Long-running tensions in Shabwa devolved into heavy fighting in the governorate capital Ataq on August 8, pitting Islah-affiliated security forces against UAE-backed units. Back-and-forth fighting over three days ended on August 10 with the Giants Brigades and Shabwa Defense forces, supported by UAE drone strikes, securing control of the city and Islah-affiliated commanders fleeing the governorate.
The battle in Shabwa and its ramifications represent the most complex challenge the government’s Presidential Leadership Council (PLC) has faced since its establishment four months ago. This was not the first round of hostilities in the strategic governorate – a battle between Islah and Southern Transitional Council (STC)-affiliated forces in August 2019 was resolved in favor of the former. However, the fresh infighting was the first since the shake-up at the top of the internationally recognized government that saw President Abdo Rabbu Mansour Hadi removed during the Riyadh consultations in April and replaced with the PLC power-sharing framework.
Defeat in Shabwa has left Islah particularly vulnerable to further moves against it that would curtail its political and military influence. The growing division between Islah and other parties threatens to fracture the government and PLC politically and could lead to further infighting, which would negatively impact its ability to maintain a united front against the armed Houthi movement, establish security and economic stability in areas it controls, and develop a unified position ahead of any formal peace talks. To avoid such a scenario, all parties on the government side must accept to work within the new political reality and diffuse tensions around key areas of disagreement in a public and transparent manner.
Islah: From Ruling Party to Hounded Outsiders
The Shabwa fighting represents the culmination of a process intended to remove the Islah party from its sphere of influence in Shabwa, where it previously monopolized power. This began with the removal of the Islah-affiliated governor, Mohammed bin Adio, in December 2021 and the appointment of the current governor, Awadh bin al-Wazir al-Awlaki, as an Emirati precondition to moving Giants Brigades forces into Shabwa and liberating three northwestern districts held by Houthis forces. However, Islah loyalists remained in positions of power, notably as commanders of the Special Security forces, the Shabwa police and the 21st Mechanized Brigade. It was these units that engaged in the recent fighting against the Shabwa Defense forces and the Giants Brigades, which are both backed by the UAE, a member of the coalition, but have distinct local loyalties. The Shabwa Defense forces are loyal to the STC, led by PLC member Aiderous al-Zubaidi, while the Giants Brigades follow another PLC member, Salafi military commander Abdelrahman Abou Zaraa al-Muharrami.
This battle dramatically changes the power dynamics nationally, particularly for Islah, the largest political party in Yemen. The party rightly understands that the rise of its opponents, such as the STC, Tareq Saleh and the Giants Brigades, to prominent positions of power within the PLC represents a recognition of their legitimacy and their right to take part in the administration of the country. Islah also recognizes that its opponents’ rise inevitably undermines its influence and share of power, and deprives it of the competitive advantage it enjoyed in the past: Islah is no longer the main “legitimate” party dominating decision-making processes of the internationally recognized government.
After 2011, and more so since 2015, Islah implicitly acted as the ruling party in Yemen. This was also adopted in public opinion, despite the party’s constant denials of this reality, and the amplification of its hegemony and demonization by its opponents. With its political and organizational cohesion, Islah was able to impose a large part of its political agenda, and remarkably, cast its opponents as opponents of the state. This was primarily due to the party’s alliance with former President Hadi and Vice President Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar. Islah-affiliated figures and opportunistic allies were also appointed at different levels within the state institutions, especially sovereign ministries, in addition to the local level in different governorates, granting it a wide network of influence.
Now, Islah fears being rooted out both politically and militarily in its remaining areas of influence. Shabwa is on the southern border of Marib, the most important Islah center in Yemen. Another major implication of the fall of Shabwa is the threat to Islah’s interests in northern Hadramawt and the 1st Military Region command based in Seyoun, which is loyal to Islah and former vice president Ali Mohsen. The recent success of the STC and UAE in Shabwa could encourage them to change the situation in Wadi Hadramawt, which has been a key long-standing demand of the UAE and its local allies. Should this take place, Islah could find itself surrounded in Marib – by UAE-backed opponents to the east and south, and by the Houthis to the north and west. This represents an existential threat.
Reversing its Losses
To avoid such a scenario, the question now is what can Islah do to make up for its loss of Shabwa and avoid further gains by rivals at its expense? The new political trend in Yemen seems to be unfriendly to Islah, to say the least.
Still, there are several factors still working in Islah’s favor. It maintains relative popularity across the country, has strong organizational cohesion and is a central part of the anti-Houthi camp, without which the war against the Houthis cannot be resolved. Its networks in state institutions at the national, governorate and local levels give it influence and avenues for escalation against rivals. Since its establishment in 1990, Islah has also enjoyed a special relationship with Saudi Arabia, one that has deepened since the start of the war against the Houthis, despite Riyadh’s frustration with Islah from time to time. Finally, Islah has an electronic army and media specialists to be reckoned with, Yemeni and non- Yemeni and inside and outside of Yemen, which gives it major influence on the information battlefield.
Using the tools at its disposal, Islah is currently attempting to redress the outcome of the Shabwa battle by increasing the political pressure on the PLC and its chairman, Rashad Al-Alimi. The stated aim of this unprecedented pressure campaign is the replacement of Shabwa governor Awadh bin al-Wazir al-Awlaki and official condemnation of the military action against its loyalist forces, which it considers to be the targeting of the Yemeni state by non-state militias. However, Islah’s opponents have pressure points of their own and could push back by escalating against the party politically or militarily in Marib, Wadi Hadramawt or Taiz. In addition, many recent decisions by PLC chairman Al-Alimi related to major government institutions have gone against Islah’s interests, demonstrating that the party has already lost leverage at the highest levels of the Yemeni state at the expense of rivals like the STC.
The Coalition’s Considerations
The possibility of Islah reaping any gains from its strategy of maximum political pressure would also require Saudi Arabia and the UAE to intervene in the domestic Yemeni political fray and provide guarantees for the party moving forward. This is the only way out of its current dilemma, allowing Islah to climb down from its escalatory rhetoric and save face. So far, however, it is not clear to what extent this strategy can influence Riyadh and Abu Dhabi.
The UAE has long viewed Islah as a branch of the Muslim Brotherhood, the political Islamist group Abu Dhabi has opposed across the Middle East, so it is unlikely that they would unilaterally concede anything while the group appears on the back foot. Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia will not accept the failure of the PLC – which it personally engineered and sponsored the establishment of – and it is not certain whether the new generation of Saudi rulers will back the party to the same length as the previous generation.
So far, Saudi Arabia has not articulated a clear position on the crisis. This silence can be understood in two ways. In one view, Saudi Arabia agrees with what took place and wants to give developments time to play out before eventually intervening to mitigate negative effects without changing the overall consequences; this is the most plausible explanation. Another possibility is that the recent Shabwa events and ensuing political fallout have taken Saudi Arabia by surprise, and it has not yet been able to formulate a clear plan and position to deal with the consequences.
Overall, the position eventually taken by Saudi Arabia will be the most consequential, as it has enough leverage to adjust outcomes by reaching understandings among the various stakeholders, including the UAE. As a result, Islah is working hard behind the scenes to push Saudi Arabia to adopt a position aligned with its own. However, efforts here could be hampered by the fact that its rivalry this time is not only with the STC, as was the case in 2019, but also with the PLC chairman. Al-Alimi is considered to be Saudi Arabia’s key political and security ally in Yemen, one major factor behind his elevation to the post. Thus, his views are taken seriously by Riyadh, which is invested in his future success. It is therefore unlikely that Saudi Arabia would step in and influence events in favor of Islah and to the detriment of Al-Alimi.
The UAE, on the other hand, is the big winner at this stage. Its allies lost the first battle for the governorate, which was a severe blow to its efforts to entrench influence across southern Yemen and curtail the influence of Islah. However, victory in this second round has served to enhance the clout of UAE-backed groups and affirms major Emirati influence in this new political era following the inclusion of its allies in the PLC. It remains unclear whether the UAE will push for further escalation against the remaining areas of Islah influence in the south, especially in Wadi Hadramawt, or move to deescalate tensions that risk causing a major rift in the PLC, which would certainly benefit the Houthis.
Reconciliation or Further Conflict?
On the whole, Islah is an unenviable situation. It has lost key political allies, and accumulated adversaries that delight at its fall and seek further revenge. Under such hostile conditions, Islah could become a dangerous wildcard that could deteriorate an already fragile political and military situation in Yemen.
Therefore, Islah must not be pushed into a corner. There should be open political debates to diffuse tensions surrounding the key areas of disagreement between Islah and other players. Islah’s concerns must be understood and taken seriously by the PLC. But for those steps to happen, Islah must also understand that times have changed, and it must get used to the idea of partnership with both allies and opponents.
This analysis is part of a series of publications produced by the Sana’a Center and funded by the government of the Kingdom of The Netherlands. The series explores issues within economic, political and environmental themes, aiming to inform discussion and policymaking related to Yemen that foster sustainable peace. Views expressed within should not be construed as representing the Sana’a Center or the Dutch government.