A meeting between the governor of Hadramout and the Saudi ambassador to Yemen, and the picture on the right shows the Saudi businessman of Hadrami origin, (Abdullah Bugshan), June 2, 2023 (Twitter - South24 Center)

The Possible Outcomes of the Saudi Moves in Hadramout


Wed, 07-06-2023 05:51 PM, Aden

For this, Saudi Arabia supports the meetings of the Hadrami factions on its land, especially the parties that oppose the UAE forces in the governorate.

Farida Ahmed (South24) 

In late May, Hadrami figures headed to Riyadh on a military plane. They included tribal delegations as well as local and Hadrami political personalities for the first time at such a massive scale. This came concurrently with extended meetings held by members of the Southern Transitional Council (STC) in Mukalla and Seiyun with heavy-weight figures in the governorate in the presence of Aidrous Al-Zubaidi and Faraj Al-Bahsani who serve as members of the Presidential Leadership Council (PLC). This was directly in the wake of Al-Zubaidi's visit to Hadramout with an aim to unify the Southern ranks. This is amid indications about an imminent political settlement months after the de-facto truce and considering the interactions of the accelerating regional and international transformations. 

Over the subsequent days, the delegation held discussion sessions which included political, security, social and economic axes, headed by the Governor of Hadramout Mabkhout bin Madi who was appointed by the PLC in July. Despite the importance of the Hadrami meetings in reaching a unified vision that expresses the position of the governorate and the importance of protecting it from all the challenges including counterterrorism, they didn’t produce clear outputs that represent a joint position on the future of Hadramout or work to entrench the position of the governorate in light of the current conflict and after it or whether it matches the STC’s vision on South independence from North as part of an independent federal Southern state. The resolve matter is not limited to the Hadrami leaders as the four Southern members in the PLC are still unable to crystallize a joint vision on South Issue to use in the prospective settlement in Yemen.

It is remarkable that Hadramout, the biggest governorate in South Yemen, has long distanced itself from submitting initiatives or projects related to the future of the state during the conflict. The only exception is occasional statements by some voices who have limited influence. They occasionally talk about the peculiarities of Hadramout and the importance of having a vision and a project independent of other projects in the Yemeni arena. Accordingly, many Southerners accuse some Yemeni parties, foremost of which is the “Islah Party”, of exploiting the history and legacy of Hadramout to speak on its behalf and represent it in every event. Moreover, while they fight the demands of Southerners through political and media tools regarding the independence from North, they seek, through the same tools, to separate Hadramout from South and create Hadrami grievances and an issue which is independent of the Southern one. A vast number of the Hadrami voices have long expressed their desire to remain as part of the Southern national project as Hadramout was part of South Yemen before the unity with North in 1990.

It is clear that the arrival of the STC President and Presidency to Mukalla, the capital of Hadramout, concurrently with holding the 6th Session of the National Assembly affiliated with STC, headed by Ahmed bin Break, and the success of the Southern Consultative Meeting in Aden in early May, have stirred furious reactions by the STC opponents inside and abroad. This is due to the latter’s successes which have created a big political impact in the governorate. This has led to a general feeling that the STC will pull the rug out from under the focus which dominated the Hadrami decision-making for a long time, especially since there was a big military presence for the Southern forces affiliated with the STC. This is considering the ongoing refusal by the First Military District (FMD) forces to depart from the Desert and Wadi Hadramout and to hand over the district to Southern forces. 

The problem of power struggle and the division among local forces has motivated Saudi Arabia to seek to impose its presence on everyone in Hadramout and exploit its legal intervention in the country.

What is the goal of Riyadh?

On May 8, the local authorities in Hadramout were handed over the Rayan International Airport in Mukalla at the instructions of the PLC Chairman, Rashad Al-Alimi. This was as part of the coordination with the Arab Coalition leadership following the UAE presence related to the counterterrorism file since 2016. Remarkably, the move to hand over the airport came simultaneously with Saudi moves in the governorate. Interestingly, part of the UAE forces is still deployed in the airport after handing over it to the local authorities according to exclusive sources who spoke to “South24 Center”. Furthermore, the move came concurrently with holding the Southern Consultative Meeting in Aden and with the STC’s declaration about its intention to hold the 6th Session of the National Assembly in Hadramout. 

Indeed, the Saudi interest in Hadramout is old. The influence of Saudi businessmen of Hadrami origin has helped in enhancing this link for decades. Most of them support the Hadrami stance that calls for the privacy of the governorate and securing an independent status away from any political polarization. Moreover, this attention is a part of the Saudi strategic interests with the border governorate with which there is a vast area estimated at 700 kilometers that represents half of Yemen’s borders with the Kingdom. However, this interest was interrupted during the latest period of King Abdullah’s reign and the beginning of King Salman’s era. Nevertheless, the conflict flared among the local influential forces, especially among the forces affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood in the FMD in the Wadi and Desert of Hadramout and the forces affiliated with the Hadrami elites and the STC in the districts of the coast. 

The problem of power struggle and the division among local forces has motivated Saudi Arabia to seek to impose its presence on everyone in Hadramout and exploit its legal intervention in the country as long as the fate of the governorate has not been resolved for one party. It seems that Riyadh will seek to achieve the Hadrami demands by leaving managing the security and military affairs to Hadrami forces affiliated with Saudi Arabia to secure its borders with the governorate. For this, Saudi Arabia supports the meetings of the Hadrami factions on its land, especially the parties that oppose the Emirati forces in the governorate. This was clear through the exclusion of the Hadrami parties which agree with the STC from participating in the Consultative Meeting, led by Governor Mabkhout bin Madi.

The Saudi attempts to impose its presence in Hadramout through subordinate forces aim at reshaping its military balances on the ground after missing them during the years of the conflict. It also wants to weaken the STC’s leadership in the governorate, especially since some Hadrami leaders are consistent with the Yemeni forces' narratives, particularly those linked with the Islamic Islah Party. They seek to go to the final negotiations independently of the Southern stance. They want to weaken the latter in those negotiations and prevent the success of the STC project to declare an independent state in South Yemen. Accordingly, this may lead to strengthening the position of Rashad Al-Alimi, especially if the FMD forces are replaced with the “Nation Shield” forces established by Saudi support. 

Although Al-Bahsani’s recent move to join the STC will increase the STC's ability and influence within the governorate, at military, political and popular levels, Wadi Hadramout file still constitutes a dilemma. The failure to neutralize this problem, In the near future, would affect the Southerners’ consensus ability to submit a unified negotiation delegation in the possible peace operation. The Saudi interests in maintaining the status quo are not exactly clear.

The Islah Party may accept the departure of the Northern forces from Hadramout as long as the forces which will replace them are not directly affiliated with the UAE. The fate of the FMD forces in Hadramout is limited to two outcomes. The first one is their departure while the second is their involvement in losing clashes with the Hadrami and Southern communities. The Saudi stance towards the unity or the disengagement matter has not so far been clear. However, the Saudi vision can easily affect the Hadrami street considering imposing its influence through affiliated forces if it resolves its position towards this issue. Actually, South Yemen cannot head to the disengagement option without Hadramout. The latter is the one which will determine the fate of South Yemen ultimately. A question remains whether the UAE can maintain the loyalty of the Second Military District on the Hadrami coast, led by Fayez Al-Tamimi who was also invited to Abu Dhabi recently. The most urgent question is whether there is still a “coalition” in Yemen, especially since Saudi Arabia currently works away from the UAE.

The European interest is related to the economic interests as well as oil and gas companies in Hadramout and Shabwa controlled by the Northern forces for decades.

Western position

Over recent years, Western states have repeatedly knocked on the doors of Hadramout such as the United States, France, and Britain. They repeatedly sent their ambassadors to visit the governorate. On May 31, the Hadrami discussion in Saudi Arabia included European Union (EU) ambassadors who met for the first time with the Hadrami delegation which denotes a clear interest in the governorate. The EU delegation to Yemen said that “EU Ambassadors to Yemen had a very good exchange today with the Governor of Hadramout Mabkhout bin Madi and several representatives from the region who stressed Hadrami's strong identity and voice in Yemen.” It is the first time for the Europeans to mention the “identity” term. It could be understood as attempts to internationalize the future of Hadramout as an idea independent of South Yemen and the unity state. This contradicts the Europeans' stances on the “Yemeni unity” matter which they repeatedly announce in the preambles of their official statements related to Yemeni affairs. The European states play a dual role on the surface. However, deep inside, it seems largely in harmony with the Saudi endeavours and the Muslim Brotherhood’s approaches. 

The European interest in Yemen has long been related to the matter of humanitarian aid after the outbreak of the latest conflict in 2014. However, the European aid has not met its desired level in Yemen. It seems that European countries believe that Saudi Arabia and the UAE, as a major alliance in the war, have enough wealth to provide aid to Yemen. As for Hadramout, the US interest has been related to several files including counterterrorism. This was translated into civil and military visits to Hadramout by the US during the subsequent two years. This increased after the Houthi militias bombed the oil ports in Hadramout and Shabwa in October and November last year. The European interest has been related to the economic interests as well as oil and gas companies in Hadramout and Shabwa controlled by the Northern forces for decades. This is despite the decline in oil productivity in South Yemen due to the conflict that has been going on for nearly 9 years.

Saudi Arabia, which invited the Western ambassadors to meet with the Hadrami figures in Riyadh, apparently wants to suggest that the future is particularly important and a main fulcrum in any incoming settlement. This can prepare a large space for an independent Hadrami maneuver to form a lever that represents the people of Hadramout in the coming entitlements after the war away from the unity state or the STC-led South independence demands. Although the Hadrami officials who adopt these stances do not have an internal popular incubator or military force on the ground, the Saudi impact on Hadramout may help to pave the way temporarily through which the kingdom can build an approach to achieve its strategic goals in the border governorates connected with it. However, this does not mean that the latter will not slide into wide turmoil especially that the popular base decided its position earlier in favor of the South Yemen project.

Probably, the STC will discover that it lives in a harder situation than it imagined. This is although the STC exerted strenuous efforts in Hadramout for more than two weeks by holding meetings and discussions with their people. The STC is unable to keep up with them compared to Saudi Arabia. The Saudi position is still not understood or resolved. The STC would be more powerful through the previous sharing between Riyadh and Abu Dhabi. Currently, the matter is related to the calculations of power, the objectives of the regional parties and the extent of its ability to create this power and influence in the largest governorate in Yemen.

Farida Ahmed

Executive Director of South24 Center for News and Studies

South YemenSaudi ArabiaHadramoutSTCPLC