Yemen’s Al Mahra Governorate: Locals Denounce UK Presence
Protesters say military bases violate nation’s sovereignty
Salem Marshan and his family live near Al Ghaydah Airport in Yemen’s easternmost Al Mahra Governorate, near the Omani border. The airport’s operations have been suspended for the past three years, on the orders of the UAE forces present in Yemen and participating in the Saudi-led Arab coalition. The UAE eventually took over the airport, turning it into a military base, according to multiple testimonies and pictures obtained by activists via satellite.
Marshan says military units from many nationalities have been seen near the airport and that near-weekly flights from various nations land there. He adds that many of the governorate’s residents reject the foreign presence and consider it an occupation and a violation of Yemen’s sovereignty.
“Why are these forces present in Al Mahra, where there is no military activity which would call for this presence?” Marshan exclaims.
Al Mahra Governorate has not witnessed any military confrontations related to the Yemeni civil war.
An Unwelcome Presence
British forces arrived at Al Ghaydah Airport in early August, activists say, to pursue those believed to have participated in the July 29 drone attack on the tanker Mercer Street off the coast of Oman, killing a Briton and a Romanian.
The US, UK, Israel and Romania accuse Iran of carrying out the attack on the vessel, which is Japanese-owned and managed by an Israeli-owned, London-based firm.
Mohammed Fouad, a member of Al Ghaydah Airport’s security team who spoke to The Media Line on condition of anonymity, says there are more than 50 British personnel there, and that they began to arrive in June-August.
Fouad adds that the number of UK troops doubled after the Mercer Street attack. This is confirmed by political writer Ramiz Mustafa, who says “the British, and American presence, is not a result of recent events, and that the Saudi-led Arab coalition is using these [Western] forces for many logistical and intelligence affairs related to the [civil] war.”
The Mercer Street incident provided a justification for this presence.
“I do not think that this presence is welcomed in the governorate, not even by the official state institutions,” but only by the Saudis, says Fouad. It “occupies the governorate without a security justification,” he continues.
Dozens of Yemenis including Marshan have held demonstrations to denounce the foreign presence in Al Mahra Governorate, calling upon the British and Americans, as well as the Saudi-Emirati coalition, to leave and describing their presence as “the occupation.”
Ali Mubarak Mohammed, the official spokesperson for the peaceful sit-ins condemning the foreign presence, said through a Facebook post there have been attempts to mislead the public about the Emirati-British presence, and that the justification for it, which is to fight terrorism, is just a misleading headline.
Marshan asks, “Why do we have [foreign] security forces here? There are no Houthis [rebel], Southern Transitional Council [secessionist] forces, or even al-Qaeda members here.”
He adds that the foreign presence has raised concerns among all the governorates’ residents and that Yemen’s internationally recognized government (IRG) must maintain its sovereignty in the governorate and declare its rejection of this presence. “There are no Yemeni forces at the airport of the same size as the Saudi or Emirati or British forces,” Marshan adds.
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According to an exclusive testimony by Mohammed Jaber, a source working in Al Ghaydah Airport’s management who agreed to speak to the Media Line on condition of anonymity, there were British personnel in the airport before the incident with the Mercer Street, but no more than 15, and that as far as he knew their work was limited to managing the Emirati and Saudi presence in the airport and the governorate.
According to Jaber, after the tanker was targeted, there were more British and other military personnel, whom he believes to be Americans, at the airport, in addition to the previous Emirati presence.
“These forces comprise more than 50 British officers who are located in the airport; it is difficult for us to learn the nature of their current tasks.”
New facilities and buildings were established after the British entered the airport and its surroundings that are thought to constitute a military base, Jaber adds.
Tawfiq al-Humaidi, president of the Geneva-based SAM Organization for Rights and Liberties, says his nongovernmental organization had information confirming the presence of British personnel at the airport before the Mercer Street was targeted. There is a weekly flight to Al Ghaydah Airport bringing British troops and equipment to warehouses and other facilities being built inside the airport with the support of the UK forces, he adds.
“This presence is concerning, it is against international law and a clear violation of the sovereignty of the Republic of Yemen. Many demonstrations and sit-ins might happen due to the rejection of this presence in the governorate,” says Humaidi. “This [presence] qualifies Yemen to be the scene for international and regional conflict, which in turn affects the chances for peace in Yemen and the region.”
Military base and flights
Open-source journalist Farouk al-Kamali, using satellite images, has revealed recent construction in the vicinity of Al Ghaydah Airport. This construction began months ago and increased significantly during the recent period, he says.
Kamali confirms the arrival of planes to Al Ghaydah Airport from destinations so far unknown, despite the Saudi-led Arab coalition’s announcement that the airport is closed.
The information about military structures being built in the vicinity of the airport was confirmed by a number of local residents.
The locals also confirmed that the airport is under the full control of Saudi, Emirati and British personnel, and that there has been a noticeable decrease in the number of Yemeni personnel there.
Saddam al-Huraibi, a journalist and political writer, told The Media Line that according to information he has obtained, the presence of the foreign forces is linked to several issues, adding that it was in place before the attack on the Israeli-managed ship.
Huraibi posits that through this presence, Britain plays an intelligence role that is in the interest of Saudi Arabia and the UAE, and that the UK has been helping to establish a military base at the airport.
“I also do not rule out that Saudi Arabia has a hand in summoning the British presence in anticipation of any Iranian or Omani movement in those areas, as Saudi Arabia has great interests in Socotra and Al Mahra governorates, especially in light of information received by the Saudis that there is communication between leaders from Al Mahra and from the Houthis through the Sultanate of Oman,” adds Huraibi.
Huraibi forecasts that military confrontations may result from the British intervention in Al Mahra Governorate, triggered perhaps by conflicts between tribes in Al Mahra Governorate and others from Saudi Arabia who entered Al Mahra without coordinating with Yemen’s internationally recognized government, according to sources in Al Mahra’s tribes.