Federal challenge: Yemen’s turbulence may have opened a door for the return of the sultans

A recent plan to make Yemen into a federation has done little to quell the country’s chronic unrest – and may have given the descendants of former sultans a chance to reinsert themselves into Yemeni politics.

Sheikh Abdullah Al Afra greets his followers at the airport on Socotra. Courtesy Shadiah Abdullah Al Jabry
Powered by automated translation

Crammed with jubilant men beating drums and singing traditional songs, the battered pickups and 4x4 SUVs crawled along the motorway that led from the airport serving the Yemeni island of Socotra to its capital Hadiboh.

The men, who were welcoming the son of their former sultan, enjoyed breathtaking views of the azure sea as they passed through a stretch of countryside dotted with strange-looking indigenous plants.

The euphoric mood masked the seriousness of the occasion: Sheikh Abdullah Al Afrar was visiting this obscure island, sometimes referred to as the Galápagos of the Orient because of its beauty and biodiversity, to “represent” the grievances of the inhabitants of the former sultanate.

As was evident from the posters plastered all over the capital, the people were protesting about their allocated place in the new Yemeni federation that had been announced in February by the country’s National Dialogue Conference (NDC). Slogans such as “We reject exclusion and marginalisation” and “A separate Socotra and Al Mahra region is the future and dignity” were everywhere.

Also ubiquitous were the flags of the former Mahra Sultanate of Qishn and Socotra, which was abolished in 1967 after the British occupation ended. Socotra, an archipelago that lies about 380 kilometres south of mainland Yemen in the Arabian Sea, and Al Mahra, a province in the eastern part of Yemen bordering Oman, were both ruled by the Al Afrar dynasty from the 15th century.

During the final 75 years of their rule, the Al Afrar had transferred their administration from Qishn to Hadiboh as by then the sultanate had become a British protectorate. Despite the geographical distance between them, the two regions share a similar tongue.

When the sultanate was abolished, the regions were placed under the jurisdiction of the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen, popularly known as South Yemen, which governed from Aden. In 1990, when North and South Yemen united, Socotra was incorporated into the unified Republic of Yemen, and in 2000, it was transferred administratively from the governorate of Aden to the governorate of Hadramaut.

After the 2011 protests that brought the 33-year rule of president Ali Abdullah Saleh to an end, the NDC began drawing up a new political road map and constitution, backed by the United Nations, western powers and the Gulf Cooperation Council. The NDC’s hardest task was to address the secessionist demands made by popular movements in south Yemen.

As a result, a regions committee was formed and after two weeks of deliberations it endorsed the division of Yemen into a federation of six regions: two in the south and four in the north, with special status accorded to the cities of Sanaa and Aden.

Some praised the model, seeing it as the best way to address regional grievances, especially of the south, which has been complaining of neglect and exploitation by the central government in Sanaa.

The UN envoy to Yemen, Jamal Benomar, hailed the move and welcomed federalism as a “quantum leap in resolving the southern question”.

Others, like Adel Al Sharjabi, a professor and analyst at Sanaa University, criticised it by calling the federation a “partition” that meets – consciously or unconsciously – the interests and demands of the traditional elite forces in Yemen. “These forces were the reason behind corruption, poverty, unemployment, conflicts, wars and the deteriorating security situation”, he said. “The partition puts the traditional forces’ political interests above Yemeni citizens’ general economic and developmental interests.”

Dr Theodore Karasik, from the Dubai-based Institute for Near East and Gulf Military Analysis, said the announcement seems to be a simple declaration, with no real plan to be implemented immediately but instead introduced over time. Yemen is a complicated mosaic of different groups in which identity was grouped in a larger reality but federalism has now opened a Pandora’s box of pent-up frustrations such as self-identity and greater autonomy.

“The major problem in Yemen is that the new federal units will see themselves as ‘free’ from Sanaa and thus pursue their own agendas. Although some units and their provinces received exactly the same ‘freedom’ they have been protesting and fighting for, Yemeni social norms will, at first, take control.”

At the same time, he pointed out, the federal system, in the short term, probably won’t increase security as the government’s authority over the south and the north will be reduced.

After the announcement, the security situation continued to decline with attacks on oil and gas transport pipelines, electricity lines and internet and telephone cables.

North Yemen has been the scene of regular, violent clashes between Houthi rebels, the Yemeni army and the powerful Hashid tribe. There are constant civil disobedience campaigns in the south, and a tribal revolt broke out in Yemen’s eastern province of Hadramaut after a widely respected tribal leader and his two bodyguards were shot dead by Yemeni soldiers in December.

Such chaos also poses opportunities for the resurrection of the former royals who once ruled different parts of Yemen. Sheikh Al Afrar is not the only member of the elite class who has emerged from obscurity – even the former Hadramaut sultan, Ghalib Al Quaiti, who has lived in exile in Saudi Arabia since 1967, has re-emerged as a possible power player. He now heads a London-based organisation promoting an independent state of Hadramaut. Likewise, the royal family of Lahej, near Aden, has also been somewhat active in politics.

For Karasik, the re-emergence of the sultans is not surprising, as he believes that they may have clout in a Yemeni political culture that respects old rulers. “The people want a return to a more peaceful time where events and politics made sense and the former royals are appealing to that nostalgic idea of a time when there was stability and some kind of order.”

In an interview with The National, Sheikh Al Afrar claimed that tribal leaders from his former sultanate approached him in June 2012 and asked him to be their representative, a unifying force for their demands. As a result, he formed the General Council of the Sons of the Province of Al Mahra and Socotra Island, of which he is the chairman. He argued that for Socotrans, being administered by Hadramaut will not change the status quo nor address the neglect that the remote archipelago has suffered since 1967.

For Al Sharjabi, the former sultans are representing grievances that go back to the colonial era and are essentially anti-democratic. He accused the former royals of representing their own self-interest and having subversive agendas that threaten to undermine the federation. “The Arab Spring has offered them a golden opportunity to come back and use the grievances of their former populace as a platform to make demands for autonomy in the territories that they previously ruled and thus pave the way for their rule to be re-established.”

Sheikh Al Afrar denied he had any hidden agenda to restore his dominion of the former sultanate and said he had no plans to run for political office. As to why he wants the two provinces to be autonomous under one regional authority, he said it was because they shared a common language, culture and history that can be traced back 700 years.

“My intention is not to claim territory or even independence from the central government,” he said. “Our primary objective is to achieve the aspirations and the hopes of the people of Socotra and Al Mahra and their right to have a separate region within the federation away from dependency, exclusion and marginalisation.”

In such an event, he reasoned, all the resources allocated to these two neglected provinces would reach them directly, instead of being channelled through Hadramaut. The resources usually end up being divided among the region’s many other districts and only a meagre portion is left for Socotra and Al Mahra, he said.

Al Sharjabi, however, disagreed, pointing out that the demands for a separate province do not make any sense because these two districts do not have the capability in terms of human and natural ­resources to sustain a separate province.

“Being part of Hadramaut, which is the richest and biggest of all Yemeni regions, makes more sense as its resources will be utilised to power development in both districts.”

Sheikh Al Afrar also said that the demands of the people of Socotra and Al Mahra should not be ignored or denied and called for a popular referendum to be held. He said he was in favour of the federal system as an alternative to the unitary system, which, during the past few decades, has proved to be an utter failure in creating a successful country, as per his analysis. “Now is the time to give the federal system an opportunity to make a comprehensive development framework in all the regions of Yemen,” he said.

It appears that in the chaos and turmoil that is Yemen today, with key political players pulling the country in different directions, one question awaits an answer: Will the new federation be able to solve the myriad problems suffered by Yemen?

Shadiah Abdullah Al Jabry is a regular contributor to The National.