Saudi Attempts to Win Over Locals in Yemen Stir Anger

Banners with the images of Saudi’s crown prince and his father leave little doubt as to who is behind the gifted fuel in the tankers in Nishtoon.

Banners with the images of Saudi’s crown prince and his father leave little doubt as to who is behind the gifted fuel in the tankers in Nishtoon.


Photo:

Sune Engel Rasmussen/The Wall Street Journal

GHAYDAH, Yemen—To win over locals in this relatively peaceful corner of a shattered country, Saudi Arabia has funded schools, expanded medical facilities and promised new boats for fishermen.

The kingdom’s military has also taken over sea and airports and brought in hundreds of Saudi soldiers to carry out the projects, stirring up opposition among residents of Yemen’s Al-Mahra province, whose capital is Ghaydah.

As international pressure builds on the Saudi-led coalition to halt Yemen’s devastating war, deep distrust among residents here is complicating Riyadh’s efforts to build loyalty among locals and keep hostile forces, particularly Iran-backed Houthi rebels, from exploiting Yemen’s chaos and threatening the kingdom.

Some people in Al-Mahra accuse Saudi Arabia of using development projects to entrench its military and secure strategic interests through the control of Yemen’s key infrastructure.

“We are under Saudi occupation. We don’t need the Saudis,” said a former deputy governor of Al-Mahra, Ali bin Salem Al-Huraizy, who has helped organize protests over the Saudi presence in the province.

Brig. Gen. Ali Shekri, commander of the Saudi task force in Al-Mahra, said the Saudi-development initiatives are intended to cultivate goodwill and meet local needs before a rival, such as an Iran-backed rebel group or Islamic extremists like al Qaeda, decides to do so.

Dual Strategy

While leading a pro-government coalition fighting Iran-backed Houthi rebels, Saudi Arabia has financed schools and infrastructure in Yemen’s Al Mahra province.

Areas of control

Houthis and allies

Mixed/unclear

Al Qaeda

Pro-government coalition

SAUDI ARABIA

OMAN

Abha

AL-MAHRA

Saada

Ghaydah

YEMEN

Red Sea

Nishtoon

San’a

Marib

Al Mukalla

Hodeida

Dhamar

Ibb

Al-Bayda

ERITREA

Aden

Gulf of Aden

DJIBOUTI

Areas of control

Mixed/unclear

Houthis and allies

Pro-government coalition

Al Qaeda

OMAN

SAUDI ARABIA

Abha

AL-MAHRA

Saada

Ghaydah

YEMEN

Nishtoon

San’a

Marib

Al Mukalla

Hodeida

Dhamar

Ibb

Al-Bayda

Gulf of Aden

Aden

Areas of control

Mixed/unclear

Al Qaeda

Houthis and allies

Pro-government coalition

OMAN

SAUDI ARABIA

Abha

AL-MAHRA

Saada

Ghaydah

YEMEN

Red Sea

Nishtoon

San’a

Marib

Al Mukalla

Hodeida

Dhamar

Ibb

Al-Bayda

ERITREA

Aden

Gulf of Aden

Areas of control

Al Qaeda

Pro-government coalition

Mixed/unclear

Houthis and allies

OMAN

SAUDI ARABIA

Abha

AL-

MAHRA

Saada

Ghaydah

YEMEN

San’a

Marib

Nishtoon

Ibb

Al-Bayda

Gulf of Aden

Aden

SOMALIA

Note: Control areas as of Dec. 6

Source: www.polgeonow.com

“If there is a gap, someone is going to fill that gap,” he said.

After more than three years of war, Yemen is not only vulnerable, it’s on the verge of collapse.

Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have argued that their military coalition is critical to defeating the Houthi rebels who in 2014 seized the capital San’a. Coalition air raids have killed thousands of civilians and destroyed vital infrastructure, including hospitals. Yemen is now home to one of the largest cholera outbreaks ever. As many as 85,000 children have died from starvation since the war’s start, according to Save the Children, an international nongovernment organization.

In December, the U.S. Senate passed a resolution to halt U.S. support for the war.

While Al-Mahra province has avoided much of the destruction seen elsewhere in Yemen, the province is symptomatic of how locals bristle over the outsize role of regional powers.

Since April, hundreds of people have demonstrated regularly against the takeover by Saudi “invaders.” In November, Saudi-backed Yemeni soldiers killed at least two people when they opened fire on a demonstration.

The Saudi-backed governor of Al-Mahra province, Rajeh Saidbakrit, said those killed were terrorists who were shot while attacking a checkpoint. But Mr. Huraizy said those killed were ordinary protesters.

Some of the 1,400 children enrolled in a school in Ghaydah, in eastern Yemen, where Saudi Arabia is distributing textbooks.

Some of the 1,400 children enrolled in a school in Ghaydah, in eastern Yemen, where Saudi Arabia is distributing textbooks.


Photo:

Sune Engel Rasmussen/The Wall Street Journal

In Ghaydah, the Saudis use the airport, which they seized in late 2017, to fly soldiers in and out of the country. They also run their development program with help from the military, reinforcing the impression with locals that the Saudi assistance is part of the kingdom’s war effort.

Riyadh says its military also operates in Al-Mahra to stop smuggling through the Arabian Sea of drugs that seep into Saudi Arabia and weapons used by Houthis in northern Yemen to fight Riyadh and its allies, and to improve security for the Yemeni people. Saudi Arabia has bolstered the Yemeni coast guard and erected checkpoints to choke arms smuggling.

A senior Yemeni government official who is close to the country’s Saudi-backed president, Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, said the Yemeni government had no say or control over Saudi’s expansion in Al-Mahra. The official, who asked not to be named for fear of retaliation from Saudi Arabia, where he is based, said Riyadh was taking advantage of the chaotic situation in the country.

“We are allied with the Saudi-led coalition, but we don’t accept any violation of our sovereignty,” the official said. “The coalition’s goal is to reinstate the legitimate government,” he added, “not to spread military in peaceful areas.”

Officials with the Saudi Development and Reconstruction Program for Yemen helped to deliver schoolbooks in Ghaydah.

Officials with the Saudi Development and Reconstruction Program for Yemen helped to deliver schoolbooks in Ghaydah.


Photo:

Sune Engel Rasmussen/The Wall Street Journal

To win over skeptics, Saudi Arabia pairs development and antismuggling efforts with outright gifts, such as much-needed fuel, schoolbooks, a water purification plant and new medical facilities. “If you build hospitals and schools, if you create jobs, they will say, ‘We are lucky to have you here’,” Saudi Gen. Shekri said.

In the Arabian Sea port of Nishtoon, south of Ghaydah, huge banners with the image of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and his father, King Salman, in front of two fuel tankers leave no doubt as to who is responsible for the gifts.

The fuel in the tankers is part of a Saudi pledge to distribute $60 million worth of oil derivatives monthly to power stations in 10 provinces across Yemen. Al-Mahra received 4,800 tons in November, according to the general director of the provincial oil company, Mohsen Belhaf.

The fuel is delivered under the umbrella of the Saudi Development and Reconstruction Program for Yemen, launched in May 2018, which runs infrastructure and health projects in six Yemeni provinces.

During a visit in late December, officials from the program flanked by mostly Yemeni and Saudi media visited a school in Ghaydah to begin distributing 192,000 textbooks. Hundreds of schoolgirls in white headscarves lined up to greet the visitors. The general director for education in Al-Mahra, Samir Hasha, praised the Saudi initiative.

Others were less enthusiastic. At Ghaydah hospital, where Saudi development officials arrived in a military convoy escorted by heavily armed guards, a doctor said there were more pressing and immediate needs than the dialysis center currently under construction with Saudi funds, which he said won’t be ready for years.

A fisherman in the port of Nishtoon works next to the Yemeni coast guard, which Saudi Arabia has supported to combat smuggling of weapons and drugs.

A fisherman in the port of Nishtoon works next to the Yemeni coast guard, which Saudi Arabia has supported to combat smuggling of weapons and drugs.


Photo:

Sune Engel Rasmussen/The Wall Street Journal

In trying to woo the people of Al-Mahra, and take a dominant role in trade and security, Saudi Arabia is trying to squeeze out Oman, critics say, which has maintained cordial ties with the people of eastern Yemen.

Saudi Arabia has taken over the main highway, border crossings and port to restrict trade from the tiny oil-rich nation. Saudi officials accuse Oman of turning a blind eye to Iranian arms smuggling through its territory to Houthi rebels—an accusation shared by U.S. officials.

The Omani Foreign Ministry and its embassy in London, which handles foreign media queries, didn’t respond to requests for comment.

Another arms route is overseas, where the United Nations and the Saudi military say Iran sends missile components to be assembled in Houthi territory. Iran has repeatedly rejected accusations that it supports the Houthis financially and military, but it acknowledges its influence with the rebels, and has met with European powers to discuss a cease-fire in Yemen.

Some Saudi officials claim recent protests actually reflect a backlash among those who had stakes in the province’s smuggling business, including local fishermen.

“When we came, we stopped the smuggling, so we stopped their income,” Saudi Gen. Shekri said. “Some of them are not happy.”

Write to Sune Engel Rasmussen at sune.rasmussen@wsj.com