Yemen’s Tihama region runs the length of the country’s Red Sea coast, from the port of al-Mocha to the Saudi border. It encompasses some of Yemen’s most productive agricultural lands and is home to the important port city, al-Hodeidah. As Yemen’s gateway to the Red Sea and the Horn of Africa, control of the Tihama is critical to controlling and supplying northwest Yemen.
Due to its proximity to Africa and exposure to ancient trade routes, the Tihama is Yemen’s most ethnically diverse region. It is home to Yemenis who trace their descent from Somalia, Ethiopia, and Eritrea. Most now think of themselves as Tihami, an identity that embraces longstanding ties to the Horn of Africa. The region is also home to thousands of recent migrants as well as communities of people who move between the Tihama and the countries that make up the Horn of Africa.
The Tihama and its people have also long been politically and economically marginalized by successive Yemeni governments. In the lead up to the Arab Spring, this marginalization fed a resurgence in support for the distinct Tihami identity. Following the outbreak of war in 2015, armed groups that claim to want greater autonomy or even independence for the Tihama tapped into this resurgence to build powerbases and recruit fighters to battle the Houthis.
At the same time, the Tihama’s strategic position along the Red Sea and its ports mean that the region has long been the focus of outside powers. Since the start of the Saudi-led intervention in Yemen in 2015, the UAE, Saudi Arabia, and to a lesser degree, Qatar, have been the countries most active in the Tihama. However, as the UAE scales back its involvement in Yemen, other countries like Turkey and Russia are looking to establish their influence in the region (Middle East Monitor, June 28, 2019; The Arab Weekly, April 12).
Autonomy in the Tihama?
The Tihama historically included what is now the Saudi province of Jizan. In the early 1900s, during the second Ottoman occupation of Yemen, the Ottoman Turks faced a revolt in the Tihama led by Muhammad al-Idrisi. Al-Idrisi was the scion of a Sayyid (descendants of the Prophet) family that was widely respected in the Tihama. Al-Idrisi, with some British support, defied the Ottomans and established the short-lived Idrisid Emirate of Asir. The emirate eventually extended as far south as the Yemeni port city of Hodeidah. However, Hodeidah was lost to Imam Yahya in 1925 and became part of the Mutawakkilite Kingdom of Yemen (North Yemen). A revolt led by the Tihama-based Zarniq tribe persisted until 1927 when it was brutally suppressed by forces loyal to Imam Yahya. The northern reaches of the emirate were annexed by Saudi Arabia as part of the 1934 Treaty of Taif.
For many of those now fighting for the Tihama Resistance Forces, the Idrisid Emirate serves as a potent reminder of Tihami resistance to outside rule and self-governance. The Tihama Movement and the Tihama Resistance Council, the political arm of the Tihama Resistance Forces, draw on the Tihama’s history of self-rule as well as its distinct culture to justify their aims. These span the spectrum from full autonomy and the creation of an independent Tihama to more modest aims that seek redress of decades of political and economic marginalization.
While the Tihama Movement dates to the 2011-12 uprising against then-Yemeni president Ali Abdullah Saleh, the armed Tihama Resistance Forces formed in response to the 2014 Houthi takeover of Hodeidah. For most of 2014 and 2015, the Tihama Resistance Forces were little more than local militias that struggled to coordinate their efforts. However, with the UAE and Saudi Arabia’s deepening involvement in the war in Yemen, the militias began to receive arms, money, and some basic training from both countries (The National, June 16, 2018). Due to its focus on southern Yemen, the UAE developed the closest ties to the Tihama Resistance Forces and provided the bulk of the funding and arms for its militias.
The Tihama Resistance Forces and their political arm are not as well organized or cohesive as other armed groups in Yemen, such as the Southern Transitional Council (STC) or the Houthis. The leadership of the Tihama-based militias and political organizations is diffuse and has not yet articulated any consistent objectives or aims beyond evicting the Houthis from the Tihama. The leadership of the various militias that operate under the umbrella of the Tihama Resistance Forces do not all support an autonomous Tihama. Furthermore, there is a growing divide between those allied with the STC and those who back the internationally recognized government of Yemen.
The lack of a defined organizational structure and the absence of clear political objectives means that the Tihama based militias exist and operate within a patchwork of alliances. These are alliances that are most often in a state of flux. The Tihama Resistance Forces have worked closely, and to some degree been incorporated into, the National Resistance Forces (NRF). The NRF is led by Tariq Saleh, former Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s nephew. Tariq Saleh was a brigadier general within the Yemeni Army and commanded the Presidential Guard. After the Houthis assassinated Ali Abdullah Saleh in December 2017, Tariq Saleh fled Sana’a and eventually made his way to south Yemen. Tariq Saleh rallied many former soldiers and officers from the Republican Guard. With support from the UAE, he helped form the NRF and began fighting the Houthis, largely in the Tihama (see MLM, June 2).
As the best led and funded armed group in the Tihama, the NRF is the dominant force. The Tihama Resistance Forces have largely functioned as ancillary militias for the NRF. By 2018, the NRF leadership was predominant and largely responsible for marshaling and tasking the militias fighting under the Tihama Resistance Force umbrella. However, this relationship was, and remains, dependent on the NRF’s ability to dole out funds and materiel to those militias that fight alongside it. With the UAE and Saudi Arabia curtailing their direct and indirect involvement in the war in Yemen, the NRF’s ability to continue to pay and supply these militias is questionable. Notably, Tariq Saleh and the NRF is now backing the STC rather than the internationally recognized government of Yemen (IRG) (Inside Arabia, June 9).
Tensions between the Tihama Resistance Forces and the NRF will likely increase as these armed groups compete for funds, materiel, and influence. While Tariq Saleh is respected as a competent commander, he is still a member of the Saleh family and, as such, many in the Tihama Movement regard him with suspicion. Apart from the port city of Hodeidah, development of the Tihama, like southern Yemen, was never a priority for Ali Abdullah Saleh’s government. The Saleh government also targeted dissidents who brought attention to the political and economic marginalization of parts of Yemen like the south and the Tihama.
Growing divisions within what was an already fragile collection of alliances in the Tihama will make parts of the region more vulnerable to Houthi-led offensives. Despite UN-brokered agreements, the Houthis maintain de facto control of large parts of Hodeidah. They also enjoy operational control of the mountains that overlook most of the Tihama. These mountains, which are some of the most rugged in the country, allow the Houthis to launch hit and run attacks on the NRF and other Tihama-based militias. The NRF and the Tihama Resistance Forces only exercise consistent control of a narrow band of coastal plain. Outside of these areas, their forces are subject to attack by small, highly mobile units of Houthi-allied fighters (see Hot Issue, June 29).
As the UAE, whose economy has been severely impacted by response to COVID-19, and Saudi Arabia reduce their expenditures in Yemen, ample opportunities will arise for other outside powers to step up their involvement in the Tihama and elsewhere in Yemen. Turkey and Qatar, which are allied with one another, are battling Saudi Arabia and the UAE for influence in the Horn of Africa and the Gulf.
Turkey’s assertive, yet realist, foreign policy has seen it set itself up as the most influential outside power in Somalia, something that it could potentially replicate in parts of Yemen. Turkey and Qatar, who briefly participated in the Saudi-led intervention in Yemen, could check UAE and Saudi influence in the country by cultivating relationships with armed groups who find themselves in need of funding and support. The Tihama, with its valuable Red Sea real estate, will undoubtedly be viewed as ripe for influence operations and investment by Turkey, Qatar, and even Russia.
Russia and Turkey have longstanding ties to the Tihama. The Ottoman Turks occupied parts of Yemen twice and the Soviet Union invested in the port of Hodeidah in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Soviet interest in the port, where it maintained a naval base, was fueled by its desire to establish a durable naval presence in the Red Sea. 
Competition between outside powers for influence in and access to the Tihama will further complicate efforts to facilitate a negotiated peace in Yemen. However, unlike the amateurish and costly Saudi and UAE-led intervention in Yemen, Turkish, Qatari, and Russian initiatives in the country, if they materialize, will be more nuanced, enduring, and less overt.
Over the short and medium-term, the Tihama’s strategic location and its role as a gateway to Yemen ensure that fighting—at least at a low level—will continue for the foreseeable future. There is no one armed group that can control the Tihama or even the port city of Hodeidah. The Tihama, with more realistic and internationally-backed initiatives, could become an important test-case for Yemen-wide de-escalation. Such initiatives would go a long way to blocking or minimizing the involvement of additional outside powers in Yemen.
 See Sergei Georgievich Gorshkov, The Sea Power of the State (Naval Institute Press, 1979).