Alwaght- While ceasefire in Yemen was intended to end the eight-year-long blockade on the country and set a prelude for the end of the clashes, the Saudis see to have to different dream.
Over the past few days, some Yemeni media reported Saudi plans to annex the Yemeni provinces of Hadhrahmaut, Shabwa, Al Mahrah, and Abyan to its territories, a plan that not only does not help de-escalation but also would reignite the conflict in the future.
Alwaght arranged an interview with Sayed Hadi Afqahi, an Iranian expert of West Asia affairs, asking him for elaboration.
Alwaght: Saudi Arabia, which has so far failed to meet its goals, announced that it intends to annex the southern Yemeni provinces. What are its objectives in the present conditions and can it make any success in this plan?
Afqahi: One of the reasons for this intention is rivalry against the UAE, a Saudi partner in the war against the Yemeni people. The UAE, with the help of the Israelis, has captured some important islands in the southern part of Yemen, including the city of Aden, which is the capital of the resigned Yemeni government, and also Socotra, where the Israelis have established bases on the island with the help of the UAE. For Saudi Arabia, an oil pipeline through Yemen is key to be able to transport its oil circumventing Strait of Hormuz. That is why the Saudis have their eyes on these four provinces, and they want to either occupy these areas by military force or rent them. Just as the three southern Saudi provinces of Asir, Jizan, and Najran which were officially annexed to Saudi Arabia under a 90-year agreement signed between King Abdul Aziz Al Saud and the contemporaneous ruler of Yemen. The situation in Hadramaut province is similar, and the annexation of this region to Saudi Arabia is both because of the Saudi rivalry with the UAE and because they are looking to occupy or rent it.
But occupation of these regions would be difficult because the tribes of Hadhrahmaut and Al Mahrah are extremely sensitive to the Saudi agenda and oppose the Saudi presence in their areas. Several times, clashes broke between them. Earlier, the head of Al Mahrah made strong remarks on the Saudis, telling them that they came to save the people but themselves occupied their lands.
Another issue is the UN and other international organizations' position which recognize Saudi Arabia as an occupying force in Yemen and this makes it legally impossible for the Saudis to annex the Yemeni provinces to their territories. I think that Saudi Arabia would not manage to annex these four provinces to pass its oil pipeline through them as this is a big risk.
Alwaght: Having in mind that the UAE is also seeking occupation of southern Yemen, what would be its stance on this new Saudi policy?
Afqahi: The UAE, like Saudi Arabia, is an occupying force and sponsors the separatist Southern Transitional Council (STC), and there are occasional clashes between Emirati and Saudi forces in southern Yemen, and the resigned President Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi had repeatedly asked to travel to Aden and show that he was the legitimate president of Yemen, but the Emiratis did not allow him to settle in this key southern province. The UAE is in coordination with the US and Israel, and southern Yemen is an important region, and control of the Bab-el-Mandeb Strait is crucial for international shipping so that the Israelis can establish a presence there. The fact that Saudi Arabia wants to annex the provinces of Hadhramaut, Al-Mehrah, Shabwa, and Abyan does not bother the UAE's policies in southern Yemen.
Alwaght: Saudi Arabia reportedly announced it would not walk back from its annexation policy. What challenges does this policy bring to the region?
Afqahi: The situation is stagnant now in Yemen and the warring sides have spent all of their power. Now, neither the Ansarullah Movement can make a significant change in the balance of power to force Saudi Arabia out of Yemen, nor can the Saudi-Emirati forces defeat the resistant movement and end the war by seizing the capital Sana'a. Last year, we saw the advances of Ansarullah and the Yemeni army towards Ma'rib province, but when they reached the gates of the city, they stopped. That is because the cost of victory and the liberation of Ma'rib from Saudi and Emirati mercenaries exceeded the value of victory in the siege. Therefore, Ma'rib is currently under siege, but the cost is high, and Ansarullah may not afford it. The UN recently proposed a ceasefire, and unfortunately Saudi Arabia has violated the agreement dozens of times. Despite that, both sides want to breathe. Although Ansarullah wished that the ceasefire would be successful because the UN has intervened this time, nothing has changed and Saudi Arabia has not adhered to any of the terms of the truce, continuing its attacks. Ansarullah spokesman Mohammad Abdul Salam even protested several times that Saudi Arabia had not fulfilled its obligations despite the ceasefire. The naval siege of Yemen was to be lifted, humanitarian aid was to be sent to the country, and Sana'a airport was to be reopened, which Saudi Arabia did not allow. Riyadh sought a ceasefire in order to remobilize its forces and even recapture the area around Ma'rib through a deception operation. Indeed, Ansarullah and the Yemeni army were aware that the Saudis might carry out surprise operations during the ceasefire and so did not allow such moves.
Alwaght: Saudi Arabia has left implementation of its new plan to the inhabitants of these regions. What do you think is their stance?
Afqahi: The Saudis have their mercenaries in these provinces but people generally oppose the Saudi occupation, let alone annexation. Saudi Arabia practically occupies these provinces but this may be provisional and possibly the tribes there would be armed to counter the annexation agenda, or Ansarullah may deploy forces to these provinces and block the plan. Therefore, despite its provisional presence, Saudi Arabia is not sure it can succeed. Its ultimate goal is annexation in order to pass its oil from these provinces but it is not the time and currently field changes and global equations are influential. Presently, Ukraine situation influences the US position towards Saudi Arabia and perhaps the Americans disallow this move. The Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is on a shaky ground given the power struggle inside the house of Saud. Additionally, the health conditions of the Saudi King Salman are not stable and thus do not allow implementation of this policy.