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The Road to Mokha

Arriving in Aden in early April, a week before the holy month of Ramadan began, the first thing that struck me was the general feeling of worry. A second wave of coronavirus was gripping the city, adding to fears related to security, internal conflict, the economic situation and the deterioration of public services. These challenges have increased public pressure on the Yemeni government; in mid-March, protesters stormed Maashiq Palace, the government’s headquarters in the interim capital. After the new power sharing cabinet was formed in December under the Saudi-brokered Riyadh Agreement, Saudi Arabia had promised to provide financial support to the government, but save for a US$422 million fuel grant for power stations announced on April 1, broader assistance has failed to materialize.

My destination during this trip was the port city of Mokha on Yemen’s west coast. The area has emerged as a key political and military center in Yemen, serving as the headquarters of the Joint Forces, an umbrella bringing together the Giants’ Brigades, Guards of the Republic and the Tihama Resistance that was established with Emirati support in 2018 during the offensive to liberate the Red Sea Coast from Houthi forces. It also has strategic importance for international stakeholders focused on potential threats posed to the Red Sea and international shipping emanating from the conflict in Yemen.

The Red Sea Coast is a diverse terrain with a mountain range running parallel to the flat plains along the shoreline. It includes the Bab al-Mandeb Strait, a chokepoint between the Arabian Peninsula and the Horn of Africa through which maritime traffic moving between the Indian Ocean and the Mediterranean Sea, via the Red Sea and the Suez Canal, must travel. Yemen’s Red Sea Coast has flourished for decades as a smuggling paradise. Goods make their way in both directions between Yemen and the Horn of Africa, including alcohol, hashish, cigarettes, motorbikes, fireworks as well as weapons and ammunition. It is also one of the main routes used to smuggle African migrants into Yemen, who, hoping to reach wealthier Gulf countries, must navigate difficult roads, frontlines and threats from war to reach the north and the border with Saudi Arabia. Often, many migrants are left stranded in miserable conditions along the coast.

The coastal road connecting Aden and Mokha has emerged as a vital artery since pro-government groups liberated the area from Houthi forces in 2018. A mix of armed groups organized under the banner of the Joint Forces now control various stretches of the road. They include the Giants’ Brigades – composed mostly of Salafist and tribal fighters, many of whom hail from southern governorates, including a large number from the local Al-Sobaiha tribes in Lahj governorate – led by Salafist commander Abu Zaraa al-Mahramy; and the National Resistance forces– composed mostly of former soldiers in the Yemeni army, many of whom hail from governorates in central and northern Yemen – led by Brigadier General Tareq Saleh, the nephew of former president Ali Abdullah Saleh.

Traveling at night, trucks loaded with goods headed way toward Mokha, their bright headlights illuminated the pitch dark road of eroded asphalt and patches of sand dunes. Dimmer lights were also visible on side roads often employed by smugglers. Approaching Mokha, these lights became dimmer and eventually faded into the darkness of the mountains.

A Marginalized Society

The Tihama plain, which runs the length of Yemen’s Red Sea Coast, has generally been politically marginalized since the 1960s, with little real local participation in decision making beyond the symbolic representation of a few sheikhs in the central authority in Sana’a. It is not clear to what extent the military powers that solidified control of Tihama since pushing back the Houthis have managed to include the local community in the political and economic development of the area.

While there are no official estimates of the population of Mokha, it is clear that the number of inhabitants has greatly increased since 2018 when the city, and the relatively smaller city of Al-Khoukha, became the focal point of military operations against Houthi forces on the west coast. Along with the movement of money, fighters and citizens affiliated with the Joint Forces to the area, the city has witnessed a mini-boom in commercial activity and construction as businesses in Taiz governorate seek to benefit from Mohkha’s relative prosperity.

Two directors for Mokha district have been appointed by the internationally recognized government since 2018, with neither hailing from the district or the west coast. A number of groups established within the Joint Forces do include members from Tihama, and another military brigade, the 1st Tihama Resistance, led by Ahmed al-Kawkabani, presents itself as a competitor to the National Resistance and the Giants Brigades forces. Meanwhile, one of the most prominent social figures in Yemen’s southern Red Sea Coast is Zaid al-Kharj, a tribal sheikh, merchant and one of the region’s most prominent smugglers. Other local components such as the tribes have had mixed success in reaching out to the powers on the ground to advocate for their interests, with some joining the National Resistance and others having no relations with Tareq Saleh’s forces.

Further north, locals from Houthi-controlled Raymah governorate and Wusab district in Dhamar, which neighbor Tihama and share social and economic ties with the west coast, are observing developments from afar. Prominent local figures in these areas have major interests in Tihama, and it is likely that they will eventually take action seeking to guarantee their presence and influence along the coast, despite currently being separated across frontlines.

The Tense Stalemate Along the Coast

The Stockholm Agreement, the UN-brokered agreement signed in December 2018 between the internationally recognized government and Houthi forces, brought major fighting along the Red Sea Coast to a halt. Both parties settled across from each other on frontlines in Hudaydah city and in other parts of Hudaydah and Taiz governorates. However, tensions have continued, with some frontlines witness on and off clashes as Houthi forces in particular seek to exploit their positions in Hudaydah city – which they secured based on the Stockholm Agreement – and launch attacks to test their rivals’ defenses, hoping to regain territory lost during the government’s 2018 offensive. The districts of Al-Tuhayta and Al-Durayhimi and the city of Hays, all in Hudaydah governorate, have witnessed regular violent clashes despite the ostensible halt in hostilities. The Redeployment Coordination Committee, the UN body tasked with overseeing the Hudaydah cease-fire and redeployments from the city, has been generally ineffective since the implementation of the Stockholm Agreement. In particular, it has been weak in confronting Houthi violations, likely owing to the fact that the RCC is headquartered in the Houthi-held part of Hudaydah city, which allows the group to control the movement of RCC members and how they interact with local developments.

Events in pro-government areas inland have also influenced dynamics along the Red Sea Coast. Islah has cemented its influence around Taiz city following the killing of Adnan al-Hammadi, commander of the 35th Armored Brigade, which was backed by the United Arab Emirates and was perceived as close to the Socialist and Nasserist parties, in December 2020. Since then, forces aligned with Islah have moved into the strategically significant Al-Hujariah area south of Taiz city and expanded their influence west toward the Bab al-Mandeb and Mokha. As a case in point, the pro-Islah Tawr al-Baha military axis, established in late 2020, now controls key coastal areas of Lahj governorate southeast of the Bab al-Mandeb Strait. Its presence is being dealt with as a fait accompli, even though the Ministry of Defense has not issued an official decision recognizing the axis’ establishment.

Meanwhile, the consequences of the raging battle in Marib will be felt across the rest of Yemen, including on the Red Sea Coast. A Houthi victory in Marib could see it later turn additional attention and resources to areas held by the Joint Forces. The situation in the south is also being monitored closely by groups in Mokha; any major changes in Aden would inevitably impact the situation there as well. The Emirati base in Assab, Eritrea, across the Red Sea, had provided logistical support to UAE-backed forces on Yemen’s west coast and helped facilitate the movement of military leaders. Emirati forces began withdrawing from Yemen in 2019, and dismantled the Assab base in February 2021, meaning Aden currently represents the main means for Mokha to access the outside world. Thus, the Yemeni government’s interim capital has only grown in strategic importance for the west coast with the Emirati withdrawal.

A New Political Power Emerges

On March 24, the National Resistance forces announced the establishment of the Political Bureau. Headed by Tareq Saleh, details about the bureau and its membership are scarce. However, political figures present during the announcement included several well-known individuals from the General People’s Congress (GPC) party, the former ruling party under Ali Abdullah Saleh. The GPC suffered from destructive divisions since the war erupted in Yemen, and fractured further after the former president was killed during clashes with his Houthi allies in December 2017.

The announcement of the Political Bureau reflects the growing political ambitions of the National Resistance forces which, as part of the Joint Forces, control one of the most sensitive and significant areas of Yemen for the international community. The National Resistance forces were established in 2018 with Emirati support to spearhead the offensive to liberate the Red Sea Coast from Houthi control. After pushing Houthi forces north from the Bab al-Mandeb all the way to the outskirts of Hudaydah city, the battle for the city was halted following international intervention and the signing of the Stockholm Agreement. In hindsight, this decision completely altered the course of the war in Yemen and the balances of power on the ground. While Houthi forces regrouped and later diverted attention to Marib, the size and influence of the National Resistance along the Red Sea continued to increase. The formation of the Political Bureau thus came amid the realization that the National Resistance needed a platform to express itself politically and guarantee representation in the government camp in line with its military influence on the ground. This became all the more urgent as international diplomatic efforts have pushed in recent months for a cease-fire and negotiations among the warring parties to revive the peace process in Yemen.

The formation of the Political Bureau has raised concern among some parties related to the potential resumption of the Saleh family’s role in Yemeni politics. The influence of the Saleh family had been on the wane since former president Saleh’s killing, with Saleh’s son Ahmad, who is based in the UAE, generally unable to address or mend the party’s internal divisions. With Tareq Saleh leading the Political Bureau, it has an opening to benefit from the symbolic political capital of the former ruling party and its former wide base of support.

The Political Bureau is not only competing with the remnants of the GPC on the political scene. It is a rival for the Houthi movement, given National Resistance’s mostly northern character. Among the pro-government camp, Islah in particular warily views the National Resistance, given its alignment with the UAE amid Abu Dhabi’s efforts to push back against political Islamist groups across the region, particularly the Muslim Brotherhood and its various local affiliates, including Islah. This tension can be also seen as an extension of a rivalry that surfaced during the 2011 Uprising, as Islah sought to project itself as the heir to Saleh’s GPC-led regime. Meanwhile, the fact that the Southern Transitional Council (STC) and the National Resistance are both backed by the UAE prevents the eruption of public rivalries between them. However, the STC is certainly not comfortable with the idea of a northern military power close to its area of influence, let alone one that is viewed as an extension of the Saleh family, which is loathed by many pro-secession elements in southern Yemen.

The Political Bureau stands to benefit from regional and international fears regarding the weakness of non-religious political parties in Yemen. With efforts to unify the GPC having failed, the newly-established group could position itself as the former ruling party’s natural heir. Regional powers such as the UAE and Egypt also see the benefit of a political power that can compete with Islah and prevent the expansion of its influence from central Taiz to the Red Sea Coast and Bab al-Mandeb. This would deny Turkey and Qatar, the main regional backers of Islah, a foothold in an area deemed vital for Egyptian and Emirati national security.

Tareq Saleh’s ability to translate the military influence of the National Resistance into actual political power remains unclear. Without a clear and specific political vision and an organizational structure that continues to evolve to reflect the realities of the conflict, the influence of the Political Bureau will likely quickly erode regardless of its military strength. As many Yemenis monitor the new group’s evolution, the main question is whether the Political Bureau will grow stronger and seek to participate in political alliances with other parties with which it shares mutual goals.

Controlling certain areas along the Red Sea Coast – despite its political and security significance – is certainly not the ceiling of ambitions for the National Resistance forces. Solidifying its influence along the west coast against challenges from various rivals, most notably Islah, is a necessary precursor to any attempt to expand its political project to other areas of Yemen. Bridging the gap of trust with other powers in the government camp is another obstacle that it must overcome if the National Resistance seeks to coordinate with other groups militarily and politically. While much international and domestic attention is still rightly focused on the ongoing battle for Marib, developments on the west coast should not be ignored, given their ability to influence politics across the country.