Shaykh Abd al-Wahab: Saudi Arabia’s Frontline Partner in Yemen

Publication: Militant Leadership Monitor Volume: 8 Issue: 6

The Saudi- and Emirati-led coalition in Yemen continues to be stalemated in its effort to capture areas controlled by the Houthi movement and allied forces loyal to Yemen’s former president Ali Abd Allah Saleh around the country’s capital of Sana’a in central-northern Yemen. One closely contested frontline in the ongoing civil war is the mountainous, temperate Dhamar governorate, which is south of Sana’a and is a strategic region to stage a campaign to seize the capital (UNHCR, March 10; al-Arabiyya [Dubai], March 7; Arab News [Jeddah], February 9; Gulf News [Dubai], January 27, 2016). The district of Utmah in Dhamar governorate, located approximately 200 kilometers southwest of Sana’a, has been a site of active resistance against the Houthis and their allies (Yemen Akhbar [Aden], June 15; al-Mashhad al-Yemeni [Aden], March 22; YouTube, March 21).


The leader of the coalition-aligned al-Muqawama al-Sha’biyya (Popular Resistance) militia forces in the area of Utmah is Shaykh Abd al-Wahab Ali Mahmoud Muawada, a powerful local notable and a senior member of the Yemeni parliament (Bawabati [Aden], March 29; Yemen Parliament). Shaykh Abd al-Wahab, a 61-year-old native of the Utmah district, is one of the most important coalition-supporting local tribal militia leaders in this strategic area of Yemen (YouTube, March 20; Yemen Saeed [Marib], March 20). Also serving as the deputy commander of the Popular Resistance militia network throughout Dhamar governorate, Shaykh Abd al-Wahab is an important political leader in Dhamar who comes from a powerful family that has traditionally been influential in the area of Utmah (Facebook, August 12, 2016).

Shaykh Abd al-Wahab is believed to be a personal friend of the coalition-backed Yemeni President Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi, and he is also one of the fiercest local opponents of the Houthis and their allies in the central-northern region of the country. He has long been a member of the General People’s Congress Party, which both Saleh and Hadi belong to, though Shaykh Abd al-Wahab supports Hadi (Suhail [Aden], March 24; al-Arabi, March 13). Shaykh Abd al-Wahab has developed a reputation for being one of the most steadfast opponents of the Houthis and their allies. This position has resulted in him being granted access to high-ranking Saudi officials over the course of the civil war, including Saudi Crown Prince and Defense Minister Muhammad bin Salman bin Abdul Aziz bin Abdul Rahman al-Saud (MBS) (al-Riyadh, April 9; Okaz [Riyadh], April 7).

Since 2015, the area around Utbah has been a notable site of conflict between the Houthis and their allies and the coalition-aligned Popular Resistance network, with the Utmah Popular Resistance affiliate numbering approximately 1,000 fighters (YouTube, November 22, 2016; al-Watan Voice [Aden], October 28, 2015; al-Omanaa [Aden], August 13, 2015). A series of skirmishes between the Houthis and their allies and the Utmah Popular Resistance forces under the command of Shaykh Abd al-Wahab, which occurred from February to March, resulted in the Houthis and their allies imposing a siege on the area of Utmah (Tehama Press [Aden], March 29; YouTube, February 18; YouTube, February 15). It also resulted in the forced withdrawal of Shaykh Abd al-Wahab and a significant component of his Popular Resistance forces from Utbah to the coalition-controlled city of Marib, located in the neighboring Marib governorate (Yemen 24 [Aden], March 4). Over the course of the civil war, Shaykh Abd al-Wahab has been a high value target of the Houthis and their allies. As a result, his home in Utbah was reportedly seized and destroyed by the Houthis in March after his withdrawal from the area of Utbah (YouTube, February 24; Yemen Now [Aden], August 31, 2016; Yemen 24 [Aden], August 13, 2015).


Shaykh Abd al-Wahab is a key local Yemeni partner for Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. Although he is currently displaced from his home district, as a member of the Yemeni parliament and as a noteworthy opponent of the Houthi movement and its allies, Shaykh Abd al-Wahab continues to be a highly relevant political actor who can lend credibility to coalition efforts to build a network of influence in strategic areas of central-northern Yemen. Shaykh Abd al-Wahab’s recent audience with MBS in Saudi Arabia demonstrates the value that Saudi leadership places on partner Yemeni commanders who are steadfast in their opposition to the Houthis, loyal political allies of Hadi and willing to invest in a long term conflict, even at the expense of their property and potentially their lives. Importantly, Shaykh Abd al-Wahab is not a Yemeni commander and politician who is likely to have a national following, and therefore does not represent a threat to Hadi. Rather, he plays more the role of an essential front-line leader for the coalition in areas of Yemen like those in the vicinity of Sana’a, which are likely to be highly contested zones of conflict for the foreseeable future.