Yemen’s Hadramawt: A Divided Future?

Executive Summary

Now in its fourth month of anti-government protests, Yemen is faced with the breakdown of central state authority and the danger of territorial fragmentation. This separatist threat is especially strong in Yemen’s eastern governorate of Hadramawt, home to a mix of groups dedicated to not only southern secession but also the re-creation of an independent Hadramawt. A secessionist south or independent Hadramawt, however, would be a blow to Yemen’s economy due to the governorate’s oil wealth and the oil terminal at Ash Shihr. At the Say’un-Masila Basin, the site of Yemen’s most productive oil fields, Block 19 alone accounts for 32% of Yemen’s oil production. Many basic services that were intermittingly provided by the Yemeni government in the Hadramawt have ceased, leading to the creation of community councils that are attempting to provide food aid and staff first-aid stations. The Southern Mobility Movement and the Sons of the Hadramawt –a newly formed political group–are working in conjunction with these community councils to gain credibility and consolidate power within the governorate.


The standoff between the government of Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Salih and anti-government protesters is now in its fourth month. While President Salih and his supporters struggle to maintain their grip on power, levels of instability and insecurity continue to increase. Such instability increases the danger of territorial fragmentation by various separatist and militant groups. This danger is compounded by the state of Yemen’s economy, which is approaching collapse.

The eastern governorate of the Hadramawt, like other governorates that were formerly part of the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen (PDRY), is in danger of moving away from the idea of a unified Yemen as local leaders assert more control. The Hadramawt is home to a mix of groups variously dedicated to the secession of south Yemen and the recreation of an independent Hadramawt. It also has other groups that would welcome continued unity with Yemen under the auspices of the greater autonomy that federalization would provide. [1] Like in other parts of Yemen, the Hadramawt has experienced a decline or cessation of many basic services due to the turmoil within the Salih-led government. The Hadramawt, though thinly populated, is of significant economic importance to Yemen due its oil and gas fields. Critical oil handling infrastructure is also located in the governorate, most notably the oil terminal at Ash Shihr which is tied to Yemen’s most productive oil fields. Secession of the Hadramawt and southern Yemen would be catastrophic for the Yemeni economy.

As the standoff between the Salih government and anti-government protesters continues, insecurity and instability in the Hadramawt will increase as a number of groups struggle for control of the governorate’s resources.

A Fractured Army

The Salih government’s coercive authority throughout Yemen is largely dependent upon the power of the military. Civil government structures, where they exist, are weak and have never been a source of control or power. The fractures within the Yemeni military, namely the army, are contributing to the insecurity and de facto autonomy now being enjoyed by the various separatist and militant groups that operate in Yemen in general and in the Hadramawt more specifically.

The Yemeni army will play an important role in the maintenance – or collapse – of a united Yemen. Divisions within the Yemeni Army are increasing the danger of territorial fragmentation, as officers who have defected from the Salih government use their troops, who most often remain loyal to their generals and field rank officers, as bargaining chips for securing positions in whatever government comes after the Salih government. A small number of troops were stationed in the Hadramawt due to its relative stability, small population, and the vast geographic area it encompasses. Following the outbreak of anti-government protests in Sana’a and other major cities, the Salih government began withdrawing key troops that belonged to the loyal and well trained Republican Guard and Central Security Service (CSS). Troops were withdrawn from the Hadramawt and other areas so that they could be used to shore up the government’s control of infrastructure and state buildings in Yemen’s most important cities. The withdrawal of these elite troops has led local military commanders, tribal groups, and political groups to assert more control.  

In the Hadramawt, the commander of Yemen’s Eastern Military District, Brigadier General Mohammad Ali Mohsen, has broken with the regime. It remains unclear if he has sided with any particular opposition group or party. Brigadier Mohammad Ali Mohsen refused to hand over control of his troops to his replacement, Major Ahmed Sa’id bin Braik. So far, the forces under Brigadier Mohsen’s command remain loyal to him and have remained on station at their bases around Mukalla and Ash Shihr. The government attempted to move troops from the Republican Guard from Sana’a to Say’un, the Hadramawt’s principal northern town, on May 9. The move was thwarted by members of the Abidah, Jadaan, and Nahm tribes whose territory surrounds parts of the Marib to Hawrah/ Say’un road—the primary northern route from the capital to the Hadramawt (Reuters, May 11; Mareb Press, May 10).  The tribesmen were bombarded by the Yemeni Air Force which is commanded by President Salih’s half brother and remains loyal. Despite the bombardment, the tribesmen maintained control of the road. The Republican Guard troops that were to be deployed were meant to act as replacements for troops stationed in Say’un and Mukalla that have either abandoned their posts or joined the opposition. The fact that the government was attempting to use the Marib road, which has never been especially secure, likely means that it is unable to move troops via the southern routes due to even higher levels of insecurity.

Community Councils, the Southern Mobility Movement, and the Sons of the Hadramawt

The Southern Mobility Movement (SMM) has made good use of the weakness of the central government to consolidate its activities and add to its growing number of supporters. The SMM is an umbrella organization for a range of groups focused on southern issues and largely dedicated to secession. It enjoys a large and growing constituency in Mukalla, the capital of the Hadramawt and the governorate’s primary port. The SMM has deep roots in Mukalla and much of its leadership is based there. Just as it has in Aden, the SMM in the Hadramawt has focused on filling the void left by the government by providing some level of stability, making basic food aid available and by organizing civilian patrols and basic medical services in the form of community funded clinics and first aid stations.

The breakdown of central government authority has led to the formation of community and local councils throughout the south. A meeting was held in Mukalla on May 12 to discuss the issues of security, provision of basic services and longer term plans for how to form local and regional governments. The meeting brought together a number of groups and individuals affiliated with the SMM and the Sons of the Hadramawt (Aden Press, May 12).  The Sons of the Hadramawt, which coalesced after the outbreak of widespread protests, is a recent addition to the myriad of organizations and groups operating in south Yemen. The meeting was held to address the problems of security and instability that will affect – and are affecting – the governorate in the face of an absent or weakened central state. While there were a wide range of views voiced at the meeting – from the necessity of secession to calls for unity – there seemed to be a consensus regarding the need for all of the governorate’s political groups to work together to prevent the Hadramawt from becoming more insecure and unstable.

Representatives of the Sons of Hadramawt stressed how effective the community councils which they helped organize were in preventing a complete breakdown in basic services and security. These community councils, which are being organized throughout the Hadramawt, mirror those being formed in Aden and in other southern towns and cities. The grassroots effort to stave off instability and insecurity through the organization of relatively transparent community councils is encouraging. However, given that many of the members and organizations involved view secession as an answer to the south’s problems, the growing prominence of the councils may not bode well for a unified Yemen.

The Threat of Militant Salafis

Militant Salafis and operatives of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) have increased their level of activity in the Hadramawt over the last three years. AQAP has reportedly taken credit for a number of attacks in the Hadramawt on state security personnel, military checkpoints and two high profile attacks on foreign tourists. Four soldiers who were part of a detail guarding a telecommunications building were killed on May 1 in a shootout with what the government labeled as AQAP operatives (SABA News, May 1).

It remains difficult to accurately ascertain what are and are not AQAP led attacks. Given the military aid and political support that the U.S. provides the Salih government with – due to its role as an ally in the “war on terror” – the Salih government, arguably, has an interest in playing up the number of AQAP attacks. That is not to say that AQAP, and more broadly, militant Salafis, are not a real threat to stability in the Hadramawt and Yemen. However, the government’s interest in securing political leverage as well as advanced training and weaponry, which have been limited to the Republican Guard and the CSS, both of which remain loyal to Salih, should not be discounted as a motivating factor when assigning blame for attacks.

The continued government crackdown on anti-government protesters – in which at least 160 demonstrators have been killed since the protests began – has undoubtedly made it many new enemies and has likely driven some groups to take up arms. Before the protests began, the Salih government had a history of heavy handed responses to demonstrators throughout the south who frequently conducted protests, sit-ins and strikes in which they demanded equal rights with north Yemenis. The SMM’s nebulous and shifting leadership claims that it is devoted to non-violent means. However, the organization is not able exert control over all of the groups that function within it. While it is unclear how many of the attacks in the Hadramawt and the south are the work of AQAP, it is almost certain that some of the attacks are the work of tribesmen, groups, and individuals who are either dedicated to secession or simply looking for revenge.  

While much of the population of the Hadramawt, like much of Yemen, subscribes to conservative interpretations of Islam, it is unlikely that AQAP would ever be able to win over any more than a minority of the population. Parts of the Hadramawt are particularly conservative: many Hadrawmis reject the consumption of qat, the mild stimulant consumed by a majority of Yemeni men. However, this conservatism does not mean that the Hadramawt is any more susceptible to militant Salafi ideology. On the contrary, the Hadramawt has its own religious traditions based around the historical prominence and leadership of the saada or descendents of the prophet. The region, much like parts of the Tihama, the Yemeni governorate that abuts the Red Sea, has a long history of tomb and shrine visitation, a practice that is regarded as forbidden by Salafis. Tensions exist between the Hadramawt’s Sufi inspired religious beliefs and relatively new Salafi and Wahhabi interpretations of Islam. [2] These tensions could be played upon by AQAP in an attempt to insert itself into the religious politics of the region.

Secession or Federalization?

The question of secession or federalization of the south and the Hadramawt in particular is directly tied to the critical value of the region’s oil and gas resources. The Hadramawt’s oil wealth and the oil terminal at Ash Shihr are vital to the Yemeni economy. Block 19 of the Say’un-Masila Basin alone accounts for 32% of Yemen’s oil production. The Say’un-Masila Basin is the site of Yemen’s most productive oil fields and this is likely to remain so for the foreseeable future. The Hadramawt’s relative oil wealth already plays a key part in the narrative of Hadrawmi separatists, just as the south’s oil wealth (most of Yemen’s oil and gas are located in what was the former Peoples’ Democratic Republic of Yemen) plays an important part in the southern secessionists’ narrative. Many southerners claim that the oil revenues have not benefited the people of the south and that in the future the revenues will finance an independent Hadramawt or South Yemen. While this might be true, north Yemen’s economy would crumble without the revenue from the oil and gas resources found in southern Yemen.

Many northerners and members of the Yemeni government are keenly aware of how critical the oil wealth located in south Yemen is to the Yemeni economy. Therefore any attempts at secession will likely result in war. Yet the longer the Salih government struggles to hold onto power in Sana’a, the more likely this scenario becomes as groups as disparate as Hadrawmi separatists, the SMM and the Houthis in the northern governorate of Sadah exercise greater autonomy. However, among many political groups in the south and among some of the SMM’s members, there is recognition of the dangers that secession from the north poses. While the power and influence of the secessionists is certainly growing, there are also those who see federalization as the only viable answer to north/ south relations. The Hadrawmi Youth Coalition, another newly formed group, released a memo on May 15 that called for the adoption of a federal system (Aden Press, May 15). The group, like many others, is new and loosely organized, but the memo may be indicative of growing support for a federalist system that would assure greater autonomy for the Hadramawt and the south.


The ongoing crackdowns on anti-government protesters and the intransigence of the Salih government mean that insecurity and instability will continue to increase throughout Yemen, even in relatively stable governorates like the Hadramawt. The government’s frequent use of violence against anti-government demonstrators risks driving Yemenis from a range of political and tribal groups to take up arms against it. There is also the real risk that once President Salih has left office these groups will turn on one another as conditions continue to deteriorate. However, as evidenced by the community councils in the Hadramawt organizing to provide basic services and combat insecurity, Yemenis are already attempting to address the issues of instability and insecurity on a local level. If community based responses like these were encouraged and if a unity government that supported federalization were formed, war and fragmentation could be avoided.


1. See: “The Growing Separatist Threat in Yemen’s Hadramawt Governorate,” Terrorism Monitor volume 8 issue 40, Jamestown Foundation.
2. See: Alexander Knysh, “Contextualizing the Salafi-Sufi Conflict (from the Northern Caucasus to Hadramawt),” Middle Eastern Studies, 43:4, 10 July 2007.