A protest stand demanding the formation of the Mahra Defense Forces (local media)

MDF: Reality and Challenges


Thu, 23-03-2023 01:13 PM, Aden

"The formation of forces consisting of Mahris to secure the governorate from political tensions has long been an essential demand by locals”

Abdullah Al-Shadli (South24) 

On March 5th, a meeting held by Southern officers in the governorate of Al-Mahra in South Yemen discussed the “perceptions and solutions related to forming security and military forces consisting of local people under the name of the “Mahra Defense Forces (MDF)”.

In a statement, “the Supreme Commission of Southern Army and Security” said that it will work to establish the MDF by enabling the governorate’s locals to manage their own affairs and ending the Northern military presence there. 

These moves came concurrently with a boiling situation experienced by Al-Mahra and the nearby Hadramout governorate related to demanding the expulsion of the Northern forces whose presence in the two governorates dates back to before 2015. There are also demands for the establishment of local forces consisting of people.

In this report, “South24 Center” explores the endeavors to establish MDF as well as the reality and challenges related to those efforts. We interviewed Mahri figures including Colonel “Muslim Keddah”, the Head of the Supreme Commission of Southern Army and Security. 

Mahri movement

On March 5th, a protest was organized in front of the headquarters of the local authority of Al-Mahra’s capital city of Al-Ghaydah. It aimed to denounce the ongoing presence of the Northern forces and demand to be replaced by MDF. The demonstrations stressed that they will continue their protests if their demands are not dealt with seriously. 

On February 5th, the Supreme Commission of Southern Army and Security held an extraordinary meeting which called for the need to enable the military and security cadres of Al-Mahra to command and manage their institutions. The Commission threatened to carry out an escalatory plan in case of neglecting the demands of Al-Mahra people. 

On February 12th, an extended consultative meeting, that witnessed the participation of STC’s branch in Al-Mahra along with prominent tribal leaders, underscored the demands to establish MDF to protect the governorate including its land and maritime crossings. 

These moves came as part of a popular movement which has been experienced by Al-Mahra for more than one year in which people organized dozens of protests which stressed on the expulsion of the Northern forces from the governorate, enabling its people to manage it as well as improving the living and service conditions. 

Colonel Muslim Keddah, told “South24 Center”: “We began establishing the first nucleus of MDF in the beginning of 2016 through training and qualifying three batches of local police personnels in the governorate”. 

“We work to create new departments after the graduation of these batches such as the Crossing Protection Department, Facility Management Department and Coast Guard Department. The local police members are distributed across these departments. They received their assignments. However, the influence and domination forces later controlled the political, security and military decision in the governorate," he added.

The Southern commander noted that this led to “the exclusion and marginalization of Al-Mahra’s local police members and their withdrawal from crossings and coast guards”. Colonel Keddah pointed to the paper he had submitted in the latest consultative meeting which the Commission called for on March 5th. 

He said: “I submitted a workpaper in the consultative meeting to the officers. I addressed several issues, foremost of which are the goals behind the establishment of these forces and the reasons which prevented forming them as well as the challenges, hardships, treatments and solutions proposed for their establishment”. 

In this regard, Hassan Mahdi Belhaf, Deputy Head of Al-Mahra’s STC branch, told “South24 Center”: “The formation of forces consisting of Al-Mahra’s people to secure the governorate from the political tensions has long been a basic demand by the governorate’s locals”. 

He added: “What enhanced this demand is the laxity and facilities in the governorate towards smuggling weapons and war tools to the Houthis and the Islah Party. The demands of the Mahri people are compatible with the Riyadh Agreement and the Riyadh Consultations which stipulated on moving the Northern forces and camps to the confrontation fronts against the Houthis”. 

He continued saying: “It is necessary to form Mahri Forces whose top priorities include securing the governorate and its border crossings, finding job opportunities for youngmen who are deprived from public jobs and recruitments controlled by Northern forces”. 

Belhaf revealed exclusive information regarding a plan to establish MDF. He told “South24 Center '': “Some probably don’t know that forming Mahri Forces began one year ago under the umbrella of the Head of the General Council for People of Al-Mahra and Socotra, Sultan Abdullah bin Isa Al Afrar”. 

He added: “We, as STC, supported these endeavors but they stopped at the final moments without knowing the reasons”. 

The importance and challenges

In addition to securing and protecting Al-Mahra, Hassan Belhaf believes that the formation of MDF will seek for “finding opportunities for the youngmen who are deprived from public jobs and recruitments controlled by the Northern forces".

Colonel Keddah indicated that “the importance of establishing MDF is to maintain the security and stability of the governorates, counterterrorism and providing the security and military institution with new bloods from Al-Mahra’s people”. 

Al-Mahra borders the Sultanate of Oman, whose influence extends within the governorate through tribal figures. This intersects with the Saudi presence in a way that complicates the local scene in this governorate and intensifies the challenges in front of any plans to form forces from its people. 

In February 2022, The Saudi-led Coalition suspended arrangements to form Hadramout Defense Forces in the Wadi and Desert. Lieutenant-Colonel Fawaz Bin Shawiya, the Commander of the Coalition’s forces in Seiyun, instructed them to suspend recruitment and training which were called for by the leadership of the Hadrami Haba (Uprising). 

Furthermore, the Northern forces in Al-Mahra constitute the most local challenges in the face of the endeavors to establish MDF and they spread in several military brigades including The 123rd Infantry Brigade, in the Hat District, and the 137th Mecha Brigade, in Al-Ghaydah district, which are commanded by Northern officers.

In a field report published by “South24 Center" in August, our correspondent monitored the Northern military spread even in civil locations such as gardens and parks as well as the Northern IDP camps amid fears of demographic changes. 

Belhaf believes that the “Arab Coalition”, particularly Saudi Arabia, has been related to a false picture drawn by some hostile forces in Al-Mahra that the formation of any Mahri forces will lead to a military clash which would pull Al-Mahra to conflict”. He added: “Nonetheless, we intend to form these forces”. 

Colonel Muslim Keddah said: “Currently, we hope that our brothers in the Arab Coalition countries, especially Saudi Arabia and the UAE, will provide us with material and logistic support to form MDF”. 

Activist Mohammed Al-Mahri stressed that the “Al-Huraizi Group '' in Al-Mahra, which has close ties with the Houthis, are among the biggest challenges also. He told “South24 Center": “This group doesn’t reject any Mahri forces but it adopts approaches against the Saudi-led Coalition”. 

The form and the doctrine of the forces 

Colonel Muslim Keddah said that the potential MDF will be “pure Mahri” pointing to the Shabwa Defense Forces, the Hadrami Elite Forces and other Southern formations.

He added: “We don’t know what are the motives and reasons which deprived Al-Mahra from military and security forces consisting of its people like other Southern governorates. We, as the Supreme Commission of Southern Army and Security, submitted a vision to STC to establish the MDF”. 

Keddah stressed that the “MDF will be similar to other Southern military formations and politically as part of STC. These forces will be part of the Southern forces when their formation is declared”.

The head of the STC in Al-Mahra, Mujahid Al Afrar, stressed that “MDF” will enjoy full support by STC as being "Southern forces”. He described them as “the option which represents the people of Al-Mahra and protects their territories, present and future”. 

As for the STC’s role in Al-Mahra regarding the formation of these forces, Belhaf said: “: Our role is always related to support all demands of people and to back the rights and needs of Al-Mahra and its people. We still ask for the expulsion of the Northern forces. However, in case of intransigence and rejection, we will forcefully drive them out”.

Abdullah Al-Shadli 

Journalist at South24 Center for News and Studies

South YemenMahra Defense ForcesAl-MahraHadramoutSTC