The March on Al-Mahra

The Sana’a Center Editorial

The reasons the Yemen War began are fundamentally different from why it continues today. All parties to the war – local, regional, and international – have exploited the chaos and collapse of the state to pursue their own vested interests. Among these: powerful actors in the armed Houthi movement have accrued vast sums of wealth through aid diversion and exploiting their control over imports into northern areas, particularly fuel. The Islah Party, which opposes the Houthis, has sought to establish fiefdoms of power in Taiz City and Marib governorate. Southern separatist groups are seeking to fracture the country in two and reestablish an independent South Yemen; in this pursuit they are backed politically, financially and militarily by the United Arab Emirates, which has regularly undermined the internationally recognized Yemeni government even while fighting on its behalf. Meanwhile, Iran has been able to heavily antagonize its arch-nemesis, Saudi Arabia, through providing the armed Houthi movement with political and financial support and military expertise, such as sophisticated drones and weapons capacities.

Al-Mahra, Yemen’s most easterly and isolated governorate along the Omani border, has become a new epicenter for vested geopolitical interests, as recently published Sana’a Center research has shown.[1] Being many hundreds of kilometers from the nearest frontline, the governorate has been under no threat from Houthi offensives during the ongoing conflict. Despite this, Saudi attack helicopters have carried out airstrikes against local tribal checkpoint this year. Since 2017, Saudi forces have taken control of and converted the governorate’s main airport in the capital, Al-Ghaydah, into a military complex, seized control over ports and border crossings, established almost two dozen military bases, and recruited both locals and Yemenis from other governorates into paramilitary and proxy-security forces. The Saudi military expansion in Al-Mahra has spurred a growing popular opposition movement with frequent local protests. These have at times been violently broken up and devolved into gunfire. Protest leaders, civil society activists and journalists have also been threatened and arrested. 

Riyadh originally justified its military push into Al-Mahra as necessary to counter arms smuggling through the governorate to Houthi forces farther west, and since then the Saudi presence has taken on the tone of counterterrorism. Indeed, Saudi troops and their proxies seem to be doing a degree of both – as evidenced by Saudi special forces arresting the leader of the so-called Islamic State group, or Daesh, in Al-Ghaydah in June this year. However, the intensity of the Saudi effort to exert security and military control in Al-Mahra seems to suggest broader ambitions in the governorate. 

Neighboring Oman, which has kept a relatively neutral image thus far in the wider Yemen conflict, has also been trying to safeguard its interests in Al-Mahra. Oman has long viewed Al-Mahra as key to its security and opposes Riyadh’s encroachment in what Muscat considers its historical sphere of influence. Omani officials are politically and financially supporting the Mahri protest movement, and at times have turned a blind eye to smuggling across the border. Muscat plays host to prominent figures who are publicly critical of the Saudi and Emirati-led military coalition intervening in Yemen, while also building a web of influence beyond Mahra, funding actors in other southern governorates. Doha also appears to have its hands in Al-Mahra, sponsoring and providing a media platform for anti-coalition figures. Notably, a Qatari intelligence officer was arrested at a border crossing with Oman in May 2018. Emirati attempts to assert influence in the governorate early in the Yemen War were rebuffed by local opposition, following which Abu Dhabi’s attention shifted to establishing military dominance on the island of Socotra, which has strong historical and cultural ties to Al-Mahra. 

The internationally recognized Yemeni government – though ostensibly backed in its fight against the Houthis by the Saudi and Emirati-led military coalition – has often been at odds with the UAE and protested the Emirati moves in Socotra all the way to the United Nations Security Council (UNSC). The Yemeni government, which is largely based in Riyadh and is almost completely beholden to Saudi Arabia for its continued existence, even felt compelled recently to break its silence on the Saudi military expansion Al-Mahra: “The Yemeni government wanted our allies in the coalition to march with us north, not east,” Yemeni Interior Minister Ahmed al-Misri said in May this year.

The geopolitical power struggle underway in Al-Mahra is reckless, in that it is destabilizing one of the few places in Yemen that has been untouched by the primary conflict. UNSC Resolution 2216 of April 2015 condemned the Houthi seizure of Sana’a, called for the Yemeni government’s reinstatement to power, and noted that the government had requested Gulf countries assist in this regard. The Saudi and Emirati-led coalition have since used the document as legal legitimacy for military intervention in Yemen. Prolonged foreign military intervention inevitably brings about shifts in the interests, agendas, allies and actions of the interveners. However, in the case of Yemen, coalition member states have drifted far outside the word and spirit of Resolution 2216, meaning it is highly likely their pursuits of political and military control far from the frontlines are illegal under international law.

This editorial appeared in An Interim Capital of Carnage — The Yemen Review, July 2019

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Endnote

  1. Yahya al-Sewari, “Yemen’s Al-Mahra: From Isolation to the Eye of a Geopolitical Storm,” Sana’a Center for Strategic Studies, July 5, 2019, http://sanaacenter.org/publications/analysis/7606
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