BRIGHTLY painted dhows bob on the waves of the Arabian Sea. Fishermen auction the morning’s catch of swordfish, tuna and manta rays. Sardines dry in the sun, fodder for the camels that pad through the street. Life used to be simple in the port of Ghayda, the capital of Mahra governorate, tucked in Yemen’s far east.
The arrival of soldiers from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) is complicating things. Abd Rabbo Mansour Hadi, Yemen’s president, invited them into the country to repel Houthi rebels, who pushed him out in 2015. The Houthis control about a fifth of the territory. Saudi and Emirati forces hold much of the rest. But as their grip tightens, Yemen fractures.
Saudi and Emirati officials say their deployments across the country are part of their war effort. But join the dots and Saudi Arabia’s positions match the incense trade route that long ran overland from the Indian Ocean to Arabia. The kingdom appears to be carving a new corridor to the coast. Meanwhile, the UAE’s actions in Yemen appear part of a larger strategy to gobble up ports along some of the world’s busiest shipping routes.
The Saudis, operating out of Ghayda’s airport, which they took in November, have bought favour with tribal sheikhs in the east and south by dispensing weapons, cars and Saudi passports. They aim to block Iranian arms shipments at the seaport. In Seiyun, to the west, they train fighters loyal to Mr Hadi. They are also working closely with Ali Mohsen, Yemen’s vice president, and his allies in Islah, an Islamist movement, to rebuild Yemen’s army, which the Houthis routed when they took the capital, Sana’a, in 2014.
The UAE has been even more active. Early last year the Emirates Red Crescent launched a humanitarian mission in Ghayda—by August the Emirati army had taken over the mission. The UAE has captured a string of southern ports, such as Mukalla, Aden and Mokha. It controls Yemen’s only gas-liquefaction plant, at Balhaf, and an oil-export terminal, at al-Shihr. The strategic island of Socotra looks increasingly like an Emirati base. The UAE also runs two military camps in the remote Hadramawt region, where its troops have trained some 25,000 local fighters.
In securing the ports, say analysts, the UAE’s goal is to enhance the position of its own port at Jebel Ali, the region’s largest, either by stifling competition or directing traffic in its direction.
Many welcome the Saudis and Emiratis. “Forget such outmoded notions of sovereignty,” says Abdelhadi Tamimi, an official in Hadramawt. “We can all profit from trade.” The UAE is financing hospitals and a new power plant in the energy-starved region. Officials in Seiyun hail a new counter-terrorism force, trained by the Saudis, as a bulwark against al-Qaeda. Locals also say Emirati-trained fighters are more disciplined than Yemeni soldiers and fleece them less at checkpoints.
But others fear a creeping loss of control. The Saudis and Emiratis run their own detention centres and keep local officials in the dark. Smugglers in Mahra complain of a loss of business, as the newcomers crack down. Many in the region speak Mahri, an ancient Semitic tongue, and fear that the Gulfies will impose Arabic. The handing out of passports causes alarm. Socotra has 60,000 people and Mahra perhaps 160,000. In theory both could be annexed.
Meanwhile, tension is increasing between Saudi and Emirati proxies. While Saudi Arabia seeks to stand up the old northern-based army under Mr Mohsen, the UAE trains fighters from the south, many of whom would like to re-establish South Yemen, which merged with the more populous north in 1990. Emirati-backed separatists took control of Aden last month. Some believe the move had Saudi assent and is part of a divide-and-rule strategy by the two Gulf states.
The many new Gulf-backed militias are accelerating Yemen’s fragmentation. Tribal leaders are exploiting the chaos. Pretenders claiming to represent the duwailat, or principalities, that made up the British protectorate of Aden are dusting off old flags. A self-declared council led by Abdullah al-Afrar, who calls himself sultan of Mahra and Socotra, has vowed to resist the Saudi-led “occupation”. “We fear Yemen will never be united again,” says Mr Afrar.
(c) 2018 The Economist