Muscat engages in a conflict by proxy in Yemen’s Mahrah province

Oman is allegedly sending funds to troops in Mahrah to avoid it falling under full Saudi control.
Saturday 07/09/2019
A map of Yemen locating the province of Mahrah.
A map of Yemen locating the province of Mahrah.

ADEN - Saudi Arabia is seeking to contain tensions between its forces and local fighters backed by Oman and Qatar in the eastern Yemeni province of Mahrah.

Muscat and Doha reportedly tried to create conflict with local authorities in Mahrah, including demanding the departure of the Arab coalition forces. Those forces had entered to prevent weapons, allegedly crossing Oman’s borders with Yemen, from reaching Houthi militias.

A meeting between Saudi Deputy Defence Minister Prince Khalid bin Salman and Abdullah bin Isa al-Afrar, an influential tribal figure and chairman of the General Council of the Inhabitants of Mahrah and Socotra provinces, involved developments in Mahrah and Socotra, the situation of Mahrah tribesmen living in the Saudi Empty Quarter whose Saudi passports have expired and obstacles Saudis of Mahrah origin face in trying to visit Mahrah.

Afrar’s visit is likely part of a Saudi move to ease tensions supposedly sparked by Muscat and Doha.

The meeting could be a turning point that may curb tension financed outside Yemen and to the completion of a Saudi programme for reconstruction and development in liberated provinces, especially Mahrah, which has historical and social ties to Saudi Arabia.

Tensions escalated in Mahrah after the arrival of Saudi forces to address alleged arms smuggling to Houthi militias in Yemen. Political escalation and unrest were reportedly spurred by a media campaign backed by Doha and Muscat to create an impression that Saudi Arabia had expansionist interests in Mahrah, which borders Oman and Saudi Arabia.

The Arab Weekly earlier reported the growing conflict in Mahrah. Oman and Saudi Arabia have used their local influence with tribesmen to create a fragile equilibrium in light of reports of tribesmen being armed to create tensions with local authorities known to have good relations with Saudi Arabia and the Arab coalition.

The Independent, a British newspaper, described events in Mahrah as “the new Gulf War by proxy.” The Independent’s Middle East correspondent Bel Trew wrote that Mahrah, which once prided itself on its autonomy, culture and unique Mahrah dialect, “has now become a major line of confrontation in a proxy war between Iran and Saudi Arabia.”

Observers said that what is happening in the province is not a proxy war between Iran and Saudi Arabia because Tehran does not have interests or direct influence in the province. Riyadh has been supporting the local Mahrah government to develop infrastructure and prevent it being used as a corridor for weapons smuggling to the Houthis.

Muscat and Doha are reportedly involved in funding tribal protests that do not reflect the demands of the people in Mahrah as much as they are intended to confuse the strategy of the Arab coalition. Muscat has allegedly funded demonstrations in Mahrah against what protest organisers called a Saudi “occupation.”

Saudi Arabia is clearly trying to avoid getting involved in a direct confrontation with the protest movements while supporting local authorities led by Rajeh Bakrit.

Bakrit’s appointment as Mahrah governor coincided with Saudi moves in the province. A few days after the arrival of Saudi forces in Mahrah, the former Mahrah governor, who is close to Oman, was replaced by Bakrit, who had spent little time in Mahrah.

Oman is allegedly sending funds to troops in Mahrah to avoid it falling under full Saudi control. Abdullah al-Ghailani, an Omani strategist, told the Independent that Mahrah was “Oman’s backyard.”

“We have invested tremendously in the development of the infrastructure there and we have strong political ties with the region,” he said.

Muscat is said to be using tribesmen and former Yemeni Army and police officers to organise protests in Mahrah, including Ali Salem al-Huraizi, a former guard commander and deputy governor, known to supporters as “the General.”

Since the time of former Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh, Huraizi has been a prominent figure in anti-Saudi protests. Riyadh accused Huraizi of being directly involved in weapons and other smuggling operations, which he strongly denied.

For about 450 years, until 1967, Mahrah was an independent sultanate that included the Socotra archipelago.

Having distinct language and culture and being geographically removed from the political and military struggle in southern Yemen allowed Mahrah inhabitants to enjoy a form of autonomy and self-sufficiency. The governorate kept its distance from conflicts in other parts of Yemen after unification of the country in 1990.

The people of the province opened cross-border relations with tribes in western Oman and south-eastern Saudi Arabia as well as in the United Arab Emirates.

Tribal ties filled the vacuum created by the absence of the state in the region. Even in 2011, Mahrah was not affected by the political conflict nor was it touched by the Houthi coup in September 2014. The governorate remained administered by a local authority and tribal influence.

After reports that the Houthis were using Mahrah as a route for arms smuggling, the Arab alliance sent troops to monitor land and sea inlets in Mahrah. Oman considered the move a threat and supported the Houthis, which was a departure from the neutrality it had sought to convey in Yemen.

(The Arab Weekly staff contributed to this report.)