Saudi Arabia is consolidating its military hold on eastern Yemen’s al-Mahrah province, hoping to use the area for an oil pipeline that would bypass the Strait of Hormuz.
AL-MAHRAH, YEMEN — “The Saudi forces must leave all our townships and villages from the coast to the desert,” Ahmed Balhaf, a resident of Yemen’s eastern al-Mahrah province told a cheering crowd gathered to protest the presence of Saudi troops in Yemen. The demonstrations were part of a series of protests spread across six cities in al-Mahrah, Yemen on Friday, including in al-Mesilah, Sihout, al-Huson and al-Ghaydha.
Protesters hoisted large Yemeni flags and held banners declaring, “Our steadfastness continues,” and, “No to occupation by Saudi Arabia, Yes to national sovereignty.” The protests follow an announcement by the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia’s main coalition ally in its war on Yemen, that it is withdrawing troops from the country, allegedly following threats that the Yemeni resistance was planning attacks on Dubai if UAE forces remained in the country. Now, emboldened protesters are demanding that Saudi forces transfer control of key ports, including Shehn, Sarfeet and Nashton to back to Yemeni authorities. Protesters are also calling for the reopening of the Gheidah International Airport, which was transformed into a Saudi military base and is allegedly home to Saudi-run secret prisons.
The sit-in committee which organizes protests in al-Mahrah said in a statement during the protest:
What’s going on in the Mesila, Sehout, Hassouin, Nashton directorates and the Luisic district is no different from what happens in other districts in al-Mahrah where Saudi Arabia continues to build camps, harass local residents and cut off their income by preventing them from grazing [livestock] and fishing.”
As a result of the continued Saudi expansion in the province, which is dominated by eastern Yemen’s barren deserts and abuts neighboring Oman, both local Yemeni political leaders, as well as the sit-in committee, announced on Friday that they were willing to resort to more violent means to force the Saudi military to leave their home. “If the peaceful protests of al Mahrah’s residents are futile, we have other options that will force the occupier to leave,” Sheikh Ali Salem al-Harizi, a former deputy governor of al-Mahrah warned on Friday.
A history of violence
The protests are part of a wave of demonstrations that have flared up regularly over the few past years calling for Saudi Arabia to withdraw its military from al-Mahrah. On July 5, a group of residents protested after members of a Saudi-backed militia attacked a woman’s home in the city of Ghaida. The attack occurred near a recently constructed Saudi checkpoint and sparked instant outrage from local residents, who were already so upset with the new Saudi presence in their neighborhood that they formed a makeshift citizen’s militia in what was ultimately an unsuccessful attempt at halting the checkpoint’s construction.
In most cases, Saudi Arabia has been able to quell the protest with little to no violence, relying instead on buying off local officials and appeasing residents with promises of civil construction projects such as newly paved roads and medical clinics. But those measures haven’t always enough to stem the tide of popular discontent in the restive region. In Jadwa, an area which lies in al-Mahrah’s al-Hassouin directorate, Saudi forces fired live ammunition into a crowd of unarmed protestors who had gathered in front of a makeshift Saudi military camp to protest the Kingdom’s presence in their region.
Saudi Arabia is also keen on preventing media coverage of the growing demonstrations for fear that discontent in the region will spread. The Kingdom is accused of kidnapping local journalists who have worked to expose Saudi misdeeds in al-Mahrah. Yahya al-Sawari was working for a local news channel that recently intensified its coverage of the al-Mahrah protest movement when he was kidnapped by Saudi-backed militants on July 3 while trying to take photos of wounded protesters in al-Ghaydha Hospital. He was then allegedly taken to Saudi Arabia’s “Criminal Investigation Prison” and eventually to a prison controlled by Saudi forces at al-Ghaydha airport.
The organizing committee for the peaceful protest accused Saudi forces of the abduction and has called on the journalists’ syndicate and international human rights organizations to protect Yemen’s journalists and to come to the aid of al-Sawari. The Committee to Protect Journalists sent a message to the Saudi-backed Yemeni Ministry of the Interior, which oversees the Criminal Investigation Police and emailed the Saudi Ministry of Defense inquiring about al-Sawari’s status but did not receive a response. Allegations of Saudi Arabia targeting journalists in Yemen are nothing new. The leader of Yemen’s journalist syndicate, Abdullah Subri and even MintPress’ own Ahmed Abdulkareem have been targeted for their coverage of Saudi war crimes in Yemen.
Oil, occupation and Iran
While resident’s of al-Mahrah have long opposed the Saudi presence in their region, a recent increase in the presence of Saudi troops in the region and the construction of a number of new military camps and checkpoints has renewed both suspicion of Saudi plans for a long-term presence in Eastern Yemen as well as calls for the Kingdom to vacate the region.
Saudi Arabia claims that its checkpoints and military bases are needed to combat an influx of alleged Iranian arms shipments and drug smuggling through Oman, which borders al-Mahrah to the east, though the Kingdom has provided no evidence to back its claim, a claim which Oman has repeatedly and vociferously denied.
Local residents aren’t buying the Saudi line either. They say that smuggling is just a pretext for a Saudi takeover of their province and resources. Local protest leader Ahmed Balhaf says claims of smuggling have been debunked and that despite a Saudi takeover of al-Mahrah, the Houthis are equipped with evermore modern weaponry. “Where are the Houthis getting all of their new weapons like those they recently showed at their exhibition if Saudi forces are spread out through the whole of al-Mahrah,” Balhaf asked. “There is no smuggling of weapons to the Houthis in al-Mahrah and besides, the military bases were built in oil-rich areas.”
The presence of Saudi forces in a province of Yemen that has remained largely immune to the broader war in the country and is home to potentially lucrative untapped oil reserves is considered by many analysts as malign and colonial in nature. The province is largely peaceful and has been mostly spared from Yemen’s war, which is concentrated in the country’s Houthi-dominated western reachers. The Houthis have a negligible presence in al-Mahrah and despite the region’s once-solid support for the Saudi-led coalition, al-Mahrah and Socotra have been under Saudi and UAE military rule for years.
In reality, Saudi Arabia has a strategic interest in the province. In late September, MintPress revealed that the Kingdom began construction on a pipeline in al-Mahrah that would allow it transport oil directly to the Arabian Sea, bypassing the Strait of Hormuz and the Bab-el-Mandeb Strait, which are dominated by the Kingdom’s main foe in the region, Iran. Now, following recent attacks on a Saudi pipeline as well as the alleged bombing of oil tankers in the Persian Gulf, Saudi Arabia is stepping up its activities in al-Mahrah, hoping to finish construction on the pipeline as soon as possible in a bid to circumvent the Strait of Hormuz and deny Iran the strategic advantage it enjoys through its control of the Strait.
Feature photo | Saudi troops walk past armored personnel carriers at their base in Yemen’s southern port city of Aden September 28, 2015. Faisal Al Nasser | Reuters
Ahmed AbdulKareem is a Yemeni journalist. He covers the war in Yemen for MintPress News as well as local Yemeni media.