Hadhramaut : Rebellion, Federalism or Independence in Yemen?

By Haykal Bafana :April 22nd, 2014
In December 2013, tensions increased in Yemen’s eastern province Hadhramaut when widely respected Hadhrami tribal leader Sheikh Saad Bin Habrish Al Hamuumi and his 2 bodyguards were shot dead by Yemeni soldiers in Seiyun town. Within weeks, the region was convulsed by the Hadhramaut tribal rebellion.
The Rebellion Begins: Tribes Force Suspension of Oil Operations
The spark that set off the rebellion was not only the senseless killings but also the Yemeni government’s allegation that Sheik Saad and the other 2 men killed were Al Qaeda militants. By December 10, the Hadhramaut Tribes Confederacy (HTC) issued an ultimatum to Yemen’s government which demanded that Sheikh Saad’s killers be handed over to them for justice, that all security services for oil companies operating in Hadhramaut be provided solely by Hadhrami tribes instead of corrupt Yemeni military commanders, and that Yemen’s army withdraw all forces from Hadhramaut in 10 days times.
The HTC warned that a failure to comply would cause a wide scale tribal war against Yemeni army forces throughout Hadhramaut. An apology by the Yemeni Defence Ministry and the government for falsely alleging that Sheikh Saad and his bodyguards were Al Qaeda militants was rejected by the HTC.
When the ultimatum expired on December 20, the HTC immediately responded. Within the first 24 hours, Hadhramaut witnessed widespread unrest and violence. Armed tribal checkpoints were set up across the region. All land access routes to producing oil blocks were blockaded – the tribesmen successfully resisted several attempts by Yemeni soldiers to remove these blockades. Some oil firms suspended operations completely, while those who continued operating were forced to fly in all necessary supplies they.
Since then, armed clashes between Hadhrami tribesmen and Yemeni army forces have occurred repeatedly, killing and injuring many Yemeni soldiers: a February 8 clash alone killed 12 soldiers. Over a dozen Yemeni soldiers captured in these battles still remain in HTC custody. The HTC also took control of and shut off a key pumping station on the Masila export pipeline, which transports crude oil from all the producing fields to the loading terminal on the coast.
By the middle of February 2014, the HTC had succeeded in completely ceasing all oil production in Hadhramaut, and the Yemeni government was forced to seek the commencement of tribal arbitration with the Hadhrami tribes. On March 7, President Hadi promised to provide a record-breaking aadaal (guarantee) for the proposed arbitration of 202 assault rifles, 20 four wheel drive vehicles, and a sum of 1 billion Yemeni riyals (US$4.6M). In exchange, the HTC agreed to a temporary truce and easing of the crippling oil field blockades, with the arbitration set to commence within 10 days.
However, the truce eventually broke down. At the end of March, the HTC announced that the government had failed to provide the promised 1 billion Yemeni riyals or to commence the arbitration within 10 days. Tribesmen have now again blockaded all the oil fields in Hadhramaut.
This tribal uprising is merely a symptom, however, of the population’s wider aspirations to gain greater autonomy, or even outright independence, from the central state in Sana’a. These aspirations are based on an identity shared by the people of Hadhramaut, a region not only rich in resources, but also in history.
Hadhramaut: From Frankincense to Crude Oil
Hadhramaut’s origin mingle with the mists of ancient history. From pre-Islamic times, the established historical geography of the southern Arabian peninsula placed Yemen in the far west, followed by Hadhramaut and then Dhofar with Oman in the far eastern tip of the peninsula.
Hadhramis profess they are the descendants of Qahtan, the son of the prophet Hud, the great-great grandson of prophet Noah. Many have also identified the prophet Hud as the prophet Eber of the Old Testament: the annual pilgrimage to the tomb of the prophet Hud in Hadhramaut has been going on for thousands of years.
In the Christian era, the Gospel of Matthew immortalized the 3 kings who gave gifts of gold, myrrh, and frankincense to the infant Jesus in Bethlehem. Historians have argued that the kings’ graves were discovered in Hadhramaut by Byzantine empress Helena in the 4th century CE, who interred their bodiesin the Hagia Sofia of Constantinople. In the 12th century CE, the 3 kings were moved again and rest to this day in a gold triple sarcophagus in the Cologne Cathedral of Germany.
Indeed, the 3 kings’ gifts hint at their southern Arabian origins. The ancient frankincense road started from Hadhramaut and Dhofar, winding its way through Yemen and the deserts of the Arabian peninsula to transport frankincense and myrrh to Egypt, the Byzantine empire, and beyond. Thanks to their centuries long frankincense monopoly and now long forgotten gold mines, the ancient Hadhrami, Sabaean, and Himyari kingdoms that ruled southern Arabia amassed magnificent wealth. These South Arabian kingdoms were principally Jewish or Christian at various times until the advent of Islam in the 6th Century CE.
Faint whispers of this ancient past still echo in contemporary Hadhramaut. Massive deposits of gold were discovered in 2009 in Hadhramaut’s Wadi Medden, just west of Al Mukalla city. The unexploited gold discovery has an estimated 2 million ounces of gold, worth over US$4 billion at current market prices. Myrrh and frankincense trees still grow wild in Hadhramaut, and their fragrant resins are to this day widely used by the Hadhramis for bukhur (incense).
Modern history wrought many changes in Hadhramaut. In August 1967, revolutionaries of the National Liberation Front for Occupied South Yemen deposed the region’s ruling Al-Quaiti sultanate (part of the British Eastern Aden Protectorates since the 1930s). This revolution incorporated Hadhramaut into the People’s Republic of South Yemen, even as Sultan Ghalib Al-Quaiti was telling the BBC that a National Assembly was being set up to decide whether Hadhramaut should join Yemen or Saudi Arabia, or establish an independent state of Hadhramaut. Sultan Ghalib still lives a sullen exile in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.
In 1990, Hadhramaut and the rest of South Yemen were united with the North through a precipitous and ill-prepared agreement between South Yemeni leader Ali Salim Al-Beidh and North Yemen’s president Ali Abdullah Saleh. Relations between the 2 Alis rapidly deteriorated and Al Beidh, a native of Hadhramaut, declared South Yemen’s secession in 1994. The civil war that ensued resulted in Al Beidh’s exile to the Sultanate of Oman and victory for the Saleh regime.
Saleh himself was forced to resign under the terms of the November 2011 Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) Initiative, and President Abdo Rabbo Mansur Hadi was elected in February 2012 as the new Yemeni president. The 10 month long Yemen National Dialogue Conference that followed set up a committee, which in January 2014 decided that Hadhramaut would become one of 6 states in a new federal republic of Yemen. A constitution for the new federal Yemen is now being drafted by a 17 member commission.
The Federal State of Hadhramaut
The federal state of Hadhramaut will encompass the former governorates of Hadhramaut, Al Mahrah, and Shabwah as well as the 2 month old governorate of Socotra island in the Indian Ocean. An earlier proposal to name the state the Eastern Region instead of Hadhramaut was met with widespread derision by Hadhramis. Hadhramaut will be split off from the southern city of Aden and its satellite regions of Lahj, Abyan & Al Dhale’. This division comes as no surprise: the tensions between the competing Hadhramaut and Aden factions of the Harak separatist movement in southern Yemen have been apparent for a number of years, reflecting the historical factionalism of the former socialist regime in the south.
Federal Hadhramaut will cover over 50% of Yemen’s land mass and include over 80% of Yemen’s producing oil fields. Vast natural gas finds remain unutilized, with potentially rich oil and gas assets yet to be explored in the Empty Quarter desert up to the border with Saudi Arabia. The US$4 billion gold ore find in Wadi Medden also remains unexploited.
Unlike Sanaa and its surrounding mountainous regions, water is widely available in Hadhramaut. The water table is located at shallow depths of as little as 30 meters in populated areas of the Wadi Hadhramaut. Hadhramaut’s shoreline of over 1,000 kilometers spans the Arabian Sea, the Gulf of Aden and the Indian Ocean waters of Socotra, and has vast potential as a location for commercial fishing projects and aquaculture ventures. The population of the new federal state of Hadhramaut is barely over 2 million people, a mere 8% of Yemen’s estimated total of over 25 million citizens.
In theory, then, the new federal state of Hadhramaut has a healthy economic prognosis, and can expect support from the large and economically wealthy Hadhrami diaspora in South East Asia and the Arabian Gulf states of Saudi Arabia and Abu Dhabi, who have long shied away from investing in Hadhramaut due to the perpetual corruption of the Yemeni state under the Saleh regime.
Yet, Hadhramaut’s future promise remains haunted in the present by increasing incidents of violence perpetrated by Al Qaeda and other shadowy actors for reasons, which remain mystifying, as well as the specter of patronage and corruption in its oil sector.
Patronage and Power in Yemen’s Richest Province
Hadhramis have long asserted that since 1994′s civil war, the Saleh regime systemically marginalized them from employment and business opportunities in the region’s oil industry. They have also claimed that massive oil production in Hadhramaut failed to bring equitable local economic development or even basic social services such as electricity, water, and health facilities for Hadhramis. The residents of some towns and villages located near Hadhramaut’s oil production areas have complained of groundwater pollution due to careless drilling policies as well as a mystifying increase in incidents of cancer. By and large, the government ignored these disturbing claims, which to date have been investigated by neither the state nor the oil companies.
Under the Saleh regime, foreign oil companies (FOCs) operated in Yemen using a relatively straightforward business model, namely a well-developed patronage system centered around the principal actors of the government, commercial agents, military leaders and contractors, all of whom were connected at various levels with the regime.
Oil concessions and related oil and gas service contracts in Hadhramaut were doled out to individuals and companies connected to the Saleh regime – ironically, many recipients of Saleh’s liberal largesse have rebranded themselves since 2011 into staunch anti-Saleh “revolutionaries”, even as they continue to profit from shady oil deals of the past.
Laws requiring foreign oil firms to hire 50% of employees from communities in oil concession areas like Hadhramaut were largely ignored not only by the firms themselves but also by the Yemeni government. Military leaders were also given lucrative security contracts to protect oil firms operating in Hadhramaut.
These generals used Yemeni soldiers and weapons under their command, including using Yemeni state assets to perform private security work for profit, instead of performing their mandated public duties. Protests by Hadhramis demanding employment in the oil firms were violently repressed by the Yemeni military and, like the laws themselves, blithely ignored by the foreign oil firms.
Yemen’s post-Saleh UN-managed political transition has not brought relief to Hadhramaut. The inequities of Saleh-era policies continue amid the Hadi’s government’s seeming inability to institute much needed reform in Yemen’s oil sector.
A 2014 Yemeni parliament report on the country’s oil sector stated that foreign oil firms operating in the oil-producing regions of Hadhramaut, Shabwah, and Marib paid a total of US$238 million each year to Yemeni army generals for ‘security services’. The report stated that the commander of an armored brigade in Hadhramaut was directly paid over US$2 million a month by a Canadian oil firm to protect its operations. These payments were made without oversight from the Yemen Defense Ministry.

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