The Yemeni province of Mahra, on the border with Oman, has not been reached by the war so far. However, Saudi Arabia – as Oman used to do to defend its influence – has started to support a large number of Mahari tribes. This has led to large community divisions in local tribal society, for the first time in the history of this eastern province. This support is not limited to the financial domain but also extends to the military. The spread of armed tribal groups has become a new feature in Mahra in light of the indirect Saudi-Emirati-Omani competition for regional leverage.
In 2015, Yemen’s president, Abdurabo Mansour Hadi, fled to the Yemen-Oman border when the Houthis, along with their former ally Ali Abdullah Saleh, decided to invade Aden to arrest him. The president traveled to the remote provinces of the desert until he arrived in Mahra, through which he crossed the border into Oman. In the meantime, the Saudi-led coalition began its military operations to restore the legitimacy that the Houthis had gained.
The border strip between Mahra and the Omani province of Dhofar is 288 kilometers long, starting from the coast of Haof district and ending in the heart of the desert at the border triangle between Yemen, Oman and Saudi Arabia: beyond the desert, there are few agricultural zones and the population lives along the border strip. Although the border area is divided between the two countries, the frontier communities in Mahra and Dhofar appear to be an ecosystem: tribes descend from a single tribe and share many historical, social and cultural constituents. In addition, they speak another language beside Arabic, namely “Mahriya” or “Jabali”, which is a Semitic language not spoken by the rest of Yemenis.
This social cohesion in border areas has led Oman to deal with this ecosystem as a first line of defense to protect its security from any break-in. To this end, Oman has strengthened its relationships with Mahra society and provided Omani citizenship for many personalities in the area, especially after signing the border agreement with Yemen in 1992. It has also made it easier for those who do not have Omani citizenship to move to Oman. Despite Yemen’s upheavals since 2011, Mahra province has not been affected economically because it relied on Omani markets to obtain fuel and food, depending especially on a major shared market, the Al-Mazyounah, which is a few kilometers from Yemen’s Shihen border-crossing. This explains why Mahra province managed to remain economically autonomous from the other provinces. At the same time, this contributed to protecting the Omani border from any security breakthrough by extremist groups: most tribes are also grateful to the Omani state for this status quo. This does not mean that illegal activities are absent from this area: the smuggling of goods and vehicles is widespread and recently many human trafficking cases in Dhofar were also recorded, but all the people involved in such activities are Mahris.
However, the consequences of the war have extended to the border of Mahra province since mid-2015. The Houthis reduced the financial allowances of Mahra employees to a quarter of the amount required for the province, causing non-payment of salaries for many civil and military employees: many of them, especially non-Mahris, had to leave and return to their areas. This provoked a severe shortage of employees in security and service institutions: as a result, the then governor of Mahra handed out Mahra crossings to the tribes, surrounding the areas to take over the management of ports at a governorate level and transfer customs fees to the province’s account. Moreover, Oman provided the necessary fuel for the service facilities and distributed regular food aid to the population. In 2017, the tribes of Zabanout and Ra’feet began to quarrel over control of the Shihen crossing, each tribe claiming the port as part of its tribal area.
The United Arab Emirates (UAE) began to be present in the province of Mahra a few months later at the beginning of the military intervention in Yemen. In 2015 the UAE trained about 2,500 new recruits from among Mahra inhabitants, although they reportedly did not create an elite force due to tribal refusal, while providing a lot of assistance to rebuild the local police and existing security services. It also distributed food baskets and humanitarian aid to the residents of Mahra districts through the UAE Red Crescent Society.
In the eyes of the sultanate, the UAE presence at its Yemeni border is perceived as unjustified: the two countries have disputes on several issues, most notably the border, especially after Oman accused Abu Dhabi of planning a coup in 2011 to overthrow Sultan Qaboos, which the UAE denied.
The collapse of Yemeni state institutions and the military intervention of the Saudi-led coalition stunned Muscat, which found itself having to cope with new dynamics and a no more effective border strategy: these concerns have turned into reality. In January 2016 the Omani authorities closed the ports in the Shihen and Surfeet areas, and a few months later al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) seized control of the city of Mukalla, the capital of Mahra’s neighboring region of Hadramout. The stated rationale for Oman’s move was to protect its border security from any breakthrough of extremist groups. It is here worth noting that AQAP has never been close to Mahra or its border areas, due to local society, strongly attached to traditional Sufism, which has never accepted al-Qaeda’s ideology. In late 2017, when a group of Saudi-backed Salafists tried to establish a religious education center in Mahra’s Qashan, protests were held against them because locals reject this type of religious belief.
However, observers believe that the real reason for the temporary closure of the ports was the result of political choices made by president Hadi and Khaled Bah’hah, the prime minister at the time: leaders of security and military services in Mahra were replaced by new leaders and the sultanate was uncertain regarding the future political direction of these appointments. It should be noted that, over the past few years, tensions have arisen between Saudi Arabia and the UAE on the one hand, and Oman on the other, because the sultanate adopted political attitudes not aligned with the Saudi-UAE politics in the region, especially in relation to Qatar and Iran.
Oman was also accused by Riyadh and Abu Dhabi of providing access to arms and communications devices to be delivered to the Houthis. In August 2015 Marib province authorities seized a shipment of arms and ammunition for the Houthis at one of its checkpoints. In October 2015, the governor of Marib declared that military forces took possession of Iranian military equipment (including advanced communications equipment) in the province: according to their statement, this shipment was coming by land from the Sultanate of Oman. In November 2015, the Yemeni army dismantled an informal network involved in the smuggling of arms and explosives, as well as of military communications equipment, which entered through Mahra ports, said the army. In October 2016, Western and Iranian officials stated that Iran had stepped up arms transfer to the Houthis, and most of the smuggling crossed Oman and its Yemeni frontier, including by land routes. This was denied by the Sultanate of Oman in a statement from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, arguing that “the news of arms smuggling through Oman is baseless and no arms are passing through the lands of Sultanate”.
Despite these allegations, there are smuggling routes towards Yemen that seem easier than passing through the sultanate’s borders. The Yemeni coastal strip on the Arabian Sea extends over 1,000 kilometers: this is a security vacuum area and is closer in terms of distance to the Houthis’ strongholds. In any case, smuggled arms or goods cannot reach the Houthis in northern Yemen without the help of smuggling networks operating in areas controlled by the legitimate government forces.
In October 2017 the Southern Transitional Council (STC), a UAE-backed faction of the Southern Movement seeking independence for southern Yemen, tried to convince the former governor, Abdullah Kedda, to join the council, but he refused, asserting that he supports the authority of the legitimate government led by president Hadi. This disappointed the Saudi-led coalition, especially the UAE, which intends to promote the STC as the only entity representing the Southern Movement: the STC embraced the UAE’s agenda in the south.
The Omani influence on the tribes of Mahra was a major motivation for Saudi Arabia’s military reinforcement in the region. In November 2017 Saudi forces entered the province and took over its vital facilities, including al-Ghaidha airport, Nashton port and the ports of Srfeet and Shihen on the border with Oman. The Saudis also deployed their forces in more than 12 locations along the coast of Mahra, and dismissed the airport employees.
These developments worried Mahra inhabitants, pushing thousands into the streets in April 2018: they staged an open protest in the city of Ghaidha, demanding that Saudi forces to leave the facilities and institutions, handing them over to local authorities. Even famous Mahris such as Shiekh Ali Harizi, Shikh Al Afrar and Ahmed Qahtant, described the Saudis as an “occupation power” seeking to seize the resources of the province.
Therefore, the war in Yemen has opened a subtle but acute season of popular discontent and regional rivalry in Mahra, stuck in a three-players game among Saudis, Emiratis and Omanis.
This blog was originally published by the Malcolm H. Kerr Carnegie Middle East Center.