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Yemen's unnoticed but crucial province

May 1, 2015 at 11:07 am

Rich in history, culture and resources, Hadramawt in Yemen is one of the most beautiful areas in a country that defines the essence of one of the ethnic groups of the 21 other countries around it. It’s famous for its ancient mud brick houses that give the landscapes of Shibam and Tarim a unique sense of nostalgia. Southern Hadramawt, which hits the breezy coastline of the Arabian Sea that once turned Yemenis into masters of trading etiquette, is afflicted with terrorism and captured by Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). The north of the province which borders Saudi Arabia is now being taken over by security measures in an ongoing tribal conflict.

The beautiful province of Hadramawt is cursed with geo-strategic significance that makes it one of the most vulnerable and potentially game-changing Yemeni provinces in the coming months. Being the largest province in Yemen, it takes up half of the Yemeni border with Saudi Arabia, which makes it crucial when considering military strategy. In addition to the province being crucial to Yemen’s agriculture, it’s also the most oil rich part of the country. Its Masila stream holds 80 per cent of the country’s total oil resources, which have been subject to nationalisation over the past few years. Its ideologically rich history also plays against its security at this stage. Not only was it a part of socialist South Yemen, but is also currently subject to Al-Qaeda’s attempts to grab power amid the political vacuum created by the coalition airstrikes. As Yemen’s largest province, it is home to over two million people and an estimated 1,300 tribes; this is a key point to remember when examining policies and events as they unfold, because tribal politics plays a huge role in Yemen.

As Yemen is gradually losing stability, so too are sectionalist sentiments in the south rising. For months, protestors all over the south have been seen flying the old South Yemen flag as they demand to be separated from the perceived troublesome north. When MEMO spoke to Yemen expert Dr Nabeel Khoury, he explained that because of the dominance of tribalism in the country, it could potentially split into six parts if a credible and representative democracy that respects tribal integrity via decentralisation is not formed.

Within Hadramawt, there have been longstanding sentiments amongst many of the tribesmen to split the area from the rest of the country. Although the Hadhrami people are generally divided on the matter, regional solidarity becomes more present in times of crisis.

In early December 2013, Shaikh Sad Bin Habrish, a prominent Hadhrami from the Al-Hamom tribe, was killed at a government checkpoint at which he refused to stop. The Hadramawt Tribal Federation (HTF) soon issued a statement in which it held the central Yemeni government responsible for the killings and organised mass rallies a week later. Beyond their intention, the rallies spread to other southern provinces, creating a movement that was referred to as the “Hadramawt uprising”. A spokesman for the HTF, Saleh Molla, was interviewed by the Yemeni Times and explained that the lack of autonomy given to the Hadhrami people by the state is the main reason for wanting to separate. He explained that Hadhrami tribal leaders held a meeting with the government in July 2013 in which they demanded autonomy of certain local affairs, none of which was agreed to. The killing of Habrish was seen as the final straw in the ongoing disrespect of the tribe by the central government. Molla explained that in addition to the lack of local autonomy, the absence of Hadhrami representation in the central government was also a reason for their frustration. One of Molla’s main concerns was that despite the command of President Hadi and the defence minister to replace the commander of the battalion assigned for oil security with someone from Hadramawt after some negotiation, the promise was not fulfilled. Instead, many Hadhramis in command posts were themselves removed from office.

These frustrations will play a huge role in the way in which Yemen could split. Although it seems as though Hadramawt has a united front that advocates sectionalism, Dr Khoury believes that this is not as certain as it is perceived because the HTF is not a central unified military and political front the way that it is commonly professed, and Hadramawt’s fate relies on the rapidly evolving power political structure around it.

Even when going back to the 2013 rallies, it is obvious that the fact that the Hadramawt uprising was expanded by other provinces joining in to form a southern sectionalist solidarity movement shows that there is still no organised movement with a specific aim to be achieved.

Understandably, Hadramawt is not often spoken about in the context of the Saudi airstrikes, simply because it is not a target and it is not subject to the same concentration of violence as Taiz, Sana’a and Aden. It is still important to remember, though, that it is a province that holds much importance for Yemen’s economy, geopolitical security and the fate of its unity. Hadramawt has now become a stick that would be at risk from pressure above if it wanted to hold up the rest of the country, or if the pressure around it is too strong.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.