Yemen’s Region of Al-Mahra at the intersection of Interests and Competitions
Al-Mahra province, in the eastern part of Yemen, has become a regional battleground for influence between the different actors in Yemen. Saudi Arabia has stepped up its military, civil, political and social efforts to consolidate its power in the eastern province. Al-Mahra, the eastern gateway to Yemen, is an exception in Oman’s policy, having historical relations with the local authorities in the province. Muscat is feeling for the first time a real competition to its influence in Al-Mahra as the two Gulf allies (KSA and UAE) are attempting to enhance or maintain their leverage in this governorate, as has already happened in other Eastern Yemen regions (Hadramawt and Socotra).
Yemen’s Al Mahra
Al Mahra is one of the most remote regions in the Easter part of Yemen. It was considered as the most stable part of Yemen when the civil war erupted in 2015. Moreover, this region was not infiltrated by the jihadi groups contrary to the Hadramawt province on its West. The Mahra province is inhabited by Sunni tribes (an estimate of 350,000 residents) with history of marginalization by Sanaa’s authority and a cross-border informal economy. The agreement made after the revolution in Yemen aiming to transform the country into a six-region federation is unpopular to some groups in Al-Mahra due to a fear for a merge with the neighboring Hadramawt governorate repeating the 1968 history when Al-Mahra was overrun by socialist forces entering from Hadramawt. The governorate has somehow remained under the control of the international recognized Hadi’s government since the Yemeni civil war broke-out although the former president of Yemen Ali Abdullah Saleh had stationed military units in the region. After months of the killing of President Saleh, the Emiratis and the Saudis have started to increase their involvement in Al Mahra.
Oman’s Foreign Policy: Security First
While ideology is driving the Foreign Policy of most of the Middle Eastern states, the Sultanate of Oman has followed its own course, believing that peaceful negotiation is essential to the overall, long-term goals of Omani security and prosperity. The Sultan of Oman created a foreign policy based on non-intervention and non-alignment. In the case of the Yemeni war, Oman played an important role as a mediator between the different warring parties. Its neutral stance regarding the Iranian Saudi cold war in the Middle East helped the Sultanate to have good relations with the Houthis and all other players. Since the start of the latest war in Yemen, Oman has hosted Houthi leaders and representatives of former president Ali Abdullah Saleh. Furthermore, Muscat hosted secret negotiations between the Houthis and Riyadh in early 2016, and between U.S. officials and the Houthis in May 2015 and November 2016.
Oman, Yemen and its Eastern Gateway
The important role of Yemen to the Omani leadership goes back to 1962 with the formation of anti-monarchist, pan-Arab, Marxist insurgency group called the Dhufar Liberation Front. The main aim for the insurgency group was to overthrow Sultan Said of Oman and install a communist system with the help of South Yemen. At the time of the Dhufar rebellion, Al-Mahra governorate of South Yemen, known as the Eastern gateway of Sultanate of Oman, had an important role to play in this proxy war between the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen (PDRY) and Oman. Al- Mahra became the 6th Governorate of South Yemen after the British withdrawal from the region although the Mahari tribes were against the new Marxist-Leninist regime in South Yemen. Declassified material from the British government’s archives, demonstrates that both the UK and Oman raised and trained groups of Mahra tribesmen – exiled from the PDRY – to launch cross-border raids into South Yemen between late 1972 and early 1975. The archival material proves that both the Omani and British governments raised and supported the Mahra tribal militias (known collectively as the ‘firqat’, with each individual formation a ‘firqa’) for cross-border incursions. The Sultan of Oman used Mahra in a coercive as a response to the PDRY’s support for the insurgency in Dhufar.
Al-Mahra in the Emirati and Saudi Eyes
The killing of former President Saleh was the turning point for the changes on the ground in Eastern Yemen. Many reports emerged about the UAE willingness to establish military units loyal to Abu Dhabi, “Mahri Elite Forces” as a similar model for the “Hadrami and Shabwani Elite Forces”. The main aim for UAE and its ally KSA in this regard is to secure the land border with Oman and the sea borders from arms smuggling activities. KSA and its allies in Yemen were expressing concerns about Oman and Saleh loyalists in Al-Mahra smuggling weapons to the Houthis in North. Additionally, a UN report mentioned that Iranian missiles sent to Houthis were transferred by pieces through the land routes from Oman or Ghaydah and Nishtun in al Mahrah governorate after ship-to-shore transshipment to small dhows.
According to the British researcher Elisabeth Kendall, Mahri tribal voices raised doubts regarding UAE and KSA activities fearing that the trained armed units will be loyal to the Southern Transitional Council (STC), the Emirati-supported ‘third Yemeni government’, which pursues independence of the South and has opened a headquarter in Mahra. Afterwards, Saudi Arabia played an essential role in securing an agreement with Mahri representatives were these forces will work along the local tribes to stabilize the region, strengthen anti-smuggling operations and aid development. Another development that raised questions about the Saudi role in Al-Mahra was the establishment of a religious center in the city of Qashan, the third largest city in the province, similar to the center of Dar El Hadith in Dammaj, a small town in the Sa’dah Governorate of north-western Yemen, were the Salafist students left it in 2014 after clashes with the Houthis that lasted for months. The opening of the center led to the organization of two protests by women in the province against the Salafism expansion in front of the governor’s office in the capital city of Al-Mahra.
The increasing role of the Arab alliance in Al-Mahra raised the concerns if the Omani leadership that perceive this province historically as part of its national security. Oman policy in Al-Mahra remain in offering humanitarian aid, building alliance with tribal actors, and offering double citizenship for Mahris to facilitate their trans-border work between Yemen and Oman. On the other hand, the Emirati power grows day by day in Southern Yemen through their backed and well equipped elite forces and their strong alliance with the Southern Transitional Council (STC). Oman may be fearing that Al-Mahra province will be a new “Socotra” for Abu Dhabi falling totally under its influence. An important factor for UAE’s role is the geo-strategic goal for pursuing the string of strategic ports in Eastern Africa and the Indian Ocean (for example in Eritrea, Somaliland and Somalia). Hadrami, Mahri coasts and Socotra Island are an essential part of the geo-strategic UAE plan. For the Saudi side, their main aim will remain to fight Houthis control over all the Yemeni territories and prevent the Iranian arms smuggling through the Mahri coasts. Riyadh is using the military aid, double citizenship, and the humanitarian aids through Al Ghayda’s airport to keep its eyes on the situation in Al-Mahra province. It seems that the Saudi leadership are taking the concerns of the Mahri citizens into consideration and trying not to anger their “unique feature” in Southern Yemen.
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 المهرة اليمنية ترفض النفوذ السعودي: لا لمشروع المركز السلفي، العربي الجديد، 29 يناير 2018