As uncertainty grows over peace talks in Yemen, the coveted province of Hadramawt now lies at the centre of a conflict between Houthi rivals.
While local residents across northern Hadramawt, the area bordering Saudi Arabia, continue to protest against military units affiliated with the Islamist al-Islah party, al-Islah is struggling to hold its last base in the south, while Saudi Arabia is seeking to strike a balance to maintain the fragile alliance formed last April.
Street protests demanding full implementation of the 2019 Riyadh Agreement continue to call for the replacement of the Islah-affiliated commander of the First Military Region based in Sayyun.
The Sunni Islamist party and the Southern Transitional Council (STC), meanwhile, are competing for recruits among local tribes, further raising tensions in the area among factions and dragging Saudi Arabia into a new battlefront.
“As uncertainty grows over peace talks in Yemen, the coveted province of Hadramawt now lies at the centre of a conflict between Houthi rivals”
In efforts to extinguish tensions without drastic measures, Saudi Arabia has opted for supporting the formation of new armed forces to be deployed in Hadramawt.
Without any clear sign over the future of units of the First Military Region, Dr Rashad al-Alimi, head of the Presidential Leadership Council (PLC), established three brigades under the newly formed Dara al-Watan Forces (National Shield Forces) to be potentially deployed in areas of Hadramawt.
The last stance in the south
After securing the southern oil-rich province of Shabwa, southern forces have shifted their aim to Wadi Hadramawt and the remnants of pro-Islah forces. The First Military Region is seen by local residents as an extension of the northern occupation legacy in south Yemen.
This conflict across northern Hadramawt comes months after southern forces expelled Islah-affiliated security forces from Shabwa province. To southerners, “the First Region Command represents the last standing forces affiliated with al-Islah party in south Yemen,” said Ali Kathiri, Director of the Southern Media Authority in Aden and pro-STC leader from Sayyun.
This new round of escalation also extends from efforts by rival parties to recruit more troops, dividing tribal factions across political lines and between security forces aiming to strengthen their positions.
Yemeni fighters loyal to the government backed by the Saudi-led coalition fighting in the country ride in the back of a pickup truck with mounted heavy machine gun while closing in on a suspected location of an Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) leader during their the offensive in the Mesini Valley in the vast province of Hadramawt on February 21, 2018
In efforts to de-escalate tensions and maintain the fragile alliance formed when the PLC was established in April 2022, Saudi Arabia stepped in last month and demanded that pro-STC elements under Hassan al-Jabri evacuate a new camp established to train new recruits.
Southerners believe the move by Saudi Arabia aims to strengthen their position during talks with Sanaa-based Houthi rebels. The announcement of the deployment of the National Shield Forces (NSF) also appears to coincide with efforts aiming to appease rivals and close ranks against Houthis.
A strategic battle
The conflict over security along Wadi Hadramawt drags Saudi Arabia into engagement on multiple fronts. The rivalry between the Muslim Brotherhood affiliate al-Islah party and the STC is only one component of the conflict along a highly strategic route.
This area also lies along a major smuggling route for Houthi rebels, connecting the eastern province of Mahara and al-Jawf. Saudi Arabia has exerted much effort over the past five years to secure it.
“The conflict over security along Wadi Hadramawt drags Saudi Arabia into engagement on multiple fronts”
Since forces were expelled from Shabwa, al-Islah is now even more vested in holding the Wadi Hadramawt area. The road through Sayyun runs from Mareb City through Wadi Hadramawt to the Mahara border with Oman, a highly coveted route by the Houthis. Two recent incidents serve to highlight Houthi efforts to strengthen their drone arsenal.
In late December 2022, security forces in Wadi Hadramawt seized a shipment of drone components. Two weeks ago, security forces in the eastern province of Mahara seized another shipment that included fuel engines for drones. Both incidents served to confirm the strategic value of the road connecting Mahara and Wadi Hadramawt to Houthi-held territory in al-Jawf and southern Mareb.
The shipments also illustrated a brazen effort by Houthis to smuggle vital components by land
while attention has focused on maritime smuggling. Shipments of drone components by land such as these had not been seen at this rate since the Saudi-led coalition increased its presence in al-Mahara province.
Local leaders in areas like Sayyun, Shiban, and Tarim continue to organise protests against the First Military Region forces and counter the recruitment efforts by al-Islah. Southerners say the Muslim Brotherhood affiliate is led by Saleh Batis, the figure at the centre of recruitment among the local tribes.
His rivals highlight the threat posed to the south by reminding him of his brother, Khaled Batis, reportedly killed by a US drone strike in 2012. Southern secessionists point to this history to strengthen their opposition to al-Islah elements in southern provinces as pro-STC Security Belt Units and Amalaqa Brigades expand counter-terrorism operations in Abyan and Shabwa.
This security operation against terrorist elements in Abyan continues to gain support among local populations, making it more difficult for Saudi Arabia to counter the growing influence of the STC.
The rush to recruit troops across Wadi Hadramawt is targeting thousands. The First Region Command under General Saleh Mohammed Taymas, an al-Islah affiliate originally from Abyan, aims to recruit at least three thousand new troops. Pro-STC forces have a target of ten thousand recruits to be deployed as replacements of the First Region and auxiliaries for the Hadhrami Elite Forces and Barshid Brigades.
“The next steps remain unclear, while southerners expect more instability as competing factions joust to strengthen their own positions in the conflict”
Hadramawt governor Mabkhoot bin Mubarak bin Madhi has come under increasing pressure over his inability to end the conflict brewing across half of his territory. The governor has also clashed with Minister of Interior Ibrahim Ali Ahmed Haidan, similar to the clash between Haidan and Shabwa governor Awadh Bin al-Wazir al-Awlaki last year during a crackdown against Islah-affiliated forces in his province.
The establishment of the National Shield Forces (NSF) under Brigadier General Bashir Saif, “a Saudi-backed Salafi sheikh from Lahj governorate”, received a mixed reaction from southerners.
On the one hand, PLC president al-Alimi was criticised for adding to the number of forces outside the command of the Ministry of Defence, even if these new forces are composed of southern troops.
On the other hand, some factions welcomed the deployment of the three brigades to Hadramawt in hopes they would replace forces from the First Military Region, expecting these to be mobilised to a northern province and fight Houthi rebels.
The next steps remain unclear, while southerners expect more instability as competing factions joust to strengthen their own positions in the conflict.
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.