An aerial view of the Safer oil production facilities in Marib governorate // Photo: SEPOC gallery
Commentary by Ammar Al Aulaqi
The internationally recognized Yemeni government’s continued relevance on the ground, even after losing its interim capital of Aden last year, is largely due to its hold on the country’s oil and gas producing regions. These form what could be called the government’s triangle of power, drawn between the cities of Marib, Ataq and Sayoun in the governorates of Marib, Shabwa and Hadramawt, respectively, which account for all of Yemen’s oil and natural gas production. Control of Yemen’s oil and gas fields represents an immense strategic resource, both for their current revenues and future potential as hydrocarbon exports continue to recover.
Marib, Shabwa and Hadramawt, while rich in natural resources are also relatively sparsely populated, while the inverse dynamic is at play in areas held by the Yemeni government’s main rivals in the ongoing conflict: The armed Houthi movement and the Southern Transitional Council (STC) control the country’s most densely populated areas, which are also relatively devoid of easily exploitable natural resources. It should come as no surprise, then, the government has found its grip on these areas increasingly challenged by its rivals. Indeed, control of the Marib-Ataq-Sayoun oil-producing triangle not only has consequences for the progression of the current conflict, but could provide crucial leverage for warring parties attempting to shape their visions for a post-war Yemen.
In January 2020, the Houthi movement launched an offensive and regained control of the strategic Nehm area. Located in Sana’a governorate, it is the meeting point of the Yemeni northern highlands and the desert of Marib governorate to the east. Several weeks later, the Houthi movement carried out another offensive further to the north in Al-Jawf governorate, capturing the governorate capital of Al-Hazm on February 29. These bold offensives represented a change in Houthi strategy from the previous five years of conflict, switching from a mainly defensive posture to go on the attack. By capturing Nehm and Al-Jawf, the Houthi forces positioned themselves to lay siege to Marib city and potentially seize the governorate’s oil and gas fields.
Should Marib city fall into the hands of the Houthis it would also put government-held Shabwa governorate and its oil fields in Bayhan and Uqlah under serious threat. This is why government brigades based in Shabwa, namely the Bayhan military axis, have been heavily involved in the battles to the west in Qaniah and Al-Abdiah fronts along the border between Marib and Houthi-held Al-Bayda governorate. While battles have been ongoing in this area since 2018, they have increased in frequency and intensity since April, when government troops advanced into Al-Bayda. It was a way of taking the battle to Al-Bayda before it came to Shabwa. By June, however, the Houthi movement was able to stem the government advance and a nascent tribal uprising, and push pro-government forces back into southern Marib.
Shabwa also came under threat from the STC following the breakdown in relations between the separatist group and the Yemeni government. After ejecting the government from the interim capital of Aden in August 2019, the STC did not hide its intentions to move on southern Yemen’s oil-producing regions. In a statement, STC head Aiderous al-Zubaidi identified oil-rich Bayhan in Shabwa and Sayoun in Hadramawt as areas that needed to be “liberated.” Forces aligned with the STC made a hasty advance toward Shabwa’s Ataq in the wake of the fall of Aden, but the offensive backfired, with the government counterattacking and expelling all STC-backed forces, including the Emirati-backed Shabwa Elite forces, from the governorate. This blow prevented the STC from securing Shabwa and moving on Hadramawt, which would have given the group and its Emirati backers de facto control of most of southern Yemen.
The Houthis and the STC have multiple motivations for wanting a piece of the government’s triangle of power. Among their chief concerns is that both groups control heavily populated regions of Yemen that lack substantial local revenue bases to support them. The majority of the country’s population and many of its poorest regions are in Houthi-held territory. The STC, meanwhile, controls the South’s densely populated governorates: Aden, Lahj and Al-Dhalea. The city of Aden in particular has long been a black hole when it comes to government spending, with public services a heavy financial burden on any ruling authority. These realities in Houthi- and STC-controlled territories differ greatly from the context in the Marib-Ataq-Sayoun triangle, which encompasses vast, sparsely populated areas rich in potential revenue from oil and gas.
The leadership of both the Houthis and the STC also see securing a piece of this triangle as crucial to achieving their respective greater ambitions, as well as a way of dealing the Yemeni government, a rival of both, a potentially decisive defeat. Along with the financial windfall of securing natural resource revenue, the Houthis are seeking to control all of pre-unification North Yemen to fulfill their grand political project, meaning Marib must come into the Houthi fold. For the STC’s vision of an independent southern state, it is essential that they control all of pre-unification South Yemen. Being cornered in Aden and its surroundings both undermines the economic viability of this project and denies the STC the legitimacy of being a truly pan-Southern actor.
Even after being expelled from its interim capital, Aden, the Yemeni government was still a player on the ground due to its control of the Marib-Ataq-Sayoun triangle. The government and its Saudi supporters are aware that losing any corner of this triangle would risk stripping Yemen’s ‘legitimate’ government of meaningful significance in the country, and they have thus fought with renewed fervor to hold these positions. After Houthi forces overran the government’s positions in Nehm and Al-Jawf, President Abdo Rabbu Mansour Hadi’s government and the Saudi-led coalition shifted additional resources to defend Marib city. This led to a reshuffle in military command zones as well as the appointment of General Sagheer Bin Aziz, who is trusted by the Saudis, to lead all joint forces in Marib. Marib’s tribes, most importantly the Abidah and Murad, were also called into action to defend the governorate. These two tribes were also involved in the fierce defense of Marib city against a major Houthi offensive in 2015.
In Shabwa, the defeat of the 8,000 strong pro-STC Shabwani Elite forces reestablished the government’s almost full control of the governorate. Prior to the August 2019 fighting, control of Shabwa was divided between pro-Hadi forces and the UAE-backed Shabwani Elite. From Sayoun, the Hadi government fully controls Wadi Hadramawt and has an untapped reserve of manpower in the form of the First Military Region.
The recent battles in Shoqra, Abyan, between government and STC-aligned forces are also linked to the oil-producing triangle. Here, forces from the government-allied Ataq military axis and Shabwa special forces had advanced into Abyan, securing a buffer zone to protect the triangle behind them. For the Yemeni government, control of these oil-producing regions provides legitimacy on the ground and revenues to pay salaries and sustain loyalties. Whether against the Houthi movement or the STC, the Hadi government knows the Marib-Ataq-Sayoun triangle must be defended at all costs.
This commentary appeared in Hostage on the Red Sea – The Yemen Review Summer Edition, July-August 2020
Ammar Al Aulaqi is a Yemeni engineer and public official. He is also a political and economic analyst, and served as a member of the advisory team to the Prime Minister in the Jeddah talks between the Yemeni government and the Southern Transitional Council in 2019. Al Aulaqi received a degree in environmental engineering from Dalhousie University in Canada and worked in the oil and gas industry before entering the public sector. He has contributed to many civil society initiatives in his native Shabwa governorate and throughout Yemen. He tweets @ammar82.