AL-MAHRA, YEMEN — Saudi Arabia has begun construction on a pipeline in the al-Mahra province in Yemen — which will allow the kingdom to transport oil directly to the Arabian Sea, bypassing the Strait of Hormuz and Bab-el-Mandeb Strait — a high-ranking Yemeni official told MintPress News.
The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the new pipeline would allow Saudi Arabia to export oil from refineries in al-Mahra through the Rub’ al Khali Desert, the largest contiguous sand desert in the world, which lies in Yemen’s northeast.
Al-Mahra port would bypass straits
For Saudi Arabia, a petroleum port in al-Mahra would offer a distinct strategic advantage: it would allow the kingdom not to be constrained to the Strait of Hormuz or the Bab el-Mandeb Strait, both strategic choke points that affect its current oil shipping routes.
In a letter sent by the Jeddah-based marine construction firm, the Huta Group, to Saudi Arabia’s Ambassador to Yemen Mohammed al-Jaber, the firm said it would make arrangements to visit al-Mahra, conduct necessary surveys, and gather the data needed to prepare an estimate for the port’s construction.
The onset of the port’s construction follows a brutal late 2017 military campaign against al-Mahra carried out by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE). Al-Mahrah, which borders Oman, has remained largely immune to the broader war in Yemen as both the Houthis and other armed groups have little presence in the province.
— demolinari (@demolinari) December 8, 2017
Despite this, the Saudi-led coalition, much to the dismay of neighboring Oman, established a UAE-backed security force in the province dubbed the “Mahri Elite Forces” — modeled around other coalition-backed mercenary forces operating in Yemen, including the Hadhrami Elite Forces in Hadhramaut province, the Shabwani Elite Forces in Shabwa, and the Pioneer Security Belt Forces (al-Hizam) brigades in Aden.
Al-Mahra sit-in and protests
As a result, residents in the al-Mahra province have organized an open sit-in, rejecting Saudi policies in their country as well as the kingdom’s dominance over vital infrastructure in the area. Seventeen percent of petroleum imports to Yemen enter from Oman through a border crossing in al-Mahra, which, along with the province’s seaport and airport, is under Saudi and UAE control.
On Tuesday, Saudi-led coalition forces arrested Ali bin Salem al-Huraizy, al-Mahra’s former deputy governor, after he called for protests against the Saudi-Emirati military coalition. Al-Huraizy rejects Saudi plans to build the oil port in al-Mahra without the permission of the local authorities. He recently told a group of protesters:
They carry out their own projects including a pipeline without government or local knowledge. We hope that the legitimate leadership can be more attentive to what’s happening.”
Al-Huraizy also criticized Saudi Arabia’s ambassador to Yemen, Abdullah al-Jaber, for receiving Yemen’s former President Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi, who is allegedly on house-arrest in Saudi Arabia, at al-Mahra’s airport, claiming it proved that the Saudi ambassador is in control of al-Mahra.
Saudi authorities claim al-Huraizy used social media to stir up tensions between Yemeni tribes and the coalition by saying Saudi Arabia is occupying al-Mahra. In an interview with Aljazeera last month, Huraizy said Saudi Arabia is looking to solidify its military presence in the province.
Local residents in al-Mahra back al-Huraizy’s sentiments, claiming fishing and navigation in the local port has been prevented and the airport has been turned into a military barracks. Saudi authorities give orders to local security and control customs in the region and exercise control over ports, local authorities and tribal affairs.
Al-Huraizy said, “we feel like the situation is extremely complex at the moment because the legitimate government is being held hostage by the [Saudi] coalition.”
Saudi sops and promises
Saudi authorities have tried to quell discontent in al-Mahra by promising to launch development projects in the region, including a medical complex and electrical stations. Saudi Arabia has also, according to al-Mahra residents, worked through the King Salman Center for Relief and Humanitarian Action to occasionally distribute aid, pave streets and plant trees. But the measures have done little to appease residents, who reject the violation of Yemen’s sovereignty and promise to carry on with protests against the Saudi and Emirati presence.
According to some strategic analysts, the Saudi-led coalition’s military presence in al-Mahra may also be intended to apply pressure on Oman, which enjoys long borders and solid relations with al-Mahra. Much to the dismay of Saudi Arabia and the UAE, Oman also enjoys cordial relations with Saudi rival Iran, a relationship that the coalition is eager to undermine.
#Saudi interest in east #Yemen's #Mahra is growing. The Saudi Ambassador + entourage flew into al-Ghayda last night. He spoke of improving electricity, water, health & subsidising fuel. Not everyone agrees Mahra's dev needs require the presence of so much Saudi military hardware pic.twitter.com/t3fXVNOH7d
— Elisabeth Kendall (@Dr_E_Kendall) June 1, 2018
Saudi Arabia and the UAE also claim that arms smuggling operations by Ansarullah (Houthis) are being carried out from Oman into Yemen via the al-Mahra border crossing, though they have provided no evidence to back their claim, which Oman has repeatedly denied.
To tighten its control over the province, Saudi Arabia is also working to establish Islamic extremist centers in the province to disseminate the same Salafi ideology practiced by ISIS and al-Qaeda. In Kashan, the third largest city in the al-Mahra, local residents told MintPress that “some individuals, including foreigners, who are widely believed to be Salafists who fought in Saada, are purchasing land plots for outrageous sums of money that do not match the plots’ real value.”
Oman has expressed alarm over the allegations, as it routinely provides humanitarian aid and dual citizenship for residents of al-Mahra.
Top Photo | Residents protest Saudi military occupation of al-Mahra and well as coaltion support for militias in the region. Twitter | Elisabeth Kendall
Ahmed AbdulKareem is a Yemeni journalist. He covers the war in Yemen for MintPress News as well as local Yemeni media.