Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei presumably wants to choose his successor, but he cannot publicly name one without creating a rival undermining his own authority.
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After over five years of war, Yemen is politically fragmented and its maritime forces, the coast guard and navy, mirror this reality. Although Yemen’s patrolling activities increased in the first half of 2020, without a durable political agreement to end the conflict, the effective rebuilding of Yemeni maritime forces will remain unrealized.
Saudi Arabia and the United States are focusing on strengthening the coast guard, shifting their attention from preventing terrorist activities to countering arms smuggling from Iran and the Houthis’ asymmetric maritime warfare. Port cities such as Hodeidah, Aden, and Mukalla are held by rival factions with different external backers. This reflects competition among regional states in the Red Sea, Bab el-Mandeb, and Horn of Africa, exposing Yemeni maritime forces to geopolitical rivalries.
The Messy Puzzle of Yemeni Port Cities
Yemen’s port cities display all the complexity of the country’s political-military landscape, and Yemen’s rimland is a patchwork of competing loyalties and agendas. On the Red Sea coast in Hajjah governorate, the small port city of Midi, near the Saudi region of Jizan, is controlled by the United Nations-recognized government of President Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi. Hodeidah, Salif, and Ras Isa (a critical port area for humanitarian aid and oil exports), while contested, are held by the Houthis, who are backed by Iran. This balance of forces was crystalized by the slow and troubled implementation of the 2018 U.N.-brokered Stockholm Agreement. When the Houthis seized Hodeidah in late 2014, most of the Yemeni naval forces within the Hodeidah zone sided with them against the interim institutions established in November 2011. From this area, the Houthis started to launch maritime attacks with missiles and drones and continue to conduct low-intensity, asymmetric warfare with waterborne improvised explosive devices and sea mines.
Moving south, the Taiz coastal area and Bab el-Mandeb, specifically the ports of Mokha and Dhubab, are controlled by the West Coast forces, supported by the United Arab Emirates. This is a loose and hybrid coalition of militias headed by Tariq Saleh, including the Tihama Resistance forces and Giants Brigades, and remnants of the disbanded Republican Guard. Aden remains divided between Hadi loyalists and the secessionist-leaning Southern Transitional Council. While Saudi Arabia continues efforts to implement the November 2019 Riyadh Agreement, Aden is still under the control of the Security Belt forces, which are affiliated with the STC and informally supported by the UAE. Zinjibar, in Abyan governorate, and Balhaf in Shabwa governorate, which hosts the only liquified natural gas terminal in the country, is contested between the Hadi government and STC forces. In Hadramout governorate, the ports of Mukalla and Ash Shihr, formally held by the Hadi government, are de facto controlled by the Hadrami Elite forces. Organized and trained by the Emiratis since 2016 to provide local security and counter Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, the Hadrami Elite forces are not affiliated with the STC, although they also seek regional autonomy. The governor of Hadramout, among others, rejected the STC’s self-government declaration in April. In Mahrah, Nishtun, and Ghaydah, ports have been controlled by Saudi military forces and local allied groups since 2017 to prevent smuggling. After the late spring escalation between pro-government and STC forces on Socotra island, the coastal town of Hadibu was seized by the STC.
How Political Rivalries Affect Local Maritime Forces
Local forces are not neutral as they are connected with broader factions competing with one another, and this is also true for the coast guard and navy. The Stockholm Agreement states that warring parties have to withdraw from the ports of Hodeidah, Salif, and Ras Isa leaving “local security forces” to manage the areas. But the forces in charge of Hodeidah, including the coast guard, are an expression of the Houthis’ de facto authority.
Concerns over the rusting FSO Safer oil storage vessel anchored off the coast of Hodeidah reflect these challenges. The Houthis are not allowing U.N. inspectors on the ship, which holds more than a million barrels of crude oil. Without maintenance, it risks a major oil spill, which could cause widespread devastation in the Red Sea and for Yemen’s fishermen and population.
In March, STC forces in Aden blocked medical aid sent by the World Health Organization to fight the coronavirus pandemic, preventing the Hadi government’s access to it. Two months later, the STC refused to hand over control of the waters in seized areas to the Yemeni coast guard: Previously, the Yemeni coast guard failed to prevent a piracy attack against a British-flagged tanker near Mukalla port, pushing the government and Saudi Arabia to blame the STC for the coast guard’s limited effectiveness. In June, the coast guard and Hadi government forces withdrew from Socotra, after the STC seized the island.
Yemen’s Navy and Coast Guard
Yemen’s Southern and Northern navies merged in 1990. South Yemen had better skills and equipment than its Northern counterpart, although a 1987 declassified CIA report stated that neither country had significant naval capabilities. Most of South Yemen’s naval personnel defected due to the 1986 civil war in the South and, after Yemen’s unification, half of the Southern navy’s personnel were forced into compulsory retirement.
The history of the Yemeni coast guard is deeply connected with Yemen’s foreign policy and post-9/11 security-driven policies. In 2002, then-President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s government established the coast guard under the Ministry of Interior as part of the police force, with U.S. military advisors, training, and vessels; this occurred after al-Qaeda’s attacks in 2000 on the USS Cole and 2002 on the French oil tanker Limburg.
With its headquarters in Sanaa and the main training center in Aden, the coast guard received international training from the United States, the United Kingdom, France, Malaysia, and Japan. According to the International Institute for Strategic Studies, as of 2013 the Yemeni navy had 22 patrol and coastal combat vessels (with only one landing ship), and the coast guard had 12, with maritime forces developing only green and brown water capabilities. The coast guard counted 1,200 active personnel and the navy had 1,700 as of 2013. According to the Yemen Coast Guard Strategy 2010-2020, the cadre was selected from both the police and navy, thus revealing an increasing, although informal, convergence between the two forces. In 2012, Hadi appointed a navy commander from his native Abyan governorate. Defense procurement and modernization focused on the coast guard instead of the navy in training activities with international partners and joint naval exercises, such as the Combined Task Force 150 mission against piracy. In 2015, the Saudi-led coalition replaced Yemen’s navy in patrolling sea waters and imposed a land, air, and sea blockade.
Maritime Forces: Reform, New Targets, Persisting Fragmentation
In 2016, in the areas formally held by the government, the Saudi-led coalition began to rebuild the coast guard, training and equipping – with about 150 high-speed boats – hundreds of personnel deployed in the Red Sea, Gulf of Aden, and Arabian Sea. Saudi Arabia and the UAE trained new guard units on the coast of Hadramout and the Emiratis remained on Zuqar island (Hanish archipelago) until October 2019 to train members of the coast guard. In 2018, the United States trained the coast guard in the Seychelles as part of a 4-week specialized program. Two years later, the U.S. Coast Guard determined that, except for the Balhaf LNG Terminal, Yemeni ports were not maintaining effective counterterrorism measures. Since the first half of 2020, the coast guard has increased patrolling to stop Houthi smuggling activities. In different operations in the Red Sea close to the Bab el-Mandeb chokepoint and Eastern Mahrah littoral, the coast guard seized ships concealing weapons, ammunition, and drugs destined for the Houthis carried by small boats inside Yemeni waters. According to a coast guard officer, local fishermen support Yemeni coast guard efforts to monitor suspected ships. In Hadramout, dozens of coast guard personnel have been deployed at specific entry points to prevent smuggling.
A Postconflict Yemen Would Be a Maritime Stability Actor
Yemen’s ongoing conflict is impacting regional stability. Somalia’s onshore fragmentation has also affected the offshore environment. For instance, eight apparent piracy attacks in the Gulf of Aden were registered in the first half of 2020, compared to six episodes in 2019. Given its strategic position, a peaceful Yemen could contribute to maritime security. Yemen is part of the Combined Task Force 150 based in Bahrain, Indian Ocean Rim Association, and newly created Council of Arab and African States bordering the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden, known as the Red Sea alliance.
But as long as warring parties will not agree on a national framework for an inclusive cease-fire and postconflict trajectory, Yemen will remain divided, unable to assume a coherent stance on issues affecting maritime stability. The puzzle of Yemeni port cities adds to this uncertainty. For instance, the UAE is not a member of the Saudi-led Red Sea alliance, but its STC allies are still in charge of Aden and continue to fight against Hadi and Islah forces, which include elements of Yemen’s Muslim Brotherhood, who reportedly are receiving support from Qatar and Turkey. The two countries’ geopolitical influence is also on the rise on the African side of the Red Sea coast. In such a troubled framework, the rebuilding of Yemeni maritime forces is likely to remain politicized and severely hobbled.
is a senior associate research fellow at the Italian Institute for International Political Studies, a teaching assistant at the Catholic University of Milan, and an adjunct professor at Aseri (Graduate School of Economics and International Relations).
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