Geopolitical competition fractures Yemen's al-Mahra province

Geopolitical competition fractures Yemen's al-Mahra province
In-depth: The power struggle over Yemen's eastern al-Mahra province represents a deeper fracturing of the Gulf Cooperation Council.
5 min read
18 June, 2019
The war in Yemen has resulted in the world's worst humanitarian crisis [Getty]
While largely unscathed by conflict, being far from the battle lines, Yemen's eastern al-Mahra province still cannot escape the destabilising involvement of regional powers. Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Oman, are vying to shape the governorate's political and social dynamics.

The power struggle over Mahra represents a deeper fracturing of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), which has already split after Riyadh, Abu Dhabi and Bahrain blockaded Qatar.

Oman seeks to secure its Western border and prevent conflict erupting there. Muscat has traditionally been a key exporter of goods to Mahra and has maintained strong relations with its leaders for decades. Effectively, Oman has simply supported the status quo, and has more popularity among Mahiris, due to providing economic and political security.

Yet Yemen's state has effectively collapsed from the four-year-long war, rendering regions like Mahra vulnerable to external influence. Saudi Arabia and the UAE seek to further their own ambitions in Yemen, while transforming Mahra's political and social fabric.

Saudi Arabia and the UAE seek to further their own ambitions in Yemen, while transforming Mahra's political and social fabric

Earlier in June, the Saudi air force targeted local tribal factions who were blocking and protesting weapons transfers to Saudi-backed tribes.

Saleh al-Mahri was dismissed as deputy governor of Mahra after his criticism to Saudi Arabia and was replaced with a loyal one. He recently posted on Facebook about Saudi Arabian warplanes bombing tribes that had resisted the Saudi presence in the province.

Read more: Middle East drone wars heat up in Yemen

Al-Mahri later reported that Saudi warplanes continued to hover over the Shahin district, to deter resisting tribesmen.
Tribes were seeking to prevent weapons reaching Saudi-backed troops, prompting an aggressive Saudi response, according to Mahari civilians.

These are increasing efforts from Saudi Arabia to gain influence in Mahra. It previously dispatched thousands of troops to the Mahra-Oman border, particularly from March 2019 onwards.

Riyadh claimed that Iranian weapons and goods are being smuggled through Oman to support the Houthis, using this justification to taking control of the airport.

Yet Saudi Arabia has shown long-term interests in Mahra, with development projects via the state-owned Saudi Development and Reconstruction Programme for Yemen (SPRY).

It has allegedly tried to renovate water, education and transport sectors in Mahra. Any alleged improvements from its projects are unclear. Yet while presenting this as a humanitarian gesture, Riyadh uses it to justify a long-term presence in the country.

Saudi Arabia has meanwhile worked on constructing an oil pipeline through Mahra towards the Arabian Sea, to give its own exports an alternative transport route. This comes with an oil port, constructed by the Saudi-owned Huta Marine oil company, to extract and export oil, showing Riyadh's increasing economic ambitions.

Riyadh claimed that Iranian weapons and goods are being smuggled through Oman to support the Houthis, using this justification to taking control of the airport

Last July it imposed harsh tariffs on Yemen, attempting to block Omani exports, and therefore curtail the Sultanate's influence which obstructs that of Riyadh's.

In the past decades, Saudi Arabia sponsored Salafism in places like Sadaa in the North, to enforce soft power and create stronger ties with Yemeni communities. This had previously created friction with Houthis in northern communities. Now it has funded and supported Salafism in Mahra.

Clearly it is doing the same in traditionally Sufi Mahra, to counteract other tribes to it and gain more favourable allies. This has triggered greater discord in Mahra too, due to anti-Salafi and anti-Saudi protests and sentiment.

The Emirati role risks further worsening tensions in Mahra Abu Dhabi has trained over 2,500 Mahari recruits, seeking to form a militia as it has done in other regions, and incorporate them into a unified Security Belt to forcibly control Yemen's south.

It has tried to recruit leading Mahris into the secessionist movement the Southern Transitional Council (STC). While tribal leaders have blocked Emirati attempts to form a militia, this could push Abu Dhabi further intervene in the politics there.

Oman's neutral stance in Yemen has put it at odds Riyadh and Abu Dhabi, while its neutrality has led them to believing it is too close to Iran. Omani Foreign Minister Youssef bin Alawi stated Oman and the UAE have "disagreements" over the Yemen war.

Not only does this evidently concern opposing the Houthis, but the geopolitical solutions to the Mahra issue. Oman naturally sees both GCC countries' presence as unjustified.

As such competition continues, it will attract more intervention from the others, out of competitiveness.
Ultimately, it may lead to Saudi Arabia and the UAE trying to pressure Oman. The UAE had already backed a coup against Sultan Qaboos in Oman in 2011 using a spy network. Abu Dhabi denies this. However, it indicates that the UAE along with Riyadh may take further, but likely mild deterring action against Muscat.

Though Riyadh and Abu Dhabi themselves have competing interests, they will prioritise scaling back Omani influence.
As Oman is more favourable towards negotiating peace in Yemen, both Riyadh and Abu Dhabi who have interests in the war continuing will likely try to obstruct their influence further.

However, such interference has attracted increasing opposition, particularly towards Saudi Arabia.
According to data from The Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project (ACLED), protests in Mahra had soared to 37 from January 2018 – May 2019, most of which were aimed at the Saudi-led coalition.

Read also: Yemen in Focus: Trump gifts Saudi Arabia its own bomb factory

Prominent Maharis such as Sheikh Ali Harizi, Shikh Al-Afrar and Ahmed Qahtant, consider Saudi Arabia an "occupation power" as it seeks to exploit Mahra's resources. Riyadh's efforts to buy the support of Maharis are therefore relatively unsuccessful, given such opposition to them.

Tribal forces in Mahra had protested Saudi's control of the airport, and in the end was able to negotiate a deal to use it just for humanitarian purposes, rather than military, which was Riyadh's wish. Its oil pipeline was met with protests too.

As Mahari tribes protested Saudi Arabia's weapons transfers, it shows there is opposition towards them. More of this could lead to a curtailing of their ambitions.

Yet with such escalating interference, it could trigger greater action from each other state to secure their own influence. Ultimately this could tear apart the fabric of a relatively peaceful region.

Jonathan Fenton-Harvey is a journalist and researcher who focuses on conflict, geopolitics and humanitarian issues in the Middle East and North Africa. 

Follow him on Twitter: @jfentonharvey