The United Arab Emirates, as a member of the Saudi-led Arab Coalition fighting in Yemen, has intensified its moves in the eastern province of Hadhramout to arrange the future of its influence in the largest and richest oil-producing area of the country.
As the fighting intensified on the West Coast, Shabwa and Al-Bayda, along with violent clashes in Naham in Sana'a, and Al-Jawf, the UAE summoned the Governor of Hadhramout, Major General Faraj Salmin Al-Bassani; he left Mukalla for Abu Dhabi on 12 December. According to the governor's media office, the visit was an official invitation from the UAE to discuss security and military issues as well as developmental projects in the province.
The UAE took advantage of its part in the formation of the so-called Hadramiyah Elite Forces, which liberated Mukalla from Al-Qaeda control in April 2016, in cementing its influence in the province. It controls its ports and has established detention centres for hundreds of detainees who are affiliated with Al-Qaeda.
In the most important meetings of the ongoing visit, Al-Bassani met with the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi, Mohammed Bin Zayed, who opened Al-Rayyan International Airport in Mukalla after UAE troops had turned it into a prison following the liberation of the city. The prisoners being held in Al-Rayyan were transferred to the central prison in Mukalla, amid intense security, local sources said.
Bin Zayed ordered the relevant authorities in his country to open a route for Etihad Airways to the airport without delay. Despite the importance attached to opening Al-Rayyan after it has been closed for three years and the obviously-required coordination with the legitimate authorities in Yemen, the meeting did not involve any representative of the Yemeni government or Ministry of Transport.
Bin Zayed's guidance at the opening of the airport showed the extent of the UAE interventions in the sovereign decisions of the Yemeni government. The announcement of the re-opening of the airport was made in Abu Dhabi, not Aden, and by the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and not the Yemeni Prime Minister.
Abu Dhabi appeared to be trying to escape international pressure following human rights violations in areas under its influence in southern and eastern Yemen, especially the establishment of 18 secret prisons in liberated provinces, notably Aden and Mukalla. These have witnessed brutal torture, according to an investigation published by Associated Press last June.
The latest moves come just months after the agency report on the violations committed by UAE forces in Yemen so as not to appear to be a reaction and approval of what was published, say observers. The opening of the Abu Dhabi-Mukalla route to Etihad Airways flights is intended to reduce the anger of Hadhramout residents over the closure of the airport. What's more, Yemenis have not been allowed into the UAE for nearly three years.
In the context of the UAE arrangements for Hadhramout before the end of war, Bin Zayed also announced a $100 million grant to strengthen security and military services in the province and to support the infrastructure, particularly the electricity and health sectors, which are deteriorating badly.
Governor Al-Bassani's visit to the UAE has also included meetings with officials from the local energy, health, oil and petrochemical sectors with the aim of coordinating an improvement of services in all of them. Al-Bassani has invited UAE businesses to invest in Hadhramout, pointing out that conditions are ripe and that all investors will receive full care from the local authority in the province. According to the governor's media office, businessmen have shown their willingness to implement investment projects that will have a significant impact at the provincial level.
A large proportion of the UAE population is of Yemeni origin, such as the Manahil, Al-Katheeri and Al-Amiri tribes. The meetings in the Emirates, therefore, had a significant presence of Yemeni Shaikhs.
The tribal presence on the sidelines of the governor's visit to the UAE suggests that Abu Dhabi is keen to consolidate its influence in Hadhramout in the future by taking advantage of the established social connections. What's more, the UAE is seeking to control the Hadhramout Valley, despite the fact that its 18 directorates are outside UAE influence.
In the end, the accelerated UAE moves in Hadhramout appear to have settled on the most important province in terms of location and wealth, in anticipation of any other arrangements for the legitimate authorities or regional powers therein.
It is unlikely that Abu Dhabi's recent moves fall within the context of the Saudi-UAE competition over influence in the province. This is especially so given that Saudi Arabia also has wide influence in Hadhramout, thanks to the geographical factor, notably the broad border strip which links the province to the Kingdom, as well as its influence among the Hadrami tribes.
The group of forces and leaders affiliated to the UAE, and the parties which support the control of the Hadramiyah Elite Forces over the entire Hadhramout Province were involved in a kind of cold war with the remaining Yemeni army forces which belong to northern and southern provinces; they refuse to surrender their positions and are thus subject to incitement and threats.
Hadhramout represents approximately one-third of Yemen's territory and is thus divided into two military zones, one in the valley section and the second along the coast.
The United Arab Emirates is responsible for managing the security and military situation in Yemen's southern provinces. International organisations accuse it of committing abductions and torturing activists and citizens. It is also accused by opponents of undermining the legitimacy of President Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi and his government in those provinces by supporting the Southern Transitional Council, which seeks secession.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.