NISHTUN, Yemen — Saudi Arabia’s brutal military campaign in Yemen has killed thousands of civilians, fueled mass starvation among Yemenis and horrified officials and human rights watchdogs around the world. But another part of the Saudi intervention in the country has received far less attention: a Saudi takeover of strategic transport facilities in Yemen’s eastern Al-Mahra province, and the establishment of a string of Saudi military bases there. The land rush has the potential, many locals and experts fear, to sow the seeds of future instability and anger with Saudi allies like the U.S. in one of Yemen’s few relatively peaceful regions.
Saudi officials say their moves in Al-Mahra are designed to support Yemen by preventing weapons smuggling, improving infrastructure and providing humanitarian aid. Yet their efforts also support a longstanding Saudi goal: using Al-Mahra to access valuable trade routes.
Now, local frustration about Saudi dominance in the region is boiling over, and U.S. officials and national security experts are becoming worried the Saudis will use Western help to turn the region into a chaotic proxy state.
On Feb. 6, two U.S. military personnel traveled across the province to meet with local forces who answer to the Saudis, according to two sources involved with their trip and photographs shared with HuffPost. One source said their conversation focused on counter-smuggling efforts and the situation in southern Yemen, which is far from the frontlines of the fight the U.S. publicly says it is helping Saudi Arabia wage against Iran-backed militants in northern Yemen.
Last fall, two American experts visited the province to consult on the Saudi construction plans, per a Yemeni government document about their trip seen by HuffPost and a regional official who organized transport for the Americans.
Neither visit has been previously reported in U.S. media.
The Defense Department’s Central Command — which oversees most American forces in the Middle East — told HuffPost it had no “operational reporting” about U.S personnel visiting Al-Mahra. The office of the Secretary of Defense and a spokesperson for the Saudi Embassy in Washington did not respond to requests for comment.
The Saudi project in Al-Mahra is directly linked to the yearslong concern in Washington about America’s role in the Yemen war. Lawmakers from both parties have questioned American arms shipments and logistical support for Saudi operations in Yemen, staging high-profile votes to try to block the weaponry, and the Biden administration has repeatedly said it wants to end the conflict. Legislators and national security analysts believe the risk of continued meddling is twofold: even more violations of international law, and dangerous resistance to the Saudis and their foreign friends.
The fact that American service members have been traveling around Al-Mahra should prompt more scrutiny of the situation there on Capitol Hill, a senior congressional aide told HuffPost.
“We need clarity on the scope and size of the U.S. military’s non-public advisory role with [pro-Saudi Yemeni] forces, especially to what degree such efforts expand beyond simply existing counter-[Al Qaeda] operations,” the aide, speaking on condition of anonymity, said. “Members of Congress should be asking the administration about the extent of such operations, their legal basis, and ultimate goals.”
A State Department spokesperson declined to comment on the U.S. military personnel’s trip or Saudi influence operations in Al-Mahra. The spokesperson said via email: “The U.S. is committed to peace and stability for the people of not only southern but all of Yemen, as part of President Biden’s commitment to achieving a lasting peace and settlement of the conflict.”
To observers who closely follow developments in Yemen, the Saudis’ intentions in Al-Mahra are clear: creating a way to export Saudi oil through Yemen. “Why else would they be there? What is the utility of moving around other than to access a port?” the congressional aide said.
Al-Mahra residents — known as Mahris — have been challenging encroachment by the Saudis and their ally the United Arab Emirates for nearly a decade, experts on the region say. While their tactics have largely been peaceful, like sit-ins and demonstrations, they have become more willing to speak of violence against what they see as a slow-roll occupation.
Ali Salem Al-Huraizi, a local leader who has spent years organizing Mahri pushback, told HuffPost late last year that he had directed his forces to shoot at Saudi installations as a warning.
“We are not against Saudi interests in Yemen ... but this should be done officially with an agreement between the Yemeni government and Saudi Arabia that would guarantee our right as Yemenis and our country’s sovereignty. We won’t have any issue if that is surely happening,” said Al-Huraizi, a former deputy governor of the province. “But if the Saudis still want to do that their own way ... then our answer will always be no.”
Saudi Arabia has seen Al-Mahra as a prize for decades. The appeal of the province is its long coastline on the Indian Ocean. Shipments through its ports would bypass the two chokepoints where Saudi oil exports and crucial imports are otherwise vulnerable, one to the north in the Strait of Hormuz, near Saudi nemesis Iran, and the other to the south at Bab el-Mandeb, south of Yemen and adjacent to pro-Iran forces and the turbulent Horn of Africa.
More than a decade ago, the Saudis negotiated with Ali Abdullah Saleh, Yemen’s longtime president, to develop an oil pipeline running from Saudi territory through Al-Mahra to one of the region’s ports, but failed to reach a deal, according to well-informed Yemenis and analysts. Then Saudi Arabia began military operations in Yemen in 2015, using American help and troops from the UAE and other Arab states to fight a pro-Iran militia called the Houthis that had captured the Yemeni capital of Sanaa.
Al-Mahra is far from the battle lines between Saudi-led forces and the Houthis. But the players in the intervention saw an opportunity. First, the UAE tried to organize Mahris into a proxy force — then they gave up and Saudi Arabia began its bid.
Saleh Al-Jabwani, who was the transport minister in Yemen’s internationally recognized government between 2017 and 2020, told HuffPost he recalled traveling to Al-Mahra in 2018 with the Saudi ambassador to Yemen.
The diplomat promised Saudi investment in 10 projects, including developing a port and an airport, as long as Saudi troops could be in the area, said Al-Jabwani. “They pressured the fishermen not to fish and they fought back.”
The Saudis also began granting Saudi citizenship to Mahris along the province’s border with Saudi Arabia in “a step on the way to take Al-Mahra,” he added, and began monthly payments to local tribal leaders that independent researchers say have undermined Mahri unity.
Al-Jabwani lost his post after criticizing the UAE and the Saudis. “The Saudis and Emiratis have their own interests and for that they want to break Yemen into mini-states,” he argued in a January interview.
The Saudi presence in Al-Mahra has swelled. “Throughout the province, the Saudi military has more than a dozen military bases ... estimates range from 5,000 to 15,000 Saudi troops,” said Asher Orkaby, a research associate at Harvard University’s Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies.
The upshot: Angry Mahris “formed a sense of identity by looking at Saudi Arabia as the other, as somebody’s who’s coming in to challenge our autonomy,” Orkaby said. Mahri sit-ins against Saudi installations and anti-Saudi commentary on Mahri social media quickly mushroomed.
Leaders like Al-Huraizi have staged demonstrations with civilians and armed men.
In 2018, Al Jazeera and Yemeni outlets published a document purportedly laying out Saudi plans to build and run an oil port in the area. Al-Huraizi said he gathered 3,000 fighters to destroy initial Saudi footings for a pipeline to the Al-Mahra coast. Pro-Saudi media outlets have accused Al-Huraizi of being a tool of the Houthis, the Muslim Brotherhood movement and Oman, Yemen’s eastern neighbor.
In an echo of the kingdom’s autocratic approach to its own population, Saudi Arabia has deployed harsh measures to preserve and expand its grip.
The Saudis appointed new tribal chiefs to replace those who criticized their growing power, forced Yemen’s government to dismiss Al-Mahra’s governor and then arrested him when he visited Saudi Arabia and expelled Yemeni soldiers and employees from the region’s only airport, according to researcher Abdulkareem Ghanem of the Sana’a Center think tank.
Saudi forces and associated Yemenis have also detained, tortured and disappeared Al-Mahra residents for months, Human Rights Watch reported in 2020, accusing the kingdom of “serious abuses” that represent “another horror to add to the list of the Saudi-led coalition’s unlawful conduct in Yemen.”
By the summer of 2021, it became clear that the situation could spark an all-out conflict: Mahri fighters publicly issued a statement saying they would use force to expel foreign influence.
Undercutting Peace Efforts
Yemen’s painful civil war may finally end soon. The Saudi-led bloc and the Houthis have largely maintained a nine-month truce and are reportedly making progress in back-channel talks. The U.S. sees “a unique opportunity for peace,” Richard Mills, the deputy American ambassador to the United Nations, said last month.
For Al-Mahra’s residents, however, a deal could mean increased danger if it overlooks Saudi encroachment. A bargain could allow the kingdom to fully focus on its project in the region — selling Saudi gains there as a benefit of an intervention that has otherwise been costly for Saudi Arabia’s reputation and military.
Mahris told HuffPost they are anxious about their future, with many highlighting the risk of an oil spill.
“People here depend on the sea ... for their main income,” said Zakarya Ahmed Saleh, a 30-year-old resident of the coastal district of Hasween. “Accidents cause big worries to our society.”
Awad Sa’ad Mohammed Ba Al-Faqiah, a 56-year-old fisherman, recalled the pain of past oil accidents: people stopped eating fish for fear of getting sick, depriving fishermen of an income, and many fish washed up dead on local beaches.
The lack of transparency about strategic points like the port of Nishtun is especially frustrating, and suggests Al-Mahra could face complex new challenges, Saleh said, while hindering the province’s hopes of developing on its own path.
“We don’t understand what’s going on in the port, what kind of materials they bring in. Citizens are not allowed to come inside, which creates big concerns for us,” Saleh continued. “We know that oil is the most demanded thing in the world, so this pipeline may make our place exposed to many regional and international conflicts.”
Those concerns may matter little for Riyadh’s calculus. Saudi Arabia and the UAE “are eager to get some advantage out of the expensive quagmire they jumped into in 2015,” Bruce Reidel, a former CIA analyst now at the Brookings Institution, wrote of the situation surrounding Al-Mahra. “Territorial acquisition of strategic terrain may be the only gain possible.”
The Emiratis have already consolidated control over Al-Mahra’s neighboring region of Socotra with sizable facilities that suggest they are unlikely to ever relinquish control. “Even if they claim they’re not, they are conducting themselves in a way that any normal country with a functioning government would say, ‘You’re violating our sovereignty,’” the congressional aide said.
And UAE-aligned militias run much of the other part of Yemen’s Indian Ocean coastline, giving Al-Mahra “added value” to the Saudis, according to Eleonora Ardemagni of the Italian Institute for International Political Studies.
But the U.S. might influence the Saudis’ thinking if Washington sees how a mess in Al-Mahra harms its interests.
For one, the appearance of approving a land grab by a friend could hurt America’s attempts to rally international support for Ukraine and hem in Chinese expansionism by casting the U.S. as a hypocrite on the principle of national sovereignty. “Any time China coughs or runs a fishing vessel on a coral reef in the East or South China Sea, we get very concerned about it,” the congressional aide noted.
Eventually, Al-Mahra could pose a national security headache. The region could become vital to global trade routes — which the U.S. is committed to protecting — without becoming stable. And it could serve as a rallying point for anti-American groups, or simply Yemenis who see America as complicit in a historic crime.
“Yemenis will never give up land,” said Al-Jabwani, the former minister, arguing that this nation will ultimately even end the well-established UAE occupation in Socotra.
“We want the United States to come to Yemenis directly — not through proxies, Saudi Arabia or the UAE. Talk to us.”