Shaima Bin Othman

Corruption and instability in Hadhramaut are fueling protest and fragmentation


November 2021

While international observers often hold up Hadhramaut as Yemen’s beacon of security and stability, recent protests indicate that this stability may only be skin deep. Shaima Bin Othman argues that widespread corruption has turned people against the local authority, with the current instability fueling local desire for Hadhrami independence. This increases the number of regions wanting self-determination, further undermining Yemen’s unity.

Widespread local authority corruption in Hadhramaut has led to protests as communities have removed support for the local government, especially for Governor Major General Faraj Salmeen Al-Bahsani. The provincial government claims that the Houthis are stirring up protests in order to facilitate a violent takeover of the governorate. In reality, recent events are a consequence of widespread evidence of corruption and the local authority’s willful ignorance of people’s needs: the collapse of government services amidst widespread poverty. What is also frustrating for the public is the awareness that Hadhramaut is the primary source of the Internationally Recognized Government’s (IRG) resources, while the people do not receive essentials, such as electricity, accessible health care, and the fulfilment of basic daily living needs.

Although perceived as Yemen’s beacon of stability and good governance, Hadhramaut faces internal struggles amongst political leaders over resources and government funds that threaten to destabilize the governorate. Widespread corruption drives the population to the streets, as they call for the prosecution of the local authority and demand that the wealth of Hadhramaut goes to its people. This context fuels demands for Hadhrami independence. The governorate was formerly part of the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen, the southern Yemeni state that was until 1990 independent from the north. It is home to a heterogeneous population, with some supporting southern secession, some reinforcing the idea of an independent Hadhrami state, and yet others preferring the continued unity of Yemen within a federal system.

Sharp food and fuel price increases

Even though Hadhramaut is the wealthiest of Yemen’s governorates, people in the capital, Mukalla, are growing desperate. In March 2021, mothers marched through the streets, calling for the end of corruption and the high cost of living, in what they have coined ‘The revolution of the hungry’. Um Ahmed, a housewife and mother of four, was the first Hadhrami woman to set foot on the streets of Mukalla city with her children during the recent protests, motivated by hunger and poverty, raising the question of where Hadhramaut’s wealth resides. Um Ahmed’s experiences resemble the situation of many families in Hadhramaut with a single breadwinner, in her case, her husband. Like many, he receives a government salary that has not changed for years, despite the 500–700 percent increase in the cost of living since 2014.

Despite Hadhramaut’s coast being known for its plentiful fish, currently, due to alleged uncontrolled random exports by private traders, most people cannot buy fish because the price exceeds local people’s purchase power. The cost of one meal for a family of five costs about 5 percent of the value of the breadwinner’s salary. The price of sardines, one of the cheapest fish, has increased by more than 150 percent of its previous value. Furthermore, there are worrying price manipulations by traders for essential goods, such as baby diapers. The journalist Obeid Waked documented his experience buying diapers on his Facebook page: the price increased within two weeks, from 6,800 Yemeni riyals (YR) to 10,200 YR.

In March 2021, Hadhramaut University students staged a sit-in because they could not pay transportation fees to attend university. Recently, in October 2021, there was an increase in petroleum prices to 1,000 YR per liter, and bus fares for a 10 minute trip in the governorate’s interior areas can now be as much as 500 YR per person – a crippling 400 percent price increase within a few months. A middle class employee will need at least 1,000 YR for the daily commute to work, amounting to nearly 40 percent of the average salary. In addition, due to exchange rate fluctuation, most house rents are in Saudi riyals and beyond renters’ capacity.

Citizens are dying in the face of daily struggles to acquire the necessities of life, experiencing hunger, disease, and poverty while political leaders’ pockets overflow. However, in a widely circulated audio recording addressing the public, Al-Bahsani urged people to reduce their meals and expenses and asked them to pay their bills in order to have electricity. This aroused huge anger among social media users, as many families in Hadhramaut struggle to afford even their daily meals.

Mismanagement and nepotism

Hadhramaut is Yemen’s richest governorate and the primary source of government revenue. It boasts oil production of 100,000 barrels per day, accounting for about half of Yemen’s current oil wealth. Besides oil and gas, Hadhramaut is also the primary exporter of gold, with exports worth US$531 million in 2016 and $501 million in 2017. And while its people are facing increasing poverty, its leaders are living lives of luxury. For Hadhramis, it is a stark contrast: their deteriorating standard of living compared to the luxurious lifestyles of those who became officials for the local authority. Perhaps one of the most provocative situations for locals is when their homes sink into darkness due to electricity supply cuts, while the governor and his allies have their lights switched on 24 hours a day.

According to the law, the highest paid position within the Yemeni government is the President of the Republic, with 250,000 YR a month. At the current applicable internal black market exchange rate, the salary amounts to about US$250. Thus, any rank lower than the President receives a lower salary. One wonders how these local officials can afford a luxurious lifestyle on this budget. Al-Bahsani has around 15 vice governors and 29 advisors, who each receive salaries without clear job responsibilities. Activists believe that one of the reasons for the deterioration of the public sector is local authority mismanagement and nepotism. Perhaps the most recognizable example is that of the youth vice-governor, Fahmy Ba-Dawi, who does not have any qualifications in the medical sector, but was given Hadhramaut’s health file and appointed supervisor of the isolation centers dealing with COVID-19.

A recent report revealed that the Yemeni Oil Company, Hadhramaut Coast Branch (YOC) has around 50 people on its list of employment contractors who are relatives of local authority officials. The most prominent prospective employees in this deal are relatives of Saleh Al-Sharafi, the governor’s advisor for religious affairs, and Afrah Khan, general manager of Mukalla Radio, programs director of the state-run Hadhramaut TV, and wife of Al-Bahsani. It is also noteworthy that Khan’s daughter, Khalil Bamatraf, was appointed to be vice governor for women’s affairs, excluding other more qualified and highly engaged women in Hadhramaut. Since her appointment, she has been invisible regarding any matter related to women’s issues. These actions are just the tip of the iceberg.

Corruption fuels local independence movement

Since September 2021, there has been an increase in street protests in Hadhramaut, building on sporadic marches and demonstrations over the past three years, leading to violent responses by local authority forces. Young men have been injured or killed at the hands of security forces during protests. But the mood on the streets is different when compared to past experiences; now people are calling for the withdrawal of all conflict parties, the removal of Al-Bahsani, and for government accountability. Protest chants were addressed to the local authority, the Arab coalition under Saudi leadership, and the Southern Transition Council (STC). To some, the idealist dream of southern independence has become distorted by the corruption and mismanagement of those claiming to represent those who call for independence, including the STC. Protesters see that the situation in Aden, under the STC, is not much different from Mukalla, if not even worse, in terms of service provision, and therefore reject its authority.

It is worrying that in some areas protesters are stating that they would prefer Houthi authority. It is widely believed that the economy is more stable in Houthi territories where the riyal exchanges at 600 against the dollar; in contrast, in areas under IRG control, it exceeds 1,000 riyals. In addition, one of the main demands from protesters is for local authorities to stop oil exports from Hadhramaut – one of the IRG’s main revenue sources. These examples demonstrate how low IRG institutions have sunk in terms of legitimacy amongst the people. The current instability feeds into local independence sentiments, thus weakening the government of President Hadi even more. All this indicates that the public no longer trusts the IRG, making Hadhramis increasingly likely to reject Yemeni unity in the future.  

Only transparency and accountability can stop this downward spiral. A comprehensive and sustainable peace in Yemen cannot be achieved without a government that holds to these principles. Beyond this, cabinet members must return to Yemen. People want to see leaders who live in the same conditions, receive their salaries in the Yemeni currency, get health care in the local hospitals, and be selected for their positions based on merit rather than based on personal connections. Political leaders and all concerned parties in Yemen must understand that hungry and frightened people will follow those who provide food, stability, and safety, regardless of any political orientation.

Shaima Bin Othman joined Yemen Policy Center in 2019. As a co-founder of Takween Cultural Club and Meemz Art Initiative, she is a social activist and volunteer, focusing on the arts as a method for social change. She is also a freelance writer, with many articles published in al-Madaniya magazine. As a Research Fellow at YPC, her research focuses on women and youth, amongst other subjects. In addition, she is an MEPI Tomorrow’s Leaders Scholar and is pursuing a Master’s degree in Middle Eastern Studies at the American University of Beirut.

Donor:
German Federal Foreign Office
Editors:
Mareike Transfeld
Copy Editor: Jatinder Padda
Translators:
Fatima Saleh (Arabic)
Photography:
Ahmed Alhagri
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