What Are Saudis After in Yemen’s Al Mahra?
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What Are Saudis After in Yemen’s Al Mahra?

Al-Mahra is an eastern province along the country’s border with Oman. In 2004, statistics said the province had less than 200,000 residents. It is, however, the second largest province of Yemen by size after Hadhramaut. Just contrary to its small population, al-Mahra has large grasslands and woods and due to the unique weather conditions and long coastal line with the Arabian Sea and a long mountainous border with Oman is of great significance. Since the beginning of the aggression against Yemen, Saudi Arabia deployed its forces to the resource-rich province, though the local people remained opposed to the deployment and in various ways displayed their unhappiness with the Saudi presence. Saudi arrival The Saudi-led Arab military campaign against Yemen was launched in March 2015. But Saudi Arabia a year and a half later, namely in November 2016, dispatched its troops and military vehicles to the province under the security watch cover. Saudis entered the province under the cover of securing the borders with Oman. A military personnel team was sent as an initial move to a border crossing and an airport on the border meant to examine the facilities required for border control. Riyadh argued that its troops’ deployment was meant to block arms supplies to Yemen’s Ansarullah movement, the key Yemeni force fighting the Arab coalition, through Oman border, a claim for times denied by Muscat officials. Saudis sacked, via an order by the resigned President Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi, Al Mahra governor opposing their presence, replacing him with a compliant one. The new governor, Rajih Saeed Bakrit, was so loyal to Riyadh that even rejected a UAE call for entry to the province, allowing the Saudis exclusively operating there. He even blocked entry of chemical fertilizers and carbonic materials through Oman arguing that they could be used to produce bombs. This was a desired service to the Saudis. On the other hand, an aid center named after Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz immediately started work there, promising to dig water wells, establish desalination facilities, build power plants, schools, and three universities in the province. But what are the Saudis after in Aa Mahra? Controlling the Eastern border and exploiting al-Mahra strategic position Certainly, control of the border with Oman is one of the most important Saudi objectives. Controlling the province was helpful with the efforts to close the doors to the alleged Omani arms supplied to Yemen’s army and Ansarullah. Holding al-Mahra also could help deeper advancement in southern Yemen and control of the vital Arabian Sea coasts. Making ideological changes Another objective has to do with the province’s demographic structure whom Saudis wished to modify ideologically in their favor. Al-Mahra people hold no good view of Wahhabism, a Saudi reading of Islam. King Salman aid center’s promised schools and education centers were meant to fill this gap with the locals through educating Wahhabi-Salafi ideologies. In December 2017, Yemeni sources talked about the Saudi plan to establish a Salafi center in Ghashan, al-Mahra’s third largest town. They already opened a similar center in Damaj in Saada province, the bastion of the revolution that ousted the Saudi-aligned President Hadi.   Pressing Oman Al-Mahra is known for its being under Omani sway. The region holds friendly relations with Muscat. Now Saudi Arabia aims to curb Oman’s further influence by training a generation of pro-Saudi scholars in the province to press Muscat in its traditional backyard. The primary idea is the establishment of a takfiri hub just next to Oman borders. Riyadh leaders have been seeking anti-Oman pressures in more than one regional case, including the Yemen war, Qatar diplomatic row, and competition with Iran, as Muscat declined to show advocacy to the Saudi agenda. Taking on the UAE Saudi Arabia and the UAE started the war against Yemen jointly, but they failed to hide their severe rivalry and sometimes confrontation in that country, with each struggling to add to its sphere of influence and allies. Before Saudis’ arrival, the Emiratis had entered al-Mahra and trained locals to be integrated into the UAE forces. But the governor change hampered further UAE toehold. Even the Emirati aid servicemen operating in the province did not survive the cleansing as new governor assumed the office. Saudi designs fail in al-Mahra It seems that not only Emiratis’ but also Saudis’ efforts to meet their success in al-Mahra fell flat. Since the beginning of the occupation, the residents profoundly opposed the foreign presence with the towns there regularly witnessing protests. In June last year, various part of the province saw several-day demonstrations when word spread that the Saudis aimed to repurpose the civil al-Mahra airport to a permanent air base. Less than six months later, residents in al-Masilah, an oil-rich region also in al-Mahra, staged a sit-in for several days protesting the establishment of a Saudi-run military camp. Saudi Arabia’s move to launch an oil pipeline project in al-Mahra run into a massive outcry of the people there. Protests were held in which the demonstrators called for Saudis’ withdrawal from the province. Saudi Arabia sought to build the pipeline as an alternative to its oil exports line via the Strait of Hormuz. The locals made it clear that they are against the project. Ongoing anti-Saudi protests made Riyadh evacuate its military personnel from a strategic military base in al-Hawf region. Continued anti-Saudi protests, the pulling out of al-Qaydha airport, and the recent retreat from al-Hawf base are apparent evidence that the Saudis’ met their failure in the eastern Yemeni province as the rising anti-occupation sentiments in al-Mahra leave the Saudi strategies in the province with no clear outlook.   

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«September 2019»