Yemen's southern region has faced Houthi attacks in the past but was quicker to push the Houthis out due to the political make-up of its system and its closer cooperation with the Arab coalition. The coalition’s quick victory against the Houthis in the South in 2015 can largely be attributed to the existing local resistance among southerners that developed underground and in tribal areas due to longstanding grievances and persecution following the unification of North and South Yemen in 1990.
Furthermore, a number of factors played a significant role in developing a different social fabric for the South, including its colonial and Marxist history, the 1994 civil war, and southerners' different tribal cultures, terrain, and dialects, all of which have defined Yemen's southern areas in ways that are distinct from the North and influenced their political trajectory. Although many tribal and local powers in Yemen are aligned with President Hadi, there are some that are either supportive of or aligned with the Southern Transitional Council (STC), the majority of whose members back secession. Although slow to be implemented, the 2019 Riyadh Agreement has helped iron out some of the differences and put the question of secession on hold, seeking to find common ground with the government of Yemen by focusing on securing the country from Houthi expansionism.
The Houthis’ interest in Shabwa
The Houthis’ first incursion in Shabwa was at the start of the war in 2015, when they sought to control the city and its main gas export facility of Balhaf, but they were driven out by Yemen’s army from their last outpost in Bayhan in 2017. Since its liberation from Houthi forces, the UAE-trained Shabwani Elite Forces have concentrated on counter-terrorism operations and securing their territory from al-Qaeda attacks.
For the past several years the Houthis have been on the offensive again, increasing the potential of a renewed threat to Shabwa, as the militia’s ability to coerce tribes and threaten local populations grows every time it advances militarily. Given their multiple battlefield successes in Marib and takeover of al-Bayda Governorate in September 2021, the Houthis felt emboldened to again expand into Shabwa as they sought to choke every gateway to Marib and further exhaust their rivals in a war of attrition aimed at securing Marib and dividing the government allies.
The Houthi incursion into Shabwa started gradually with mortar and drone attacks last year, several of which targeted the headquarters of the Arab coalition in Shabwa and the Balhaf oil facility. They also fired into residential areas, launched multiple missiles at the Ataq Airport, and made substantial advances on the battlefield, seizing the town of Bayhan. They attacked a coalition camp in late 2021 housing Yemeni forces that had been sent as reinforcements to counter their push.
The Houthis' military attacks on Shabwa suggested they possessed critical intelligence about the coalition's camp that enabled them to target Yemeni leadership. In January 2022, the Houthis shelled a residential building belonging to the chief of the local authority in Shabwa’s Usailan district, targeting senior pro-government military leaders and tribal figures gathered inside. With an exhausted national army and the internal divisions among the Houthis' adversaries, reversing the course of the militia’s advance seemed impossible.
Unexpected political changes in Shabwa
But political changes would have a critical impact on the battlefield calculations, the most significant of which was the removal of the former governor of Shabwa, Mohammed Saleh bin Adio of the Islah party, who was publicly opposed to the UAE’s influence, and the appointment of a well-known parliamentarian and tribal figure from Shabwa to replace him, Sheikh al-Wazir, who has a good relationship with two key players in the South, the STC and the UAE.
Bin Adio was a controversial figure due to his ties with the Islah party, which has little popularity in southern Yemen. Appointed by President Hadi in 2018, Bin Adio was a relatively unknown figure on Yemen's political scene despite having previously served in the government. His time as governor has been described as "quiet compared to his predecessors, who oversaw the retreat of Houthi forces from the governorate in late 2017." Many of his supporters tout his economic achievements in the energy-rich governorate. According to one source interviewed in Shabwa, "Bin Adio is to Shabwa is what Sheikh al-Arada is to Marib," referring to the governor of Marib who empowered the city economically. Still, Bin Adio failed to build trust locally, especially with STC loyalists, and conducted anti-corruption campaigns against his political enemies despite being accused of it himself.
Local calls for the removal of the governor began to escalate after three districts fell into the Houthis’ hands under his watch. Given the contention between the STC and Islah, Bin Adio was accused of putting party politics before the interests of the governorate. After he was replaced, cooperation between the new governor, the coalition, and southern forces increased, enabling swift action against the Houthis. Many southern papers loyal to the STC attribute the success in pushing the Houthis out of Shabwa to his removal. This is not surprising as the STC has long distrusted Islah because of military clashes between the two groups and has been suspicious of Islah’s relationship with the Houthis given its predominantly northern identity.
The Giants Brigades
Within days of the political changes in Shabwa and the appointment of the new governor, the commander of the Giants Brigades, Brig. Gen. Abu Zara'a al-Muharrami, announced that he would be moving some of his forces from Yemen's West Coast toward Shabwa in a bid to push the Houthis out and secure the governorate. The move suggested political and military arrangements coordinated with the UAE, which has helped train and shape the brigades. Under Saudi and Emirati command, the Yemeni Giants Brigades launched Operation South Tornado in collaboration with the UAE-trained Shabwani Elite Forces. In less than 10 days, the Giants Brigades changed the course of the conflict in Shabwa and reversed the Houthis' gains, taking back the three districts that they had occupied.
The Giants Brigades are a relatively new force in Yemen. They emerged out of the southern resistance that fought the Houthis in the South at the beginning of the conflict in 2015. The force is supported and trained by the UAE armed forces and is under the leadership of Brig. Gen. Muharrami. They became better known after their success in Operation Golden Spear in Hodeida for their role in driving out the Houthis from the city and port of Mocha. They were later joined by the Republican Guards (known today as the National Resistance) led by Brig. Gen. Tariq Saleh, the nephew of former President Ali Abdullah Saleh. The force comprises 12 brigades totaling some 30,000 fighters, including 7,000 Tuhami resistance fighters.
Although many members of the Giants Brigades are known to be Salafists, most of them are first and foremost southerners, and they have a positive relationship with the STC. While this has continued to be advantageous for the Arab coalition in the short term, it will eventually be problematic for Hadi's government because the Giants Brigades’ presence in Shabwa could threaten the National Army in Shuqra City in Abyan, which has previously clashed with the STC. Additionally, there could be tensions down the road between the current pro-STC forces and Yemen's national Special Security Forces, which are affiliated with the Islah party.
Implications for Marib
The Houthi militia has carried out intense military attacks on the northern governorates of Marib and al-Bayda, disregarding local, regional, and international calls for peace. U.N.-backed efforts to facilitate negotiations among the conflict parties have failed to make any difference with regards to Marib.
For the time being, the Giants Brigades appear to be focused on protecting Shabwa and securing its routes. Asel al-Saqaldi, the spokesman for the Giants Brigades, said their fighters were able to down a drone in the skies over Marib and are fighting the Houthis in the governorate’s Huraib district. But much more needs to be done to give Yemenis in and around Marib a greater sense of safety and security — something they have been deprived of for the past two years.
Unfortunately, the situation in Marib is more complicated than in Shabwa, and the victory there cannot be easily replicated without Yemen’s army incurring significant losses or prolonging the conflict. Although the Houthis have no claim in Marib or al-Bayda, some tribes in Marib with Hashemite lineage share the Houthis' sectarian beliefs and are sympathetic to their cause. In an interview with a former resident of Marib, he said that some members of his tribe are unhappy with Islah's political influence in the area and might welcome a change in leadership should it happen. Given the volatility of the situation in Marib and Houthi reports that tribes are defecting to their side, the coalition needs to tread carefully. Without strong local buy-in from tribal powers in Marib, most of which are now exhausted by the conflict, the Houthis will continue to strike backroom deals and infiltrate Yemen's army, making it difficult to succeed on the ground.
Attack on the UAE and moving forward
In October 2019, the UAE announced the withdrawal of its troops from Yemen, but it retained its influence through its support for the STC and strategic military cooperation with the southern forces in Shabwa and the Giants Brigades. It’s worth noting that the UAE’s withdrawal from Yemen happened a few months after the Houthis released a video claiming responsibility for an attack on Abu Dhabi’s airport.
The Jan. 17, 2022 Houthi drone strike on the UAE further complicates any chances of peace. In response, the Arab coalition carried out airstrikes against Houthi-controlled Sanaa and UAE Foreign Minister Abdullah bin Zayed al-Nahyan called on U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken to re-designate the Houthis as a foreign terrorist organization.
Although UAE forces are not directly involved in Yemen, its strategic military cooperation within Shabwa and critical support for the Giants Brigades threatens the Houthis’ plans for expansion and ability to win in Marib. The Jan. 17 Houthi drone strike came just days after the Giants Brigades’ victory, in a quick retaliation for the UAE’s role in their redeployment into Shabwa. Although there is no reason to believe that the forces protecting Shabwa would mobilize to do the same for Marib given the very different political terrain explained above, the Houthis decided to pre-emptively strike and make their red lines clear to the UAE.
The situation now is extremely volatile and rests in the UAE’s hands. How the UAE choses to respond will have consequences for the course of the conflict in Yemen. The Giants Brigades’ win in Shabwa gave rise to hope that the Houthis’ offensive could be reversed and that renewed strategic cooperation between the Arab coalition and their local partners could help pressure the Houthis on the battlefield and push them out of Marib. However, if there is no support from the U.S. and the international community to provide protection for the Gulf, the Houthis’ attack on Abu Dhabi may prompt the UAE to reconsider its involvement and support for its Yemeni allies.
For now, the Houthis appear to be threatened by the Giants Brigades’ capabilities and are not prepared to sustain any more losses, especially as they try to maintain their gains in al-Baydah and all the new districts they recently seized. The Houthis are making it clear that they do not want any additional intervention that could challenge their military dominance in the area as they continue to strike Marib, irrespective of the local and international calls for peace. Therefore, the best possible scenario that could guard the interests of both parties is for the militia and the UAE to reach an agreement whereby pro-UAE forces remain only in the South as a defensive force. However, this solution would have an expiration date should Marib fall. The Houthis’ expansionist mindset will continue to present a challenge for the security and stability of the South in the near future.
Given the inability to achieve a swift end to the conflict in Marib or ensure that the Houthis will refrain from future expansionism, it is vital to find a quick solution to put pressure on the Houthis militarily and ease humanitarian suffering in Marib while simultaneously seeking avenues for peace. While the U.N. has urged the UAE to exercise maximum restraint, pressure must be brought to bear on the Houthis to stop their hostilities in Marib and across the region. This is of course easier said than done, but calculating a measured response to the Houthis' aggression must be a priority if there is a desire to see the conflict in Marib end. Moreover, a focus on supporting the Arab coalition’s military intervention in Marib alongside efforts to cut off all funding and military support that empowers the group could further protect civilians from Houthi attacks. Finally, it is time for the U.N. special envoy and the international community to push for a cease-fire in Marib that would guarantee the Houthis’ withdrawal from the governorate and an end to the bloodshed. The past few years have demonstrated that local actors can cause great humanitarian suffering for the local population and the inability to hold them accountable will only result in further humanitarian catastrophes in the course of this war.
Fatima Abo Alasrar is a Senior Analyst with the Washington Center for Yemeni Studies and a Non-Resident Scholar at the Middle East Institute. The views expressed in this article are her own.
Photo by SALEH AL-OBEIDI/AFP via Getty Images
 Author Skype Interview with a resident in Shabwa, February 19, 2021.