As the Yemeni conflict grinds on, much of the country’s population has been affected by the violence. A notable exception is Mahrah Governorate, located along Yemen’s border with Oman. There, a more low-key struggle is taking place. In November 2017, the Saudi-led coalition deployed military forces and took over the governorate’s facilities, amid ongoing tensions between Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) on one side, and Oman on the other.
Before the Saudi military deployed to Mahrah, the Southern Transitional Council (STC), a UAE-backed body made up of a faction of the Southern Movement, which seeks independence for south Yemen, tried to persuade the then-governor of Mahrah, ‘Abdullah Kedah, to join them. Kedah refused, saying he supported the authority of the legitimate government headed by President ‘Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi. This displeased the coalition, particularly the UAE, which wants to promote the STC as the only entity representing the Southern Movement. The STC, in return, has embraced the UAE’s agenda in the south.
Saudi and Emirati tensions with Oman have increased in recent years, because Oman has adopted political positions not consistent with Saudi-UAE policies in the region, particularly relating to Qatar and Iran. Moreover, since its establishment in 1971 the UAE has had a disagreement with Oman over their common border. Bilateral ties suffered further in 2011 when Oman uncovered an Emirati spy network that allegedly was planning to overthrow the regime of Sultan Qaboos bin Sa‘id Al Sa‘id, though the UAE denied having any links to such a network. Recently, with the outbreak of the Yemen war, the Saudi-led coalition believed that Iranian arms were being smuggled through Oman, then Mahrah, to reinforce the Houthis.
The Saudi and Emirati rivalry with Oman is particularly sharp in Mahrah. In early November 2017, posters and billboards were posted in the streets of Al-Ghaydah, Mahrah’s capital, thanking Sultan Qaboos for the humanitarian assistance he had long provided to Mahrah. This campaign, the initiative of community leaders in the city, was directed primarily against Saudi Arabia and the UAE, implicitly warning them against intervening in Mahrah.
Because of Oman’s shared traditions with Mahrah, the sultanate believes it is important to maintain strong ties with the governorate. Indeed, the relationship has the potential to affect Omani domestic politics, because Mahrah and the Omani governorate of Dhofar, where a rebellion took place against the Omani regime between 1965 and 1975, share many similarities. They are connected socially and economically and have a common language, namely Mahri or Jabliah. Moreover, there are many in Mahrah who hold Omani nationality, while the most prominent tribal leaders in the governorate, such as Sheikh ‘Abdullah Al Afrar, the head of the General Council of Mahrah and Socotra, live in Oman.
According to tribal sources in Mahrah, “The growing Omani impact on Mahrah’s tribes pushed the Saudi-led coalition to take action, and was one of the main reasons why Saudi Arabia sent military reinforcements to the area.”
Since Saudi forces entered Mahrah, they have taken control of the governorate’s vital facilities, including Al-Ghaydah’s airport, Nishtun port, and the Sarfit and Shehen crossings with Oman. They have also deployed to more than a dozen locations along the coast of the governorate, and dismissed airport personnel, telling them that their salaries would be paid on a regular basis regardless of their presence at work. Moreover, Hadi, who resides in Saudi Arabia, removed Kedah from his post, apparently because he opposed the Saudi presence. He appointed in his place Rajih Bakreet, who has strong relations with the UAE.
By February 2017, the demands on the inhabitants of Mahrah were becoming more onerous. Saudi forces prevented them from fishing in many coastal areas, while around 100 items were banned from entering Mahrah from Oman. These included solar panels, chemicals, and some basic necessities. In addition, in August 2018 customs duties were raised by an average of 80 percent on many imports and instructions were given not to accept customs documents issued in the Omani free-trade zone. Analysts interpreted such measures as being aimed at weakening the dependency of Yemen’s private sector on Oman, as Yemeni businessmen like to send their shipments through Oman’s Salalah port, after crossing at Shehen.
These developments have raised concerns among Mahrah’s population. In April 2018, thousands began an open protest in Al-Ghaydah, demanding that Saudi forces leave the governorate’s facilities and institutions and hand them over to the local authorities. Prominent figures even described the Saudis as an “occupying force” who were looking to take over the resources of the governorate.
The two-month sit-in ended in July with an agreement between the protesters and Yemeni government representatives that the Saudis would withdraw from Mahrah’s facilities and institutions in favor of local authorities. However, according to protest leaders the agreement was never implemented. Moreover, officials who sided with the protesters were later removed by Hadi and replaced by others loyal to Saudi Arabia and the UAE. At the same time there were also allegations that Oman supported the protesters, while also encouraging Mahrah tribes to resist the Saudis.
Leaks about Saudi intentions in Mahrah further contributed to the public discontent. In August 2018, a letter was published in several media outlets addressed to Mohammed al-Jaber, Saudi Arabia’s ambassador to Yemen, from a Saudi company called Huta Marine. The company thanked Jaber for his trust as he had requested that it prepare a proposal for the construction of an oil port in the district of Nishtun. The facility would be the terminal of a Saudi pipeline that begins in the Saudi governorate of Kharkhir, in Najran.
There is also a plan to build a channel from the Persian Gulf to the Arabian Sea through Mahrah. The objective is to create an alternative outlet for Saudi oil exports to the Strait of Hormuz, which is vulnerable to obstruction by Iran. For the inhabitants of Mahrah, such projects suggest that there is much more to the Saudi presence in the governorate than countering smuggling and terrorist activities, as coalition spokesman have insisted in the past.
The events in Mahrah are another chapter in the proxy conflicts taking place in Yemen. Oman is active in the governorate and will not accept that the Saudis and Emiratis remain on the Omani border with Yemen. On the other side, the Saudi-led coalition is trying to reduce Omani influence in Mahrah. Those paying the highest price for this rivalry are the inhabitants of Mahrah themselves.