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 bodies in 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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Behind the Headlines: ‘AQAP’ in Hadhramaut

Amidst the increasingly suffocating fumes of oil corruption, tribal rebellion and political discourse about federalism, violence has continued to escalate in Hadhramaut.

An April 4 attack on an army checkpoint near Shibam town killed 5 soldiers : days later, 4 paratroopers were killed when gunmen attired in military uniforms attacked a Central Security checkpoint in Brum, on Hadhramaut’s western coastal road to Shabwah. On March 24, a pre-dawn attack by armed men on a Central Security checkpoint in Sayhut, a town in eastern Hadhramaut, killed 20 paratroopers. Hours later, a modified landmine planted by the roadside near the natural hot springs oasis of Al Hami caused a huge explosion – locals say the target was a convoy of Yemeni military vehicles on its way to the Sayhut checkpoint that had been attacked earlier. Two days before the Sayhut attack, a military checkpoint in Al Mukalla city guarding the house of the 2nd Military Region chief was attacked. Two Yemeni soldiers, as well as two attackers who to date remain unidentified, were killed.

Reporters, most of whom are based in Sana’a, frequently credit these sorts of violent incidents in Hadhramaut to Al Qaeda militants, and the March 24 attack was no exception. Even official Yemeni government and military media outlets demonstrate a propensity to mechanically blame Al Qaeda, often without any concrete basis and always by citing as a source ‘anonymous government officials’.

On June 4, 2013, Yemeni army tanks, armored vehicles, and soldiers were widely deployed in the Hadhrami town of Ghail Bawazeer, famous for its natural springs and verdant tobacco and palm farms. Many residents were perplexed when in the ensuing 3 days, the army forces, backed by helicopter gunships, rained down tank shells, rockets, and gunfire on unoccupied farms and vacant plots of land. Electricity workers, who were trying to reconnect damaged power lines, came under rocket fire from the helicopters. As a result, electricity in the area remained cut off for a total of 5 days.

A December 10 Yemen Defense Ministry statement claimed that the attack had foiled an AQAP plot to establish an Islamic emirate in Ghayl Bawazir. According to the ministry, the army killed 7 AQAP militants and arrested 13, including Omar Ashur, Al Qaeda’s emir in Ghayl Bawazir, and his son Abdullah. The international media widely reported the government’s narrative verbatim. On December 11, the ministry retracted its earlier statement and said that Omar Ashur was not the AQAP leader: the actual AQAP leader was his son Abdullah Omar Ashur. A day later, another statement claimed that the AQAP leader Abdullah Omar Ashur was not Omar Ashur’s son Abdullah.

This bizarre comedy of specious claims caused an eruption of anger in Hadhramaut. Ghail Bawazir never had an AQAP presence, although it was a southern secessionist hotbed with little Yemeni government control. Many Hadhrami politicians and even security officials demanded that the Defense Ministry release details about the 7 killed AQAP militants, which have yet to be disclosed.

In truth, Omar Ashur was a senior civil servant, a native of Ghail Bawazir who was customs director at the Saudi-Yemeni border post of Al-Wadi’ah. He had no ties to AQAP or any other militant group. But on the day of his arrest, he was sacked and a new customs director was swiftly appointed by the Yemeni government. Indeed, Omar Ashur says that his crackdown on smuggling through Al-Wadi’ah was the reason for the charges fabricated against him by powerful people in Yemen.

After weeks of imprisonment in Sanaa, Ashur, his son Abdullah and the other 11 men arrested were all released from custody. They face no charges and have received neither apology nor compensation from the Yemeni government. Meanwhile, Ashur has not been reinstated to his job. Earlier this year, he sued the government over his dismissal and arrest. Given the moribund state of Yemen’s judiciary, justice seems doubtful.

And what about the Yemeni government’s initial, much publicized claim that AQAP planned to establish an Islamic emirate in Ghail Bawazir? It has simply disappeared into thin air, after even Al Qaeda announced that Ashur had no links to the group.

Cui Bono?

The private fortunes being made by Yemeni generals from oil companies may be a key reason why violence in Hadhramaut has ramped up tremendously since 2012. It is no coincidence that, in implementing government restructuring of the military, President Hadi has replaced a number of army and security leaders in Hadhramaut’s oil regions.

It would be unrealistic to think that these military leaders, who were suddenly deprived of millions of dollars in monthly payments, would not react or resist in some way. Indeed, many Hadhrami commentators have asserted that many of the shadowy acts of violence and relentless series of assassinations of military leaders in Hadhramaut are in reality intra-military conflicts and leadership struggles among army leaders competing for lucrative oil company security contracts.

A recent report by Yemen-based journalist Casey Coombs notes that, despite its prodigious propaganda, “AQAP never claimed direct responsibility for the growing number of assassinations targeting Yemeni military and security officials since interim President Abd Rabu Mansur Hadi took office in early 2012.”

By contrast, Yemeni state media depicts the violence in Hadhramaut as fueled by AQAP, even though on many occasions, anonymous officials have dissembled or made contradictory claims, as demonstrated by the Omar Ashur and Sheikh Saad incidents. Often, these government claims appear aimed at obfuscating the facts and deflecting media attention away from the real perpetrators, rather than casting light on the matter. These false allegations about AQAP activity cast serious doubt on the veracity of claims by Yemeni military and security intelligence about Hadhramaut, which are used to support counter-terrorism operations and U.S. drone strikes in the region. Indeed, much of the international media reports on drone strikes in Yemen are based on information provided by Yemeni activists via social media platforms such as Twitter.

The Drone War

U.S. drones hunting for AQAP militants have become a common sight in the skies of Hadhramaut since the first attack near Shibam city on May 17, 2012. While there is muted approval among the locals when AQAP militants are decimated by the drone attacks, the strikes have killed innocent civilians too:

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No Yemeni government program exists to investigate, much less compensate, such non-combatant casualties in Hadhramaut. In the immediate aftermath of some drone strikes, groups of masked gunmen arrived rapidly and collected some body parts. Locals do not know whether they are Yemeni or U.S. counter-terrorism teams, or AQAP militants.

Some casualties lie as silent footnotes of the drone war in Yemen, unmentioned in the media. Early this month, the remains of the 3 men killed in the September 6, 2012 drone strike in Al-Hashm were finally buried by the villagers: no one ever came to inspect their remains, and they remain unidentified. On September 11 2012, 15 bodies  were found  in the Hadhrami desert zone of Al-Abr, after  a week of multiple drone strikes in Hadhramaut. The Interior Ministry announced then that their identities were being checked. No information has been released since.

The U.S. drones also cause great alarm in Hadhrami communities. Men and women working on farms cease their work when a drone is sighted, and children are kept at home by frantic parents. Hadhrami reporter Saeed Al-Batati who is based in Al Mukalla city, recently wrote on the death of Hamzah Bin Dahaman, a boy aged only 15. Hamzah’s health had steadily deteriorated since he witnessed a U.S. drone strike in December 2012 near his home in Hadhramaut’s port city of Shihr. His brother says that Hamzah “shrieked in terror” and started “talking gibberish” after they saw the burnt and dismembered corpses of the five AQAP militants hit in the drone strike.

On the whole, most Hadhramis feel that the AQAP presence and the ensuing bane of U.S. drone flights and attacks are yet another curse brought on Hadhramaut by the government in distant Sanaa.

Taking Back Control : Hadhramaut and Southern Independence

On January 31, 2014, a group of armed men attacked a military checkpoint near Shibam town in Wadi Hadhramaut and killed at least 18 soldiers. International media once again reported that ‘suspected Al Qaeda militants’ had mounted the attack, citing anonymous officials. To date AQAP has not claimed credit for the Shibam attack.

What has gone unnoticed by the international media, however, is that a shadowy militant organization has now appeared on the stage in Hadhramaut. Calling itself the Liberation Brigades of the South (LBS), the group issued a statement to some media outlets in Hadhramaut on February 15, claiming responsibility for the Shibam attack, as well as a double attack in Hadhramaut’s provincial capital Al Mukalla on February 14. The LBS also published a video of its Al Mukalla attack, which showed 2 militants firing an RPG at the Diwan, the Hadhramaut governorate’s administrative headquarters in the city.

The LBS statement warned that all checkpoints, barracks, and camps of the “Yemeni Army enemy in Hadhramaut” were now strategic targets for attacks by its fighters, and that it “believes in the right of the Southern people for liberation and independence and to adopt all options to attain their freedom and independence.”

On the same day, there was an announcement in Aden about the establishment of the National Front for Liberation and Independence of the South and the election of its interim leadership, headed by the leading Harak leader in Hadhramaut and close ally of the exiled Al Beidh, Sheikh Ahmad Bamuallim. A few days later, a historic meeting in Beirut witnessed a rapprochement between Hadhrami Harak leader Hassan Baoum and Al Beidh in Beirut, signaling a closing of the Hadhrami leadership ranks after many years of disputes. It is a telling judgment on Yemen’s National Dialogue that these 3 key Hadhrami leaders refused any form of participation in those meetings.

Whether these moves signal a looming drive for Hadhramaut’s independence is an open issue. The region of Hadhramaut, with vast oil & gas resources and relatively small population, is perfectly capable of standing on its own, independent not only of Sana’a but also of Aden. In a factually faulty but politically convenient rewriting of history, many Hadhramis refer to the 1967 creation of South Yemen as a foreign occupation by Adeni forces, which was followed by a second occupation by Yemeni forces in 1994, both of which prevented the planned creation of an independent state of Hadhramaut.

This opinion is gaining wide traction and appears to have support from the Saudis as well as from some extremely wealthy Hadhrami business magnates based in Saudi Arabia. Even the long dormant former Hadhramaut sultan, Ghalib Al Quaiti, exiled in Saudi Arabia since 1967, has now reemerged and heads a London-based organization promoting an independent state of Hadhramaut. It is implausible to believe Al Quaiti’s move was done without Saudi consent, for it resurrects the aim, from the eve of British departure in 1967, of a union between Hadhramaut and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

Saudi Arabia’s strategic interest in an independent Hadhramaut is clear – the Kingdom has long sought a southern pipeline to the Gulf of Aden for its crude oil exports. It is telling that while the Saudis are building a meter tall wall along the western length of the Yemen-Saudi Arabia border, there are no intentions to do so on the 500 km long border area that faces Hadhramaut. There are up to 1.5 million Hadhramis who reside in Saudi Arabia for business, work or education. Indeed, many members of the Hadhrami tribes of Al-Awaamir, Al-Sai’aar and Al-Manahil, whose lands straddle the border, have been granted Saudi citizenship over the last decade.

On the cusp of a new federal state of Yemen, Hadhramaut continues slipping out of Yemeni government control as multiple problems carried over from the old Yemen continue to fester. The region remains a boiling cauldron of Al Qaeda militants, disputing generals, oil, and corruption, drone attacks, angry tribes, and Southern separatists. Like the poisonous winged serpents that Greek historian Herodotus said guarded the precious frankincense trees of Hadhramaut in ancient times, these modern issues fundamentally threaten the future of Hadhramaut in a Yemeni federal system.

Two decades of a dysfunctional Republic of Yemen have demonstrated only one clear truth to  Hadhramis: Yemeni unity is an ideal that continues to be a noble aspiration far divorced from reality.

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  • Elisabeth Kendall

    I thought this was a great article, beautifully written – a fascinating weave of history with current developments. Forgive me (especially as a foreigner) for taking issue with one small sentence: “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.” Note that al-Mahra still lies between Hadhramaut and Dhofar … and it always has (cf. ancient South Arabian inscriptions; Hamdani; Tabari; Istakhri; Ibn al-Mujawir; Ibn Khaldun; and more). In any case, thanks for a terrific round up and analysis of the issues.