Since 2015, Yemen’s largest governorate, Hadramawt, has been informally divided between two distinct centers of power with different military loyalties and external backing. The balance of power within the governorate is no longer fixed, however, and consolidated positions are gradually changing. This risks potentially sparking military clashes and hampering Hadramis’ quest for regional autonomy. It could also result in a new border threat to neighboring Saudi Arabia, even though Riyadh’s recent patronage and indirect military build-up in the area have directly contributed to heightening tensions with southern secessionists. Changes in Hadramawt’s military, political, and economic dynamics are reshaping power networks in the governorate and beyond, with implications for the conflicting agendas of the Saudis, Emiratis, and Houthis.

What happened?

Because of its geographical expanse, accounting for more than one-third of the country’s total land area, Hadramawt represents a substantial part of Yemen’s economy. The Masila basin is home to 80% of Yemen’s known oil reserves, and in addition to oil, the province also generates revenues from trade and related fees, fishing, and remittances. Before the Houthis attacked it in November 2022, the Ash Shihr (or al-Dhabba) oil terminal in Hadramawt was exporting just under 35,000 barrels per day. The region also has a strong sense of identity and historical aspirations for independence. As the Yemen war has raged on, “two Hadramawts” have clearly emerged. The first is Wadi Hadramawt, the north of the central and inner part of the governorate bordering Saudi Arabia, which has major oil fields. Seiyun is the area’s main city and is held by the army’s First Military Region, which is close to Islah (the party rallying the Muslim Brotherhood and part of the Salafis) and loyal to Yemen’s internationally recognized government. The second is the southern area projecting toward the Arabian Sea, home to the commercial and oil export ports of Mukalla and Ash Shihr, as well as key energy infrastructure. The coast of Hadramawt is controlled by the Emirati-backed Hadrami Elite Forces, which have ambitions for regional autonomy.

Following their military gains in nearby Shabwa in August 2022, the Emirati-backed secessionists of the Southern Transitional Council (STC) have called for the withdrawal of the army from Wadi Hadhramawt, claiming that only local Hadrami forces should be in charge of security. Since late 2022, protests against the First Military Region have intensified in Seiyun, Shiban, and Tarim, the area’s main urban centers, especially after the assassination attempt against the STC’s Hadramawt head. Protests are supported by local leaders who are reportedly close to the STC. An example of this escalating conflict occurred in mid-May 2023, when units of the Emirati-backed Shabwa Defense Forces were deployed to secure the road linking Ataq, Shabwa’s main center, to al-Abr in Hadramawt.

At the same time, the Saudi-backed Nation Shield Forces (NSF) have expanded their military presence in Hadramawt, where they had recruited locally to establish a brigade. After the commander of the NSF arrived in Hadramawt from Aden with a group of soldiers in early May, they deployed at the critical al-Wadia border crossing, the only active land port with Saudi Arabia, replacing the 141st Infantry Brigade. On the coastline, al-Rayyan International Airport in Mukalla, which had reopened in early 2023, was handed over by Emirati-backed forces to Hadrami authorities on May 8, a likely pro-Saudi move coordinated with the chairman of the Presidential Leadership Council (PLC), Rashad al-Alimi, and the Arab coalition.

The military and political face of the “two Hadramawts”

Military movements in and around Hadramawt since late 2022 anticipated political developments, highlighting the region’s growing internal fractures. In early May 2023, the STC organized a major assembly in Aden to discuss the prospects for southern independence, but only some Hadrami groups joined. The members of the assembly urged the STC to “complete its military and security control over all southern territories and remove the remnants of the Yemeni forces.” A southern national charter laying out the governing principles of a future southern state was signed on May 8. The STC also appointed Hadramawt’s former governor, Gen. Faraj al-Bahsani, as its vice president.

In May and June 2023, a varied delegation of Hadrami leaders led by Governor Mabkhout bin Madi, including politicians, military commanders, and tribal chiefs, travelled to Riyadh upon the invitation of the Saudi government to discuss Hadramawt’s future. The talks resulted in the establishment of the Saudi-backed Hadramawt National Council on June 20, which aims to work toward greater autonomy for the governorate but within a national framework, forging an alternative path to the STC and its secessionist aspirations.

Four layers of rivalry

Four layers of rivalry can be identified in the current dispute over Hadramawt:

  1. First, the opposition between Islah and the STC, which envisage the governorate, respectively, as part of Yemen’s future unified and federal state as well as the backbone of a hypothetical, yet-to-declared southern state.

  2. Second, the rivalry reignites the historical North vs. South fissure, with secessionists often stigmatizing military forces and groups in Wadi Hadramawt as northerners, or even as aligned with the Houthis, thereby feeding old feelings of suspicion and mistrust.

  3. Third, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates support opposing forces in the region (Islah-linked groups vs. secessionists). Hadramawt is only the most recent example of the enduring competition that characterizes the anti-Houthi camp, occasionally mitigated by opaque deals, such as, most recently, a likely agreement on a change in the military balance at al-Rayyan airport.

  4. Fourth, controlling Wadi Hadramawt is also about controlling economic networks, both in terms of assets — principally oil fields — and smuggling routes. Since the 2015 conflict, this part of the governorate has increased its strategic importance. For the recognized government, the Wadi area and Seiyun are a military and economic gateway to and from Marib, which represents its last fiefdom and the corridor toward Saudi Arabia. This explains why the Saudis are focusing on the al-Wadia border crossing, as the neighboring al-Abr market has taken on a significant role due to the war. The Houthis also benefit from the smuggling routes that connect, through Wadi Hadramawt, the eastern governorate of al-Mahra with the Houthi-controlled territory in the north-west of the country.

Reshaping power networks

The internal divisions within Hadramawt indirectly favor the Houthis, further splitting the anti-Houthi camp. First, recognized institutions need a stable Hadramawt to protect the neighboring stronghold of Marib. Its energy resources and revenues are also decisive to rebuild central state capacity, even though 20% of Hadrami oil export revenues remain in local hands because of a 2017 deal with the recognized government (and in 2022 Hadramawt’s former governor requested to raise this to 30%). Second, the role of the PLC Chairman Alimi — on whom the NSF formally depends — risks coming under criticism: Many STC leaders are also members of the PLC, and this could further weaken the prospects for a ceasefire in Yemen.

For Saudi Arabia, the instability in Hadramawt is a national security issue. This is the kingdom’s south-eastern border and Riyadh already has to deal with the Houthis’ presence and contestation along the north-western Yemeni border. Since 2023, the Saudis have taken on a proactive role in Yemen, aiming to control strategic areas and corridors with the support of new military formations, such as the NSF, thus partly replacing their reliance on Islah. As a result, the Saudis have once again begun to invest in financial and military patronage in Yemen after years of retrenchment and the failure of their direct military engagement.

This is especially true when it comes to the border region. Since 2022, the Saudis have provided patronage to Mahri tribes along the northern frontier, as well as to the tribes of the al-Wadia area. The strengthening of Saudi influence could negatively affect Houthi smuggling corridors across Wadi Hadramawt, forcing them to reorganize their informal supply lines. For the UAE, the strategic landscape is still favorable, since their Yemeni allies have consolidated their positions along the Hadrami coast and around key infrastructure. However, the question is whether the Emirati-backed southern secessionists will try to advance toward the oil fields, or if they will limit themselves to controlling the coast. The answer will greatly depend on the extent to which Hadramis will accept being dragged into the Saudi-Emirati competition in Yemen, thus weakening Hadramawt’s prospects for autonomy.


Eleonora Ardemagni is a Senior Associate Research Fellow at the Italian Institute for International Political Studies (ISPI), a Teaching Assistant at the Catholic University of Milan, and an Adjunct Professor at the Graduate School of Economics and International Relations-ASERI.

Photo by KARIM SAHIB/AFP via Getty Images

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