moves, Saudi Arabia looks at the Southern forces, including “STC” as a main political and military party in the conflict, but also as an “disobedient” one unlike the other Yemeni actors who used to respond swiftly to the Saudi wishes in most times. On the other hand, even if it sometimes responds to KSA, STC has delayed achieving the Saudi demands. The kingdom sought to address this matter since the establishment of STC but it failed to undermine the latter. This caused trouble for Saudi Arabia regarding the internal influence, especially in Southern areas controlled by STC, including the capital, Aden, which is the current stronghold of the legitimate government. 

On March 7th, PLC Chairman and a number of the council members met with Prince “Mohammed Bin Salman” in Riyadh. The official news agency said that the meeting came to confirm “supporting all efforts aiming at reaching a comprehensive political solution, sponsored by the UN to achieve security, stability and development in Yemen”. However, the allies who are close to the UAE and other PLC members, especially the two Southern members, STC’s President Aidrous Al-Zubaidi and the Commander of the “Southern Giants” Abdulrahman Al-Muharrami, missed the meeting. This was justified as being a result of a clear rift in the Saudi-Emirati relationships. The features of such a rift was more prominent through the alienation of the latter in the Saudi-Houthi direct talks.

The continuation of the lukewarm relationship between Riyadh and Abu Dhabi as main and influential parties that directly impact the Yemeni file will lead to a possible escalation of tension which may reach the level of boycott. This is amid the clash between the political, military and economic interests of both countries in the region. This would probably affect, at an escalatory pace, the political relationships among the Yemeni local parties. This in turn would lead to possible future conflicts which hamper the efforts for a comprehensive peace process through which the international community aspires for reaching a solution that ends the war in Yemen. It would be more useful that the two countries, which are partners in the Yemen conflict, quickly avoid the ramifications caused by their different interests and unilateral moves. They have to return to effective coordination in the Yemeni file to avoid harming their interests in favor of other regional foes, foremost of which is Iran.

Farida Ahmed

Executive Director of South24 Center for News and Studies

This analysis is a translation of an Arabic analysis released on South24 Center Arabic website on March 9, 2023. 

South YemenSaudi ArabiaYemenArab CoalitionHadramoutNation Shield ForcesSTC