Yemen’s fractured south: ACLED’s three-part series

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ACLED’s three-part series exploring the fragmentation of state authority in Southern Yemen can now be accessed here in its entirety. Please find the reports below, followed by concluding analysis highlighting key findings from each of the three installments.

Part I: Shabwah and Hadramawt
Part II: Socotra and Mahra
Part III: Aden, Abyan, and Lahij

After an initial review of the dynamics at play in the governorates of Shabwah and Hadramawt, this series on Southern Yemen looks at the island of Socotra and the easternmost governorate of Mahrah, before concluding with Aden, Abyan, and Lahij. The aim of the series is to uncover the various patterns of political violence playing out in the South of Yemen and its different actors, amid a context of increased state fragmentation exacerbated by the current conflict.

Along with the fight against militant jihadi groups, the main feature of political violence in most of Southern Yemen in the last five years has been the emergence of pro-STC and UAE-backed armed forces, which effectively operate as paramilitary forces despite being formal state actors of the Hadi government. The establishment of these forces, however, has encountered mixed results depending on local contexts. As seen in this piece, SBF, for instance, have gone rather unchallenged in Lahij, where they seem to enjoy considerable support from political elites and the population. In Abyan, the province of origin of President Hadi, they have, on the other hand, been faced with opposition by pro-Hadi forces. In Aden, they seem to have gained significant influence — they managed to overtake the city twice in the past two years — but this has been restrained by Riyadh, which cannot afford to see the Hadi government ousted from the country’s interim capital after it already lost Sana’a in 2014.

In Shabwah, if the Shabwani Elite Forces have managed to become primary actors of the governorate based on the fight against militant jihadi groups, underlying tensions with pro-Hadi forces led to outbreaks of violence in August 2019. These can arguably be explained by the economic significance of the governorate, which, in addition to housing its own oil and gas fields, also acts as a crucial gateway for the gas coming from neighboring Marib, delivered at the controversial Balhaf facility (L’Observatoire des armements, SumOfUs and Les Amis de la Terre France, 7 November 2019). Control over Shabwah therefore yields economic power.

On the other hand, clashes did not erupt in neighboring Hadramawt, where Hadrami Elite Forces (HEF) also established themselves as primary actors after ousting AQAP from its capital Mukalla in April 2015. Unlike in Shabwah, a tacit understanding seems to exist between pro-Hadi and HEF in Hadramawt. Despite recurrent calls from the STC leadership for the takeover of inland Hadramawt by the HEF, the latter remains focused on the coastal regions, while pro-Hadi forces operate mostly in Hadramawt Valley and the upper desert areas. Arguably, the strong subnational Hadrami identity also prevents a splitting up of the governorate.

In Socotra and Mahrah, the establishment of local pro-STC forces has been much less successful. Despite initial reports on the formation of ‘Socotri Elite Forces’, pro-STC forces on the island are now referred to as SBF. If their successes in establishing positions and gaining popularity is yet not entirely clear, a spike in protests calling for the dismissal of the local governor has been registered by ACLED since June 2019, coinciding with the arrival of SBF on the island. In Mahrah, initial reports of the formation of Mahri Elite Forces in February 2019 never materialized. All Saudi-led coalition activity in the governorate is being faced with strong popular opposition, which is likely, at least in part, instrumentalized by neighboring Oman. Former Deputy for Desert Affairs Ali Salim Al-Hurayzi, for instance, announced the creation of the Southern National Salvation Council in October 2019 as a rival to the STC, which he accuses of being a foreign agent in Yemen (Masa Press, 6 November 2019).

If similarities can be found across most governorates, the above shows that Southern Yemen cannot be addressed as a monolithic unit of study. Despite actors such as the STC claiming to be the sole representative of the Southern people, the specificities of each local context needs to be taken into account in any attempt at stabilizing Southern Yemen.