The Arab Spring came to Yemen in January 2011 and over the course of the year the Yemeni state slowly weakened as various tribal confederations and political movements turned against President Ali Abdullah Saleh. Saleh rejected various deals to transfer power until an assassination attempt in June forced Saleh to flee to Saudi Arabia. By February 2012, elections were held which inaugurated Vice President Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi as the new President. However, Yemen’s problems were only beginning.
The Yemeni state continued to disintegrate and the country is now convulsed by numerous conflicts and political movements. From the conflict between the Houthis and the internationally recognized government led by Hadi, to the conflict between Hadi and the Southern Transitional Council (STC), each province faces a unique political situation. Many local political actors continue to agitate for local autonomy, furthering the proliferation of armed political groups. For some, such as the STC, this extends to full scale independence; other political actors want a transition to a federal system within a united Yemen.
One of the most intriguing and complex cases is Mahra. Located on the eastern end of Yemen, Mahra lies at the intersection of Saudi and Omani influence, as well as along important trade routes. Isolated by vast deserts and mountains, it maintains a unique culture and language that shares more in common with Dhofar, western Oman, than with the rest of Yemen. However, its population is small, estimated at some 120,000. Until 1967 Mahra and the island of Socotra had existed for hundreds of years as an independent state.1 As the British withdrew from Yemen after 1967 this state was forcibly incorporated into the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen, a Marxist state aligned with the Soviet Union.2 Since the dissolution of the central government in Yemen in 2011-2012, local politics have reasserted themselves in these distinct regions.
In 2012 local sheikhs from the General Council of the People of Mahra and Socotra appointed Sultan Abdullah bin Essa al-Afar, son of the former Sultan of Mahra, as head of the council.3 In May 2018 Sultan al-Afar returned to Mahra from exile in Muscat, Oman. From the beginning Saudi Arabia tried to limit his reception but this was thoroughly rebuffed by local Mehri sheikhs and instead al-Afar was received by thousands of Mehris. Al-Afar’s speech calling for the Saudis to withdraw from Mahra galvanized anti-Saudi sentiment and led to a list of demands which included amongst other things; the empowerment of local authorities in matters of governance, security, trade, and the transfer of the al-Ghaydah airport to civilian control.4 As a traditional tribal leader, al-Afar is typically subdued in his rhetoric in order to preserve unity amongst the sheikhs in the General Council. On November 27th 2019 when al-Afar switched from calling for a federal system to calling for independence, he represented the opinion of the General Council.5
Another important local political leader is Ali Saleh al-Hurayzi, a former deputy governor of Mahra and an ally of Sultan al-Afar, who has emerged as one of the main opposition leaders to the Saudi presence in Mahra. Like al-Afar, al-Hurayzi receives support from Oman. In September 2019, al-Hurayzi established the Southern National Salvation Council (SNSC – also called Southern Salvation Council SSC) and urged the people of Mahra to resist Saudi forces.6 The level of support for the SNSC is unclear, while it includes groups across Southern Yemen, it differs from the STC in that it supports Yemeni unity. It is primarily shared cultural ties and an opposition to foreign forces in Mahra that unites al-Afar and al-Hurayzi.
Due to its geographic isolation, Mahra has so far been relatively untouched by the Yemeni Civil War. From August 2015 to late 2017, the UAE operated limited military forces in the region, and attempted to create local security forces under its direction.7 This has been a common policy which the UAE used to build influence in other regions in South Yemen and the Security Belt Forces, which make up the military wing of the STC, were created under similar programs.8 After securing cooperation from Governor Bin Kuddah, the UAE offered increased food assistance and financial aid as a way of gaining support within the province.9 In response, Oman increased its financial support to local tribal leaders, providing generators to resolve an electricity shortage, and mobilized the General Council to force the UAE to follow local tribal authorities. Instead the UAE withdrew from the region. Subsequent UAE efforts to involve their proxy forces, the STC, were resisted by both al-Afar’s General Council and al-Hurayzi’s SNCS.
However, in late 2017 Saudi Arabia began to replace the UAE and deploy military forces to Mahra. They swiftly occupied the capital, al-Ghaydah, the port of Nishtun, and border crossings at Shahin and Sarfait. By November Saudi influence over Hadi prevailed and Governor Bin Kuddah was replaced with Governor Rajeh Bakrit who is more amenable to Saudi interests.10 So far only a few violent skirmishes have occurred and casualties were minimal. The deployment by Saudi Arabia of Apache helicopters to al-Ghaydah in June 2019 indicates Saudi Arabia is digging in and prepared for further violence.11
The Hadi government remains resistant to Saudi advances in Mahra, stating on May 5th, 2019 "[we want] our allies in the coalition to march with us north, not east… not manage liberated areas". But Saudi support remains vital for Hadi’s government, therefore Hadi will be forced to reaffirm his support for Saudi Arabia’s position in Mahra. This could shift support in Mahra from the central government towards independence.
Mehris view the deployment of Saudi and UAE troops as a violation of their sovereignty and frequently protest the construction of Saudi military facilities. In particular, locals protest the usage of the only major airport in the region, al-Ghaydah airport, as a Saudi military base which is presently closed to civilian traffic.12 Likewise, in Nishtun, Saudi troops closed nearby waters to local fishermen, jeopardizing their livelihoods.13 Border restrictions implemented by Saudi Arabia also limited local trade networks across the border into Oman.14 So far local protests have not significantly constrained the growth of Saudi military installations in Mahra.
Finally, the arrival of hundreds of Salafists from Dammaj, Saada to Qishn has attracted intense protests by Mehris who worry that the Salafists will disrupt the traditional Mehri culture and their Sufi faith. Protests in Qishn were organized by local women and led by Fatima Saiid Sa’dan who demanded a halt in construction of the Salafist centers.15 After a meeting with Governor Bakrit, Sa’dan secured a commitment from the governor that no Salafist center would be built in Qishn. In certain cases, Saudi Arabia is willing to back down in the face of local protests, but when these protests threatened core Saudi interests, they are far less accommodating.
Efforts by the UAE and Saudi Arabia to bypass local authorities in Mahra have consistently resulted in pushback by local elites, represented by the General Council. While Saudi Arabia has promised to construct hospitals, power plants, wells, and universities in Mahra, this has brought few sheikhs to their side.16 Many Mehris see this infrastructure as designed to compromise their sovereignty. Since Oman has no military designs on the region, they will continue to be a more attractive patron for many local leaders.
Oman's Interest in Mahra
Oman’s interest in Mahra dates back to the 1970s during the Dhofar War. Partially due to shared linguistic, cultural, tribal connections, and partially due to support by the South Yemeni government, Mahra served as a safe haven for rebels fighting against Oman.17 Since the war, Oman has viewed Mahra as strategically important to Oman’s security and cultivated friendly ties with local leaders to project their influence.18 While Oman does not seek to stoke this conflict and consequently has rejected requests for heavier weapons by al-Hurayzi, they will continue to provide other support to local groups in order to maintain their position in the region.19
For Oman, there are several strategic issues in Mahra. First, it is a useful buffer which keeps the Yemeni Civil War from spilling over into Oman. Secondly, the presence of Salafists and Salafi centers in Mahra present an ideological and cultural threat not only to locals in Mahra, but also to Oman’s predominantly Ibadi populace.20
Saudi Interests in Mahra
Saudi Arabia has two primary strategic objectives in Mahra. The primary issue is to secure an alternate route to export oil that bypasses both the Bab Al-Mandab Strait and the Strait of Hormuz. Both straits present an enormous vulnerability to Saudi Arabia’s ability to export oil and recent attacks by Iran have only heightened those fears. Secondly preventing the smuggling of arms through Mahra to the Houthis is vital for Saudi Arabia’s war effort.
While Oman has denied allowing the smuggling of weapons through its borders to Mahra, this area has long been known for informal smuggling. An important part of the economy in Mahra relies on trade, both licit and illicit. In 2017, the UN Panel of Experts on Yemen determined that Iranian made ballistic missile components were smuggled through Mahra, either through the border with Oman or by sea to Nishtun.21 Despite Oman’s denials it is likely they are tacitly aware of this smuggling and their attempts to remain neutral implicitly offer support to Iran.
Saudi Arabia – Oman Relations
Oman’s traditional foreign policy has relied on a delicate balancing act between Saudi Arabia and Iran. In light of Iranian attacks against oil tankers and Saudi oil facilities in Abqaiq, maintaining neutrality is becoming increasingly difficult. Oman’s refusal to join Saudi Arabia’s embargo against Qatar and its refusal to support the coalition against the Houthis in Yemen aggravates Saudi Arabia.22 However, if Saudi Arabia responds forcefully to Al-Afar, it will further alienate the people of Mahra and risk violently escalating the current protests. Any escalation in the conflict risks forcing Oman to increase its support for local protest movements in Mahra.
The Impact of Oil
Currently Saudi Arabia is beginning construction on an oil export terminal in Nishtun and plans to connect it with an oil pipeline to Al Kharkhir, Saudi Arabia. Initially, the port of Nishtun would have an export capacity of 2,000 tons of oil per day, or some 15,000 barrels per day, and an import capacity of 200 tons of commercial freight per day.23 Previous plans indicate that Saudi Arabia plans for the pipeline to Nishtun to have a capacity of 500,000 barrels per day, so further expansion of port infrastructure in Nishtun is likely once this pipeline infrastructure is in place.24 Since Saudi Arabia continues to invest significant military forces in the region, it is clear that they are planning to remain in the region for the long term.
Saudi Arabia’s oil production fell by half, or some 5.7 million barrels of oil per day, after the Abqaiq attacks in September 2019.25 Saudi oil exports eventually recovered, but these attacks give added impetus for Saudi Arabia to find alternative ways of exporting their oil. The pipeline to Nishtun will still be vulnerable to drone or missile attacks by the Houthis, as well as by local rebels, so it will reduce but not eliminate the risk from transporting oil through the Strait of Hormuz. The primary impact will not be on the oil market, but on the local people living in Mahra who will continue to be opposed to what they see as an infringement on their sovereignty.
Calls for independence in Mahra are not universally supported, but may become more popular over time. There is an ongoing debate, with some groups, such as those led by al-Hurayzi calling for a united Yemeni state, while other sheikhs in the General Council call for a federal system in Yemen. What unites the protest movements in Mahra is opposition to the foreign military presence in the region. This military presence will not end so long as Saudi Arabia sees Mahra as strategically important. If Mehri demands go unaddressed it is possible that an initially peaceful protest movement may turn to violence. Irrespective of external actors’ attempts to control the politics of Mahra, the local people will continue to advocate for their own interests and maintain their own distinctive identity.
1 Yahya al-Sewari, "Yemen's Al-Mahra: From Isolation to the Eye of a Geopolitical Storm", Edited by Ryan Bailey, Sana'a Center For Strategic Studies, July 5, 2019, link.
3 al-Sewari, "Yemen's Al-Mahra: From Isolation to the Eye of a Geopolitical Storm".
5 Sebastian Castelier, "East Yemen Former Ruling Dynasty Calls to Revive Mahra Sultanate", Al-Monitor, November 27, 2019, link.
6 "New Resistance Movement Announced in South Yemen", Middle East Monitor, September 4, 2019, link.
7 al-Sewari, "Yemen's Al-Mahra: From Isolation to the Eye of a Geopolitical Storm".
8 Brian M. Perkins, "Saudi Arabia and the UAE in Al-Mahra: Securing Interests, Disrupting Local Order, and Shaping a Southern Military", Jamestown, March 1, 2019, link.
9 al-Sewari, "Yemen's Al-Mahra: From Isolation to the Eye of a Geopolitical Storm".
11 Sigurd Neubauer, "Oman's Balancing Act in Regional Politics May Not Last", The National Interest, The Center for the National Interest, May 5, 2019, link.
12 al-Sewari, "Yemen's Al-Mahra: From Isolation to the Eye of a Geopolitical Storm".
13 Bel Trew, "The Gulf's Latest Proxy War Has Just Started in East Yemen", The Independent, Independent Digital News and Media, November 28, 2019, link.
14 Neubauer, "Oman's Balancing Act in Regional Politics May Not Last".
15 al-Sewari, "Yemen's Al-Mahra: From Isolation to the Eye of a Geopolitical Storm".
17 Alexander Schade, "Counterinsurgency Strategy in the Dhofar Rebellion", Small Wars Journal, 2017, link.
18 Sebastian Castelier, "Oman's Humanitarian Aid to Yemen Also Pragmatic", Al-Monitor, January 10, 2020, link.
20 Raiman al-Hamdani and Helen Lackner, "War and Pieces: Political Divides in Southern Yemen", European Council on Foreign Relations, January 22, 2020, link.
21 Michelle Nichols, "Parts of Missiles Fired at Saudi Arabia Came from Iran: U.N. Chief", Reuters, June 14, 2018, link.
22 Annelle Sheline, "Oman's Smooth Transition Doesn't Mean Its Neighbors Won't Stir Up Trouble", Foreign Policy, January 23, 2020, link.
23 "Design and Specifications for Improving Fishery Port Infrastructure in Al-Hodeida, Al-Khawbah and Nishtun", Egis in Middle East, April 17, 2018, link.
24 "Nishtun: From Yemeni Commercial Port to Military Barracks for Saudi Arabia (A Field Investigation from Inside the Port," Almawqea Post, April 12, 2019, link.
25 Rania El-Gamal, "Saudi Aramco Restored Oil Output to Pre-Attack Level: Trading Unit Chief", Reuters, September 30, 2019, link.