The Conflict in Shabwah and What it Means for South Yemen

August 21, 2022

"There is no South without Shabwah," a phrase frequently repeated by southerners to emphasize the importance of Shabwah to South Yemen. Shabwah's oil wealth and strategic position at the center of southern Yemen, linking its west to its east, and Shabwah's Arabian Sea coastline and the ancient 'Qana' Port give whoever controls this province the upper hand in controlling all the southern provinces. Shabwah is also home to several historic tribes; the biggest is the Al-Awlaqi Tribe, led by the current Governor, Sheikh Awadh bin Alwazir Al-Awlaki. The Musa'by, Balharith, Bani Hilal, Al-Saad, Himyar, Nua'man, and Balobeid are also prominent ancient tribes where each tribe controls and influences power in a particular geographical area of Shabwah. For example, the Musa'by, Balharith, and Balobied control the north to northeast areas of Shabwah. Bani Hilal and Al-Awlaki tribes control central and western Shabwah, and Himyar, Nua'man, and Al-Saad tribes control the southern and coastal areas of Shabwah. From these large tribes, several tribal branches spread throughout Shabwah and into neighboring provinces of Abyan and Hadramaut. This strategic position and tribal makeup have made Shabwah a prime target for local and outside political forces striving to control South Yemen.

The Islah Party's Conflict With the STC in Shabwah

The conflict between the two sides has been ongoing in Shabwah since August 2019, when the Islah forces drove the Southern Transitional Council out of Shabwah. Control of Shabwah allowed Islah to stop the Southern Transitional Council from marching east to control the provinces of Hadramaut and Mahra, to restore the South Yemen state that existed before uniting with North Yemen in 1990; it also forced the STC to focus all its military resources on defending the capital Aden. However, with this win came a loss for Islah. As the Islah Party redeployed thousands of its soldiers and military equipment from its headquarters in Marib into Shabwah, eastern Abyan, and the valley of Hadramaut, southerners and outside observers saw it as a stab in the back to the Arab coalition and to the anti-Houthi Yemenis, who questioned the Islah Party's motive of redeploying at the same time the Houthi was surrounding Marib and Aljawf, and those forces were needed more in the northern provinces to repel the Houthis. 

The Islah Party's strategy to focus its fight against the Southern Transitional Council and solidify its control over Shabwah, leaving Marib and other provinces in the north undefended, was destructive. In the following months, the Islah Party, which had a monopoly on the internationally recognized government of Yemen, lost the strategic Nihem District in Sana'a, Sarwah and other districts in Marib, and Aljawf Province, to the Houthis. As Islah lost territory to the Houthis in North Yemen, it was losing ground politically and socially in South Yemen. 

Islah was not welcome in Shabwah. The residents of Shabwah, which majority of them seek an end to Yemen unity and call for the restoration of an independent South Yemen, viewed the Islah Forces in Shabwah as "North Yemeni occupation forces" even though the commanders of those forces were from Shabwah, and led by the Shabwani Governor Mohamed Saleh bin Adio. That did not matter to the people of Shabwah because the commanders' orders came from North Yemeni leader, General Ali Mohsen Alahmar. 

Protests against governor bin Adio and the security and military forces affiliated with Islah started to spring up in different districts because the security forces had started waging a campaign of arbitrary arrests of STC supporters. The first protest took place in Azzan on October 3, 2019. Feeling empowered, the governor sent North Yemeni security forces to end the protest instead of sending mediators to talk to the protesters. What happened on that fateful day and the killing of a Shabwani civilian named Said Tajrah by a North Yemeni soldier for raising the "South Yemen flag" sent shockwaves throughout Shabwah and rang warning bells that North Yemen was here to occupy Shabwah and kill its residents with the help of bin Adio. 

As protests became frequent, so did the Islah forces' brutality. From October 2019 to December 2021, the Islah forces launched dozens of attacks and arrests of activists, journalists, and former Shabwani Elite soldiers. Military campaigns were waged by Islah forces against the Laqmoush tribe in Habban, against the Awlaki tribe in Nesab, against tribal fighters in Jardan and Mayfa'h, and against peaceful protesters in Azzan and in the capital Ataq

Islah's use of force against the residents of Shabwah and the Southern Transitional Council in particular, while allowing the Houthis to take control of three districts north of Shabwah, Bayhan, Usailan, and Ain, without a fight, increased anti-Islah sentiment, and confirmed southerners' claims that the Islah Party was using the power of the legitimate government to fight the south, not to fight the Houthis.

The Current Conflict and its Ramifications

On August 8, clashes erupted in Ataq, the capital of Shabwah, between the special security forces loyal to the Islah Party (the Muslim Brotherhood branch in Yemen) and forces loyal to the Southern Transitional Council (Southern political entity seeking independence for South Yemen). These clashes are a culmination of several months of friction between the pro-STC forces, made up of the Southern Giants Brigades and the Shabwah Defence Forces. The southern forces were brought in December 2021 to push the Houthis out of the three districts in northern Shabwah. After they were liberated, the new governor, Awadh bin Alwazir, tried to split security checkpoints between the Shabwah Defence Forces and the Islah Forces in an effort to save Shabwah from internal conflict. That did not go as planned. The Islah forces felt threatened by the presence of the Shabwah Defence Forces, whom the locals welcome. They were also unwilling to lose control of this strategic province; thus, they started provoking pro-STC forces. 

On July 20, the Islah special security forces commanded by Abd Rabbo Laakab attacked a Shabwah Defence Forces checkpoint in Ataq, which led to clashes between the two forces, injuring two soldiers and damaging private property. The governor then suspended the Commander of the Shabwah Defence Forces' Second Brigade, Brigadier Wajdi Baoum, and the Commander of the Special Security Forces, Abd Rabbo Laakab, for their involvement in the incident while the security committee investigated to see who was at fault. After the security committee concluded the investigation and found that Laakab was the instigator, the governor fired Laakab on August 6. A day later, the Minister of Interior, Ibrahim Haydan, rejected the order of the governor of Shabwah to replace Laakab; on the backdrop of this rejection, the special security forces launched attacks against the pro-STC forces, which the governor and the Political Leadership Council considered a rebellion.  

In the past week of the conflict, the Islah Party has officially lost Shabwah, and the Southern Transitional Council gained new ground in its march toward independence. 

Contrary to popular belief, the Saudi and UAE involvement in the war in Yemen is not the source of the conflict; however, both the Islah Party and the Southern Transitional Council have used the support provided to them by Saudi Arabia and the UAE to further their political desires. In the past seven years, the Islah Party has used support from Saudi Arabia to fortify control of the oil-producing areas in Marib, Shabwah, and Hadramaut. The STC has used the support provided by the UAE to establish a security force to liberate the southern provinces and restore the South Yemen state. 

The recent conflict between the Southern Transitional Council and the Islah Party, which started in Shabwah in 2019, underscored the overall conflict that we have seen in South Yemen since 1994 between two political projects, the Yemen unity project and the South Yemen independence project. One can not understand or solve any security or political issue in the south without going back to 1994 and understanding the political isolation and repression the south endured thereon.