Saudi Arabian forces in Yemen have taken steps to establish a military base in the country's Hawf Protected Area, an important nature reserve located in the eastern province of Al-Mahrah, which is contiguous with neighbouring Oman's Jebel Samhan Nature Reserve.
Citing tribal sources, the Yemen News Portal reported yesterday that the Saudis have already started to set up the barracks in what is vital grazing territory for the province's semi-nomadic tribal community. It is believed that the militarisation of the reserve will sever an important income source for the Mahri community, which is mostly dependent on the grazing of its livestock.
According to the Yemen Press Agency, the Saudi move comes amid reports of pressure on exiled Yemeni President Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi, who is expected to sign agreements enabling a long-term Saudi presence in Al-Mahrah, including military facilities.
However, locals perceive the Saudis to be an occupying force and activists have called for armed resistance. There have also been clashes with Saudi forces in the province. The local tribes speak a unique Semitic language known as Mehri which is similar to the indigenous Socotri language spoken on the Yemeni island of Socotra. Activists in Mahrah also reject the UAE presence on Socotra.
UNESCO describes the Hawf region as "a centre of plant diversity" and a "fog oasis" in the Arabian Peninsula which is largely arid. The area was designated as a nature reserve by the Yemeni government in 2005 owing to its unique climate and ecological diversity, which is said to include the critically endangered Arabian Leopard, the country's national animal since 2008.
The first ever recorded images of the elusive animal in Yemen were obtained in 2011 by the Foundation for the Protection of the Arabian Leopard in Yemen (FPALY), in a project which was supported by the UAE's Mohammed Bin Zayed Species Conservation Fund.