Shabwa: At the centre of Yemen's storm

Yemen - Houthi - GETTY
7 min read
02 November, 2021

The conflict in Yemen continues to escalate, spilling over into liberated areas and threatening the fragile power-sharing agreement of December 2020.

The spill-over is most visible in the southern oil and gas-rich province of Shabwa, with all eyes on Governor Mohammed Saleh bin Adio. While this particular conflict in Shabwa is not new, it is of significant concern as it threatens the continuation of the Saudi Arabia-sponsored peace agreement of 2019.

In Shabwa, the retreat by military and security forces of the internationally recognised government from battlefronts in al-Bayda and Marib provinces exacerbates the conflict, as troops amass at bases around the provincial capital Ataq.

Prior to the troop mobilisation into Ataq, the conflict in Shabwa was maintained at a low-level political conflict, with local residents blaming the governor for deteriorating economic conditions, heavy-handed reactions to peaceful demonstrations, and the targeting of local Southern Transitional Council (STC) officials and their children.

"Houthi gains along Shabwa's borders and the failure to address fundamental economic problems continue to deepen the economic and security crises in Shabwa"

Demonstrations have escalated across areas of Shabwa, particularly the southern crescent, where civilians continue to demand the resignation of Governor bin Adio, blame the Muslim Brotherhood affiliate al-Islah party for the security crackdown, and protest president Abdo Rabbo Mansour Hadi’s handling of the wider crisis.

As media wars fuel the political conflict, Governor Adio is increasingly perceived not as the face of Hadi’s government in Shabwa but rather an instrument of his political party al-Islah, which appears to have begun repositioning party civilian and military loyalists into Shabwa as the fall of Marib city seems imminent.

This gathering of pro-Islah forces in Shabwa represents a new phase of northern occupation of the south, not merely in numbers but also in the fight for control of natural resources and infrastructure throughout the province.

Demonstrations across the province have called for replacing Governor Adio, as part of the 2019 agreement, along with the redeployment of government forces to strengthen the fight against the Houthis across northern territories, another component of the Riyadh Agreement.

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As a result of the continued deterioration of the economy and security conditions in Shabwa, the STC has threatened to withdraw from the coalition government formed in December 2020, which could lead to direct clashes between southern military forces and troops aligned with President Hadi, as well as a collapse of the Saudi-sponsored Riyadh Agreement.

This will further weaken the fight against the Houthis as well as derail any plans to restart peace talks under the auspices of the new UN Special Envoy, Hans Grundberg.

Retreat, refuge, and resources

In recent weeks, Governor Adio has come under increasing criticism for failing to counter the Houthi advance through Bayhan in western Shabwa, in addition to his handling of peaceful demonstrations against a deepening economic crisis.

The potential economic boom expected since 2020 never materialised, and rural areas across the province continue to absorb the impact of inflation and a collapse of the Yemeni Rial. The export of oil through Qana Port has raised concerns over corruption, adding to the governor’s troubles.

Prior to the Houthi offensive at Bayhan in Shabwa, the population had already made their opposition to Adio very clear. The withdrawal of government troops that allowed the Houthis to enter the south once again simply exacerbated popular opposition against Adio and his party al-Islah.

Recent testimonials from military officers from the Ataq Axis have placed the blame for the loss of territory in western Shabwa on al-Islah party leadership, and squarely on Governor Adio as the public face of the Muslim Brotherhood affiliate in Yemen.

Failure to implement the milestones from the 2020 Agreement has led to an escalation of the conflict in Shabwa. [Getty]

The officers who resigned from the Ataq Axis command led by Gen. Aziz al-Atiqi (from al-Awalaq tribe) claim qualified commanders and senior officers were dismissed by Islah affiliates within the military and in Shabwa’s government.

While the media focus on Adio, demonstrators highlight the role of Deputy Governor Mohsen al-Haj and Ahmed Mohsen Abboud, head of al-Islah in Shabwa. 

The retreat from Bayhan coincided with the withdrawal of government troops from southern al-Bayda and Marib provinces following Houthi advances. These troops were redeployed to bases around Ataq, leading to perceptions among the population that the governor will turn these forces against civilians protesting deteriorating economic conditions.

Protests have already spread through the Lower Markha district, Nesab, Jardan, Habban, Radhoum, and al-Rawdhah. In turn, tribal leaders from around Bayhan, such as the Bal Ubeid tribe, have formed their own resistance to counter Houthi forces, while demanding Governor Adio mobilise government troops to push the Houthis back toward al-Bayda.

Another issue at the centre of rising tensions in Shabwa is the fight over oil and gas resources. In January 2020, Governor Adio reported $31 million in oil sales from thirteen shipments reportedly originating at Block S2 operated by Vienna-based OMV. While these figures were promising amid widespread conflict, Adio moved to expand his government’s share of oil revenue by launching a new project at Qana port near Bir Ali.

"Another issue at the centre of rising tensions in Shabwa is the fight over oil and gas resources"

By late November 2020, Adio granted QZY General Trading Co. an exclusive contract to develop a commercial port and off-loading floating tank facility. The first vessel reportedly arrived on 10 January 2021 carrying 17,000 tons of diesel amid mounting protests from Shabwa’s residents and some within Hadi’s Cabinet. 

Mohammed Adio’s handling of oil facilities and their revenue added to criticism of his approach to the economic crisis. Early this year, following the appointment of Saleh Al-Kadim Sabula as head of the local government oil company, Adio’s government imposed new taxes on oil derivatives, adding to claims by residents and local media that new tax revenue and income from operations at Qana port were feeding corrupt officials linked to al-Islah party and the Economic Committee.

As a consequence of the lack of transparency by the governor regarding oil contracts and the frequency of shipments, demonstrations have spread throughout the province calling for his removal, especially as international oil analysts report production remains at a monthly average of around 88,000 Barrels per Day (B/D) since February 2021. Most of this oil reportedly originates from fields in Shabwa and is sold to traders from Asia. 

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Preventing collapse

For ordinary residents, around the southern crescent and western areas in particular, Governor Mohammed bin Adio has overstayed his welcome. Not merely as a result of the 2019 Riyadh deal agreeing to replace governors in Aden and Shabwa, but also as a result of failures to deal with the economic crisis and growing corruption in the oil sector.

Local activists have also raised concerns over Adio’s handling of an increasing number of oil spills and threats to the environment, and water supplies.

Adding to the number of problems affecting daily life, environmental activists have highlighted three major oil spills and failures by Shabwa’s government to address the cause and long-term impact. In April 2020, a leak in Wadi Liyah spread along 10km in the Sayyid area, with runoff affecting groundwater springs.

A follow-up investigation in May found that the drinking water was still contaminated and that residents were having to transport water into the area. Another spill surfaced following an attack on the oil pipeline around Habban in late October 2020.

"Failure to implement the milestones from the 2020 Agreement has led to an escalation of the conflict in Shabwa and allowed the Houthis to capture more territory across northern provinces"

The incident around the Bir Ali Terminal on 3 October when the Syra tanker, carrying 65,000 tonnes of crude, was damaged by a floating mine not only alerted observers of increasing security threats but also provided evidence to Aido’s critics of ongoing oil exports and the lack of transparency over revenue and the distribution of profits.

Houthi gains along Shabwa’s borders and the failure to address fundamental economic problems continue to deepen the economic and security crises in Shabwa. The Riyadh Agreement, in its political and security components, aimed at reducing tensions between parties aligned with the internationally recognised government in order to strengthen fronts against the Houthis and bring economic relief to the general population across liberated areas.

Failure to implement the milestones from the 2020 Agreement has led to an escalation of the conflict in Shabwa and allowed the Houthis to capture more territory across northern provinces. Now, Houthis are increasing their attacks on southern areas like Lahj from new areas under their control in western al-Bayda and southern Taiz, threatening to reverse victories from 2015 and territory held by southern forces since early 2016.

Residents in Shabwa aim to remove Governor Mohammed bin Adio in order to address the vacuum in military leadership fighting the Houthis along the western border, address the downward spiral of the economy, and tackle corruption in the oil and gas industries.

This would be a first step toward implementing the Riyadh Agreement and de-escalating the political conflict to address the economic potential across the province.  

Fernando Carvajal served on the UN Security Council Panel of Experts of Yemen from April 2017 to March 2019 as an armed groups and regional expert. He has nearly 20 years of experience conducting fieldwork in Yemen and is a specialist in Yemeni politics and tribal relations.

Follow him on Twitter: @CarvajalF