In 2019, I traveled back to my homeland, Yemen, to see how the country is coping after almost six years of conflict. My journey to Mahra, a more remote governate in eastern Yemen, began with a seven-hour drive from the country’s southern city of Mukala. Once largely empty, the coastal road is now filled with countless pick-up trucks transporting people and goods—visible evidence that thousands of Yemenis seek a safer, better life there and beyond the border.

Cars being transported along the coastal road

Cars being transported along Mahra’s coastal road.

Cars being transported along the coastal road

A used-car market near Nishtun Port.

A quarter of a million people have moved to Mahra since 2015, bringing its population to 650,000 as of early 2019, according to the governor. If this estimate is accurate, more than one-third of its residents are now originally from outside the governate.

Many of these newcomers are internally displaced, fleeing from violence in other parts of Yemen. But while Mahra is not a hotbed of the Houthi conflict, intensive military deployment suggests that a shadow conflict has emerged and regional powers are now heavily invested in the region.

Recruited and financed by the United Arab Emirates (UAE), local Hadrami elite forces control the territories along the coast of the Hadramout Governate leading to Mahra. Saudi-backed security forces moved into Mahra in 2017 and now dominate its nine districts; their numbers continue to strengthen, and they have recently built several new military compounds. Oman has no formal military presence in Mahra, but it indirectly supports local tribes standing against the Saudis.

regional map

The drive to the center of Mahra took me through dozens of military checkpoints to check my identity and make sure that I was not a pro-Houthi supporter trying to slip through as an ordinary businessman or a traveler seeking medicines.

In the heart of Mahra’s capital, Ghayda, a small area with bleachers originally designed for official celebrations is now frequently used for protests attracting hundreds and sometimes thousands of people. In September 2019, Mahri protest leaders—backed by Oman—formed the Southern National Salvation Council to counter the UAE-backed Southern Transitional Council and expel the Saudi-led coalition’s military forces from both Mahra and South Yemen. The leaders are demanding that the Saudis hand over control of Mahra’s airport, key ports, and administrative and community institutions.

Raised by protesters, the historical flag of the Mahra Sultanate—which lasted 500 years until 1967—is a reminder to the Saudi-led coalition of Mahris’ independent identity.

Not all Mahris are resisting the regional powers’ increased presence, however; thousands have been recruited by military forces to secure their loyalty. Unfortunately, this is leading to internal divisions among tribes who have historically maintained their independent identity within Yemen and shared common social, linguistic, and cultural characteristics.

The Allure of Mahra

Despite the tensions, Mahra is relatively stable, sitting 800 miles east of Yemen’s capital, Sanaa. Although it’s home to only 1.3 percent of the country’s total population, it is the second-largest governate and the main commercial artery for Yemen’s trade with Oman. Since the air, sea, and land blockade the Saudi-led coalition imposed in March 2015, Mahra has become a lifeline for merchants to import goods through its border crossings and ports.

Mahra is also rich in natural resources. Its 350-mile coastline has abundant marine life, and its lush mountainous area in the east—in stark contrast to the vast desert in the north—is famous for its Boswellia trees that produce frankincense, a resin used in perfumes, oils, and incense.

A Boswellia tree in eastern Mahra

A Boswellia tree in eastern Mahra.

Local fishermen’s boats docked near Ghayda’s fish market

Local fishermen’s boats

Yemen-Oman border

Yemen-Oman border crossing in Mahra’s Sarfit mountainous area.

Although not grown in Mahra, qat, a stimulant like coca, is playing a growing role in the economy. No longer considered socially shameful among Mahris but still banned in Oman, many people gather in Ghayda to freely chew qat and build cultural and business relationships.

A large qat market in Mahra

A large qat market in Mahra.

A Burgeoning Economy, but Who Is in Control?

Who will ultimately benefit the most from Mahra’s growth is not easy to predict. Regional powers in Mahra are jostling for influence over local Yemeni tribes who have distanced themselves from the wider conflict but have suffered from a weak national government. Each power has so far been largely successful in furthering their interests.

“I was a student at Ibb University studying accounting, but when the Houthis advanced to my city in 2014, I felt extremely disappointed, as I did not want to see my beloved hometown ruled by militias. So I dropped out of college and moved to Mahra to work at my cousin’s supermarket. Six months after my arrival, I decided to be more independent and work as a taxi driver.”

The Saudis’ main goal is to keep the Houthis out of eastern Yemen. But their expanding economic interests in Mahra have pitted them against the UAE, which wishes to protect its commercial shipping lines on the south coast. Oman, once a more neutral actor, has stepped up its indirect support of Yemenis—money, cars, media coverage, and diplomatic connections—to secure its border. How long the relative peace can last in this environment is uncertain.

New and old Mahra residents are seizing opportunities as a result of this competition. But they are also struggling to find their way in an increasingly corrupt and restrictive environment. While walking through Ghayda’s markets, I met Rami, a thirty-two-year-old taxi driver from Ibb in northwest Yemen. “I was a student at Ibb University studying accounting, but when the Houthis advanced to my city in 2014, I felt extremely disappointed, as I did not want to see my beloved hometown ruled by militias. So I dropped out of college and moved to Mahra to work at my cousin’s supermarket. Six months after my arrival, I decided to be more independent and work as a taxi driver.” For Rami, it has become a valuable venture: “I am a guide more than a taxi driver. Many people have trusted me to ease their businesses since I am familiar with Mahra’s local authorities.” People like Rami help entrepreneurs navigate complex procedures that often require bribing authorities and exploiting personal relationships.

Popular market in Ghayda City

Popular market in Ghayda City, where the main mode of transportation is motorbikes due to congestion.

A man buying qat in a Ghayda market

A man buying qat in a Ghayda market, and a little girl looking for food for her family, who likely lives in a camp for internally displaced people.

Over the last several years, Mahra’s local government has weakened significantly. For example, in 2017, former governor Mohammed Kudda began to organize the first-ever annual conference to promote investment opportunities in Mahra. Yemeni businesspeople, especially diaspora living in Egypt, Jordan, and the Horn of Africa, showed an immediate interest. But then, at the Saudis’ request, President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi dismissed the governor, who had been critical of Saudi interventions in the governate. Hadi installed a Saudi-loyal replacement, Rajih Bakrit, whose first decision was to cancel the conference.

Mahra’s local authorities have since largely adopted Saudi policies, including higher tariffs on customs and the banning of close to 100 goods from entering the governate (the Saudis claim the Houthis may use them to manufacture weapons).

The Saudis are not the only ones filling the administrative vacuum. While traveling around the city, it’s hard to miss the many billboards carrying the names of development projects. Most are financed by the Saudi-King Salman Center and the UAE Red Crescent and Oman-Charitable organizations. While they are formally listed as humanitarian institutions in Yemen, they are tied to the countries’ respective governments and therefore come with political and economic strings attached. The Red Crescent is run by military officers.

These organizations have built much-needed schools, medical centers, roads, and wells. But according to a local activist, the motivation behind their projects is not the area’s development but rather the expansion of their influence. Many projects that are announced do not move forward.

Stability Is Bought

Aside from appearing to meet Mahris’ basic needs, regional powers are using another, more direct way to bolster their influence. According to armed tribesmen I interviewed, over the last two years, Saudi-backed forces have recruited around 6,000 Mahris to gain their loyalty.

Recruits are largely enticed by healthy salaries. One man I met in Ghayda said, “Before 2015, I was unemployed, with no income, but when the Saudi-led coalition started their intervention in Yemen in March 2015, I joined the UAE-backed forces who, at that time, were in Mahra under a coalition to support the security sector. I was among 2,500 recruits from different Mahra areas. After three months of military training, we became a part of the Mahri security forces. I used to receive my monthly salary from the UAE, but since the Saudis took over in Mahra, I now receive it [an equivalent to $400] from the Saudis.”

The armed tribesmen also receive salaries from their tribal leaders, many of whom are backed by Oman and want to assure some degree of loyalty to the tribe. This shows how much Yemenis’ livelihoods are dependent on the continuing conflict.

The Coast Increasingly Belongs to the Military

For others in Mahra, however, making a living is still a struggle. In the fishing market, I met Mahmoud and his son from Hajjah in western Yemen, who came to Mahra to start life over. “We used to work in fishing in my town, Midi, close to the Yemen-Saudi border, but our business vanished when the battles erupted, so we decided to come here to work given the richness of Mahra’s coast.”

ahmoud (left) selling fish in a market near Ghayda’s coast

Mahmoud (left) selling fish in a market near Ghayda’s coast.

But Mahmoud and other fishermen face tightening restrictions. Fishing is now prohibited in areas close to Saudi military installations, which continue to spread along the coast. This forces fishermen into more remote areas, including the Somali Sea. Although the Mahri community and some Somalian tribes have close social and economic relations, fishing in the area is dangerous. Navy fleets have mistaken Mahri anglers for pirates. 

“Last year, I was stopped by an Indian ship crew in the middle of the ocean. I was beaten and taken to their ship, where they questioned me and then threw me into the ocean. I had to swim 300 meters to my boat,” said Salem, a Mahri fisherman I met in Nishtun Port.

Saudi forces also restrict shipping access in the ports and require prior approval before arrival. Once docked, they often board the boats to check for banned items, including solar electricity systems, batteries, and fertilizers.A Mahri fisherman preparing to sell his catch

A Mahri fisherman preparing to sell his catch in Ghayda’s market.

The situation has apparently worsened since the Saudis deployed forces to Nishtun Port in September 2018. They claim to be combating smuggling networks across the Yemen-Oman border, especially those related to the Houthi movement. But even Mahra’s Saudi-backed governor stated that, since November 2017, no smuggling network has been caught by Saudi forces.

Instead, the Saudis are likely preparing to renew plans for a massive oil pipeline that would bypass the Iranian-controlled Strait of Hormuz and run from Mahra’s coast to Saudi Arabia’s Kharakhir coast—a move that would boost security and greatly reduce transportation costs. Evidence of their intentions have included a leaked document from a marine construction company to a Saudi official and a report that engineering teams have been studying the mechanics of the project.

Salem, a Mahri fisherman (second from the left) with this commentary’s author

Salem, a Mahri fisherman (second from the left) with this commentary’s author, Ahmed Nagi (center). In the background are Saudi security ships, moored at Nishtun Port.

On the coast near Nishtun Port

On the coast near Nishtun Port, a development project belonging to a Yemeni oil businessman loyal to the Saudis.

Smugglers Are Free to Go About Their Business

Yet smuggling routes going up the coast are a major problem. Through Mahra, networks smuggle cars from Oman to Yemen and qat and handguns from Yemen to Oman. According to some locals I met in Qishen District, “the flow of smuggled goods is heavy along the coast from Mahra to Aden [in southwest Yemen], which is 1,000 kilometers [621 miles] long, and activities are spread throughout Yemen’s territories, even among different warring parties, including Hadi’s forces, the Southern Transitional Council, and the Houthis. Given the good income associated with such activities, smuggling networks have become one of the war economy’s manifestations.” 

The Spoils of Legitimate Trade Are Being Siphoned

Despite the smuggling, however, customs revenues have ballooned since 2015, currently bringing in $3 to $4 million monthly according to managers at Shihen crossing. At the center of the Oman-Yemen border, the crossing has grown to be one of the busiest land ports in Yemen. It is now the most common route for goods entering and leaving Yemen and is a window to the world for people seeking to travel and do business with Oman, China, and India—Yemen’s biggest trading partners. Since 2015, Omani authorities have greatly eased visa controls at the crossing. This is likely an attempt to boost their image by offering businessmen, students, and patients a safe alternative to flying out of Sanaa.  

Unfortunately, Saudi-backed local authorities control the crossing and refuse to send the requisite customs revenues to the Central Bank in Aden. The money instead goes toward buying the local tribes’ loyalty. Meanwhile, public institutions in Mahra are still suffering from a financial deficit.

Is Mahra’s Development Sustainable or a House of Cards?

Mahra’s future will likely involve further hardships. In one scenario, tensions escalate, as Saudi Arabia continues to expand its control over Mahra’s districts and its people and as Oman increases its resistance to military presence close to its border. Should this happen, a major breakout of fighting could drastically reduce continued investments in Mahris’ basic needs and economy.

In another scenario, the return of a strong state in Yemen leads to the pulling out of Saudi and Emirati forces and a decline in Omani support, resulting in a temporary vacuum and loss of livelihood for many Mahris. For now, the conflict in eastern Yemen remains in the shadows, and it may take time for relief to spread from Yemen’s central war-torn areas.

In the long term, lasting peace and development in Mahra will only be possible with a strong state, without the entanglement of external interventions. But because of the complexity of Yemen’s situation and the spreading of more diffuse conflict, this goal seems elusive.

This photo-essay was originally published by the Malcolm H. Kerr Carnegie Middle East Center.