by Eleonora Ardemagni
Mainstream representations are accustomed to viewing Yemen either as a country fragmented along the North/South or as a nation divided into two principal religious group, Sunni and Shi’a. Although salient, these cleavages cannot fully explain the complexity of the Yemeni scenario. For instance, the South is not a homogenous actor because there are regional and tribal identities to feed local agendas. In Yemen, the Civil War in 1994 and then the 2011 Arab uprising have exacerbated the dynamic yet convoluted conflict, which has compelled several Yemenis to call for regional autonomy. This complicated situation is particularly evident in south-eastern, Sunni-populated governorates of Hadhramaut and Al-Mahra.
The federal reform text – drafted in 2014 by the committee of regions appointed by the National Dialogue Conference – has highlighted the intra-southern rifts in Yemen. According to the national project, the Yemeni administrative map would be redesigned into two groups and six macro-regions: namely, Aden (the current Lahj, Dhalae, Abyan, and Aden governorates) and Hadhramaut (the current Shabwa, Hadhramaut, Al-Mahra, and Socotra) in the South. Although federalism is widely perceived as a tool of protecting Yemeni micro-identities, the locals in South Yemen received this top-down draft with a mix of criticism and suspicion. Moreover, the Southern Mobility Movement or Al-Hiraak, a political organisation that is very active in South Yemen, did not manage to clearly channel hopes for autonomy, thus mirroring intra-South rivalries.
Yemen’s ‘far East’ has always been marginalised by the central, northern-driven elite, especially on issues concerning revenue redistribution, economic opportunities, and political representation. At the same time, Hadhrami and Mahri clans use to nurture a proud sense of distinctiveness from the rest of Yemen. Hadhramaut is the richest governorate in terms of natural resources as the region has 80 percent of producing oil fields, gas, unexploited gold deposits, water and land. Moreover, the Hadhrami identity was able to connect Balad (the homeland) with Mahjar, the diaspora of Arabs around the world. Under the rule of Ali Abdullah Saleh, Hadhramaut experienced the dysfunctional effects of the Sana’a-centred, neo-patrimonial system of power. The oil sector became a driver of patronage since Hadhramis were systematically marginalised from revenue redistribution and oil employments. In addition, the regime-organic businesspersons gained oil contracts and many military officers accumulated private fortunes thanks to security contracts for the protection of foreign oil companies working in the region. Given all these reasons, Hadhramis will hardly agree to share their wealth and natural resources with their neighbours.
The Al-Mahra governorate, an administrative district with meagre natural resources, basic services, and shambolic infrastructures, lies in the most remote eastern corner of Yemen. Knowledge production on it remains difficult and rare. This region, which depends on a tribal informal economy, is highly disenfranchised from the Sana’a-based power. Besides, about 80% of its inhabitants do not have direct access to water and electricity. However, tribes seem to be firmly against this federal draft. According to a 2013 survey by Elisabeth Kendall, an Oxford-based leading scholar on Eastern Yemen, 99% of 34,000 respondents rejected the proposal to merge with Hadhramaut, while 86% of Mahris wanted to be ruled by a cross-tribal council, opposing both the ˊunited Yemenˋ and the ˊSouth Yemenˋ hypothesis. The indigenes of Mahris have not forgotten that the socialist forces of Hadhramaut entered their region in 1968 when the Mahra Sultanate of Qishn and Socotra was abrogated and subsequently integrated into the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen.
In 2012, Socotrans unusually gathered in Hadiboh, the capital of Socotra, calling for local and national reforms. In 2014, the archipelago of Socotra, which initially belonged to Aden and subsequently owned by Hadhramaut, was recognised as a governorate.
Therefore, the implementation of the suggested federal text would likely fuel additional tribal animosity toward Sana’a, thus increasing the security vacuum in the South. In such a scenario, jihadi groups such as Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) could easily capitalise on local resentment and anti-northern prejudice. AQAP managed to penetrate Mukalla exploiting the Hadhrami uprising against government officials, a rebellion that started in December 2013. However, it AQAP has withdrawn from the city following Saudi airstrikes and the Yemeni army’s operation (with the help of Sunni militias and Emirati special forces). Al-Mahra’s tribes are already patrolling the western border of the country and the capital Al-Ghayda, fearing AQAP’s infiltration and recruitment among the young population, while Oman has been building a fence along the border. Before the ideological differences, AQAP has shown its ‘pragmatic face’ in Mukalla, winning local consensus with welfare provision and social-issue knowledge. In the long-term, stakeholders in that region must address this worrying aspect. The relationship between the army, tribal militias, and the popular committees will be critical, especially in a federal framework, in securing the southeastern region.
The stability of southeastern Yemen is vital for the Gulf’s security too. Including the control of coastal Hadhramaut and its main ports, AQAP had strategic interest in Indian Ocean routes. Since all the scenarios are still open to speculation, neighbouring Gulf monarchies are already vying for influence in the southern regions of Yemen. Moreover, Saudi Arabia has kinship ties with Hadhrami families, and the UAE have been training southern military units and publicising its foreign aid policy, as Oman relies on its mediator skills and Dhofar’s cultural proximity with Mahra. Yemen’s political unity remains highly uncertain, but the federal solution appears to be the only prudent solution to the impasse.
Eleonora Ardemagni is an international relations analyst of the Middle East. She is Gulf Analyst at the Nato Defense College Foundation and the Aspen Institute Italy. She has published on Yemen and the GCC region. She is also author of the analysis ‘The Yemeni Conflict: Genealogy, Game-Changers and Regional Implications‘, Italian Institute for International Political Studies (ISPI), April 2016.
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