Story of Saudi Arabia’s Arrival in Mahra and Their Transforming Ghayda Airport into a Military Base
- Exclusive Tuesday, 23 April, 2019 - 07:25 PM
Story of Saudi Arabia’s Arrival in Mahra and Their Transforming Ghayda Airport into a Military Base

[ Governorate of Marha ]

When you visit the Governorate of Marha in Eastern Yemen you will find that the predominant conversation among the people there is the situation at the local Ghayda Airport and how it has become a source of concern for the governorate and its inhabitants, indeed a means of threatening punishment and a multipurpose military base.


Since the arrival of the Saudi forces in Mahra in late 2017, the airport has become a closed military base for these forces which oversee the management of all its facilities, and a headquarter from which they run their various activities and agenda in the governorate. More cunning still, it has become an intelligence base for interrogations and a large prison for those considered by the Saudi forces as foes and dissidents.


The airport has been fully subjected to the interest of these forces, away from the local authority and the supervision of the Yemeni government and the Command of the Army present there. Approaching it is now fraught with risks. Going into and out of it is forbidden to all except those authorized by the commander of the Saudi forces in Mahra, including Yemeni officials who have military and civilian engagements with the airport.


The Yemeni forces present at the airport are limited in number. They were trained by Saudi Arabia. They exercise limited tasks according to the directives of the Saudi officers in the context of the objectives and movements carried out by the Saudi Army in the nine districts of the governorate.


Geography of the Airport


The Ghayda Airport is the largest local airport in Yemen in terms of area which is, according to official estimates, 26 square kilometers. It is surrounded by a cement fence on all sides. It is located south of the city of Ghayda, on a hill overlooking the city, which has allowed it a strategically significant position.


Since its inception, the airport continued to operate to facilitate domestic civilian flights in Yemen, in addition to its military function, given the presence of an army garrison in part of the airport. Civilian air traffic was suspended at the airport in 2011 due to the incidents witnessed in Yemen. Still, the airport remained under the authority and management of the local authority and the army in the governorate.


With the arrival of the Saudi forces at the airport in late 2017, a new era of transformation began at the airport which made the headlines in terms of attention and visibility, not only because of the services it provided to the inhabitants, as should be, but because of the new role that the Saudi forces began playing there and which reflected on all incidents experienced by the Governorate of Mahra today.


Arrival of Saudi Arabia at the Airport


During the tenure of Mahra Governor Muhammad Ali Yaser, the UAE forces arrived in the governorate in 2015 under the cover of the Emirati Red Crescent and carrying out humanitarian action. They recruited a group of Mahra locals for security. Recruitment took place in four batches, each batch consisting of 500 soldiers who held university degrees, except for the last batch which was dedicated to the relatives of civil and military officials and tribal leaders, both from inside and outside the governorate. We will address the issue of recruitment which took place in Mahra over the last three years in a separate report.


The first batch recruited by the Emirati forces in Mahra consisted of 500 soldiers, most of whom were holders of university degrees. Their training was supervised by an officer of the Yemeni Army from Mahra. The training extended over 45 days at the Military Combat School in Mahra, located in one of the garrisons, under the supervision of Emirati officials working for the Emirati Red Crescent who visited the soldiers on two consecutive occasions during their training. Once the training was completed, the soldiers were deployed across several governmental and security administrations in the governorate.


A military source who was involved in the recruitment process told Al-Mawqea Post that the motives for the recruitment was to bridge the gap produced by the fragmentation and disbanding of security agencies in Mahra after the coup that took place in the capital city Sanaa. It was an attempt to prevent the governorate from falling into a security vacuum and to protect its institutions, in addition to creating jobs for many of the governorate’s youth who had remained unemployed after graduating from the universities.


The status quo was maintained during the tenure of Governor Muhammad Ali Yaser – member of the General People’s Congress and member of the Congress’s Parliamentary Bloc. His tenure in Mahra constituted one of the best periods experienced by the governorate, despite its short duration. After his dismissal from office and the appointment of Muhammad Abdullah Kidda as governor of Mahra a new era began, with different details.


Kidda was appointed Governor of Mahra on the 6th of November 2015. He came to Mahra at a time when Emirati presence still predominated in the governorate, under the cover of the Emirati Red Crescent. With his appointment, the scales began to tip toward Saudi presence in Mahra and Emirati influence began to wane.


A military commander, who requested to remainanonymous, revealed that Governor Kidda made a proposition to Saudi Prince Fahd bin Turki, Commander of the Joint Forces in Yemen (former Commander of the Ground Forces) to train, in Saudi Arabia, 61 soldiers from the first batch recruited in Mahra to build their capacity for managing the security affairs of the governorate.


Prince Turki bin Fahd [sic] agreed. But he only chose 21 soldiers. They agreed to provide them with military training at a military base belonging to the Saudi forces in the city of Taif.


The Training Journey


That batch of 21 recruits was equipped and they traveled by land through the Saudi Wadia border crossing without the knowledge of the legitimate government’s Yemeni forces present on the posts leading to Saudi Arabia. At the Wadia crossing, the soldiers were given military numbers by Saudi intelligence in coordination with a military official at the Yemeni Embassy in Riyadh. They were transported from the Wadia crossing to Sharurah, then taken by a military aircraft to the King Fahad Military Base in Taif.


At the base, the soldiers attended a 3-month military course to train them as officers. The course included various policing disciplines, such as interrogations, military movements, searches, investigations, personal protection and several security-related specializations.


After the course was completed, they were given graduate certificates. Governor Kidda interceded with President Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi and obtained from him a decision to promote that group of soldiers to the rank of Second Lieutenant as officers.


It is notable here that RagehBakrit, who was living in Saudi Arabia, was in constant communication with that group during their training in Taif. He told them they were going to work for him after graduating and returning to Mahra, which is interpreted by a local official in Mahra as his being aware of the decision to appoint him as governor of Mahra instead of Kidda who did not anticipate these developments later.


When the course was completed, the Saudi forces set the date for their return to Yemen. They did not travel at the appointed time, and it was postponed for 18 days. The group stayed at the Taif military base. They were transported by Saudi military aircraft to the area of Sharura, near the Yemeni border, where they stayed for a whole week.


At the end of that week, a military aircraft took the soldiers to the Sayun Airport. They were taken onboard the same aircraft to Riyan Airport in Hadhramaut which was under the supervision of the Emirati forces who rigorously searched the group, including the Saudi officers who were affronted at being searched in such a manner by the Emiratis.


At noon on the day following their arrival at Riyan Airport, the group set out for the Governorate of Mahra in 20 military crews belonging to Saudi Arabia and the UAE, escorted by a 3-crew security detail, and led by a Saudi group consisting of 11 Saudi soldiers and officers under the command of a Saudi officer, a Lieutenant Colonel called Abou Ali al-Otaibi.


The convoy entered the Governorate of Mahra at 10 pm. When it arrived at the prisons area in Mahra, tribal groups were surrounding and amassed at the site having heard of military forces coming to Mahra. They had not been aware of their identity and assumed, according to statements made to Al-Mawqea Post, that they were military forces and crews affiliated with the Hadhramaut Elite, seeking to take control of the governorate and storm the airport.


At the same time, the tribes were divided into supporters and opponents. The supporters were the Saudi-loyal tribal sheikhs in Mahra. The opponents were the sheikhs who refused all foreign military presence inside the governorate.


That’s when we understood that delaying us for 18 months [sic] in Taif and a week in Sharura had something to do with the arrival of the Saudis at the airport, and that the delay was intended to gain some time in coordinating with their loyal tribes in Mahra to receive us and facilitate our entry into the airport,” said one person in charge of that batch of soldiers.


According to an eye-witness who was present at the time, in his statement to Al-Mawqea Post, the tribes continued to negotiate and argue among themselves and with the Saudi officers until 2 am. At which point sheikh Ali Salem al-Hureizi, sheikh Abdullah bin Isa al-Afrar and Major General Ahmad Qahtan arrived and asked the convoy to stay at a hotel in Ghayda until the legitimate Yemeni government residing in Riyadh could be consulted and the matter could be settled. The commander of the Saudi convoy replied that he had an order to go to, enter and set up in the Ghayda Airport. Amid the commotion, a fax arrived from President Hadi ordering the transfer of the convoy consisting of the graduate Yemeni officers and their Saudi escorts to Brigade 37 in Ghayda. And so it was.


In the morning, figures from the local authority arrived and the tribes flooded to the Brigade’s gate to prevent the military convoy from going into the airport. The convoy stayed at the Brigade for three days. Meanwhile, the tribes set up camp outside the Brigade. Then figures from the local authority managed to arrive at a solution consisting of allowing them to go into the airport on several conditions, among which keeping the airport as a civilian facility and preventing its transformation into a military barracks or airport.


Army sources told Al-Mawqea Post, on condition of anonymity, that the fax arrived from the bureau of Vice President Lieutenant General Ali Mohsin al-Ahmar, giving the directive to allow the Saudi forces to go into the airport. The forces encamped there and allocated buildings for accommodation and working with the military batch of local officers they came with.


At first, that batch of Yemeni officers were accommodated at the same site with the Saudi officers and soldiers. After the tour of duty of the Saudi crew who had come with that batch ended, a new military crew arrived. They set up separate accommodation from the Yemeni officers and moved to a different location within the airport. They brought their own prefab houses – more than 100 – to live in.


As for the batch of Yemeni officers trained in Saudi Arabia, they were deployed across several governmental security headquarters in Mahra, including the Port of Nishtun, General Security, the Air Force Police at the airport and the airport towers. Some were delegated to work at the Ministry of Defense, despite the fact that the entire batch is affiliated with and collects its salaries from the Yemeni Ministry of the Interior.


Beginning of Encampment at the Airport


Days later, the officers of the Saudi forces inspected the airport. They promised to rehabilitate it to fully assume its civil role in the service of the inhabitants, or so they claimed. At the time, the UAE was still present in Mahra. The commander of the Saudi forces – Al-Otaibi–refused the entry of one Abou Ali, commander of the Emirati forces in Mahra, to the airport.


Two weeks after the Saudi forces set up camp at the airport, a decision was issued on the 27th of November 2017, dismissing Governor Muhammad Abdullah Kidda and appointing RagehBakrit as Governor of Mahra. His appointment was the official start of Saudi presence in Mahra, especially that Saudi intelligence had nominated him to this office to President Hadi. This reflected a clear focus by the Saudi authorities on being present and stationed in the Governorate of Mahra, as seen in a previous Al-Mawqea Post report on Bakrit.


Twenty days after the arrival of that first vanguard of Saudi forces, the first Saudi military aircraft landed in Ghayda Airport, carrying military supplies and new soldiers to relieve those working at the airport as these forces work in 3-month tours in Mahra.


Before the arrival of that aircraft, military supplies and equipment used to arrive for the Saudi military forces at the Ghayda Airport in trucks that set out from Wadia crossing by land. Two trucks carrying weapons had been sent at first to the airport, according to a statement by an airport official to Al-Mawqea Post.


The first official figure to arrive at the Ghayda Airport after the Saudi forces set up camp there was Governor Bakrit who landed at the airport onboard a Saudi aircraft on the 1st of January 2018. With his arrival and assumption of his duties as governor, all the factors for the movement and deployment of these forces in Mahra were in place. This was made possible by the official cover provided for them by Governor Bakrit.


Taking Over the Airport


A senior security source who attended the negotiation and communication with the Saudis on the first day of their arrival in Mahra, prior to their entering the airport, said that the Saudi forces stated on that day that they had come to Mahra only to repair and rehabilitate the Ghayda Airport. They did not mention the creation of garrisons or any other agenda they had in Mahra. In fact, they stressed that they had [humanitarian] assistance for Mahra, and instead of delivering it by land or sea, which was a lengthy process, they will rehabilitate and reorder Mahra’s airport and upgrade its security apparatus. The assistance was to be delivered through civil aviation to be distributed to the inhabitants of the governorate.


They assured us at the time that they had come to help and not harm us. A period of one month was set to complete the airport rehabilitation process and delivery of the assistance,” he added in his statement to Al-Mawqea Post.


When they got their hands on the airport and tightened their hold on it, they brought in weapons onboard their military aircrafts. They initiated the second step, which was to receive, cajole and lure the tribal sheikhs with money and weapons, among other steps,” he continued.


The Saudi forces at the airport strove to secure it completely to ensure that they would not be attacked or targeted. They installed thermal cameras on the airport fences. They redistributed the guard teams across the different posts. They built new gates. They subjected the local Yemeni forces present at the airport to their full supervision,availing themselves to the large area that made up the airport.


Consequently, civil flights from and to the airport ceased. The Saudi military aircrafts alone continued to enjoy full freedom of access to and departure from the airport. They usually transported tribal figures loyal to them and holding their nationality, or those figures who workedfor them. The aircrafts also mostly brought in weapons of all types, including the armored vehicles used by the forces whenever they leave the airport, and the weapons that were distributed to the tribal sheikhs, which we will tackle in a separate report.


The aircrafts transport Saudi soldiers who work in shifts in Mahra back and forth. Their total control of the airport allowed them to increase the number of their soldiers in the Governorate of Mahra, who now number, according to information supplied by a private source to Al-Mawqea Post, more than 500 soldiers and officers, 200 of whom work inside the airport. Meanwhile, the rest are distributed across the garrisons created by the forces in more than one location in Mahra. They include a Saudi team from the Royal Diwan in the Saudi capital Riyadh, and another team from Saudi intelligence, according to local inside sources in Mahra.


The forces do not allow anyone to access the airport unless authorized directly by them. This includes civil and military Yemeni officials. They have taken hold of the three airport gates and reserved for themselves full authority in managing them.


Access to the airport’s western gate is barred to everyone. Members of the Air Force Police guard it, subject to the directives and supervision of the Saudi command. The airport’s eastern gate has been reactivated by the Saudis after it had been closed down in the past. They have deployed forces subject to their supervision at the gate, and built earth and cement barricades in front of it. They use it for their comings and goings. Local Yemeni forces are not allowed to use it.


The third gate, located on the northern side of the airport, is the main one. It is the gate used by civilians and air travelers. Soldiers from the Special Security Forces (formerly Central Security) are stationed there, under the supervision of the Saudi forces.


The Airport as Military Base


All these methods adopted by the military forces at the Ghayda airport since their arrival have transformed it into a full-fledged military base and security headquarter which they use as a home-base for carrying out their agenda in Mahra and a station for running their military operations.


Inside the airport the ongoing meetings of these forces are convened. From it the directives are issued for the rest of the forces at the sites and garrisons created in Mahra through a newly established Control Room. In it the problems relating to the forces in Mahra in general are resolved, not to mention the reception of their loyalist sheikhs and figures and the disbursement of aid and assistance doled out in Mahra under the banner of re-construction.


According to figures who have worked with these forces, in statements made to Al-Mawqea Post, the Saudis are the ones fully controlling the air traffic arriving to and departing from the GhaydaAiport. Indeed, they bring the Yemeni crew down from the control towers and handle the task themselves.


From that military base at the airport the Saudi officers are deployed to the military sites they are creating in Mahra. Saudi officer Al-Otaibi who arrived for the first time at the airport with the Yemeni group was appointed commander of a garrison established by the Saudi forces in the District of Hat – one of their most important and key garrisons in Mahra.


A security official recalled an incident that occurred in early March of last year. He believed it was an indication of the degree to which Saudi forces controlled the situation at the Ghayda Airport. This official stated, on condition of anonymity, that a helicopter belonging to the Yemeni Army arrived from Sayun to the Ghayda Airport. It had two pilots and carried lubricant for a broken down aircraft in Mahra which was under repair. But the Saudi forces at the Ghayda Airport objected to landing the aircraft, pretexting lack of advance notice of the aircraft’s arrival.


The Saudi forces considered the lack of advance notice an attempt to take off with the aircraft to Oman. The issue was overly exaggerated, the official said. He revealed that the Saudi forces interrogated the two pilots inside the Ghayda Airport. After local officials intervened, the two pilots were transferred and delivered to the custody of the Yemeni Military Intelligence prison in Mahra to continue with the interrogation. They are still there as of the publication of this report.


In order to redraw the map of the airport, the Saudi forces established their own garrisons inside the airport. They allocated different garrisons to the remaining Yemeni military force. The latter have no contact with the former and cannot even know what goes on there.


The Saudi forces at the airport also allocated a special garrison to the so-called Rapid Intervention Forces. These are irregular forces that are not affiliated with any Yemeni official governmental body. They consist of 1200 soldiers. They report directly to Governor RagehBakrit. They are personnel brought from outside the Governorate of Mahra. The members of this garrison work with the Saudi forces who support them with money and weapons. They are commanded by a man called Waddah al-Kaladi who was awarded an honor days earlier by the Commander of the Saudi Forces in Mahra, Naval Staff Brigadier General Hazza al-Mutairi, according to the Mahra Media Center which is affiliated with the governorate’s leadership.


Prisons Inside the Airport


Inside the airport, the Saudi forces have established several prisons. One, located at the Yemeni Air Force Police headquarters, was dedicated as a prison for soldiers deserving punishment by detention, which is a recognized method in the military establishment.


Another prison was dedicated to suspicious individuals who pass near the airport. They are imprisoned from 1 to 2 days. They are released after being interrogated and are proven not to be involved in any activities targeting the airport and the forces present in it. This prison has seen many such cases, including a man who tried to take a photograph of the airport fence from the road and was arrested, interrogated and later released.


The prison that was created by the forces is one dedicated to Mahra locals who oppose them. The individuals targeted by the forces are held in the prison and transferred by military aircraft to Riyadh. This was revealed by the Human Rights Office in the governorate last year.


The Saudi forces at the airport have also dedicated a prison to individuals suspected of transporting goods which those forces have banned from Yemen, as we will see in this report.


Perhaps the clearest evidence that the Saudi forces have dedicated prisons for dissidents in the Ghayda Airport was the threat made to colleague Amer al-Dumeini by Yemeni officers at the Port of Nishtun when he was there to write a report on the state of the port under the control of the Saudi forces.


That officer [sic] threatened colleague Al-Dumeini and the team who was with him on the way to the airport as punishment for entering the port, speaking with the staff there and taking a series of photographs of the port.


Holding Cargo and Goods


Under the command and full supervision of the Saudi forces, the Ghayda Airport also became a site for holding cargo and goods banned by the forces from entering Yemen through the port and the crossings of Mahra, or those suspected of concealing illegal materials when inspected at the crossings and port, e.g. weapons and drugs.


It is notable here that such suspicious goods and cargo are transported to the airport by the Saudi soldiers in order to inspect them and check their contents, instead of inspecting them at the site where they arrived. Even more notable is that such cargo and goods that are transported to the airport by the Saudi soldiers for inspection are held in custody for long periods of time. Some have not been returned to their owners. Others have been confiscated. The owners cannot reach the Saudi officials at the airport given the difficulty of approaching the airport, not to mention attempting to go inside.


An employee who works at a Yemeni crossing revealed one such case, speaking on condition of anonymity for himself and the businessman who experienced this situation to Al-Mawqea Post. He said that a businessman from the Governorate of Hadhramaut had a truck carrying 69 Magellannavigators, which are used by fishermen when fishing in the sea to identify their location and the routes back when they reach deep waters. The truck was also carrying a number of Thurayadevices, also used by fisherman if they reach far distances in the sea and local cellphone network coverage is unavailable.


According to this employee, all these materials were officially purchased from the UAE. The owner has a receipt for the purchase and an official certificate from the UAE Chamber of Commerce and Industry proving the purchase. The cargo was arrested at the Shihencrossing after having officially gone through Customs some nine months earlier. It was taken by the Saudi soldiers from the crossing to the airport. They claimed that such devices were banned from Yemen.


The businessman could find no means to contact and talk with the Saudi forces at the airport because he could not go inside the airport. He knocked on all doors to intermediate with the Saudi camp but all his attempts have been in vain up to the writing of this report. However, according to this employee, both types of devices are sold on the local markets, whether in Mahra or the coastal governorates, and they can be easily procured, indeed they are accessibleto everyone, he said.


Marine sources told Al-Mawqea Post that the Saudi forces confiscated the trucks of Yemeni traders which were carrying materials that the Saudi forces had banned from entering into Yemen, such as TV sets of all kinds and solar panels. These materials were taken from the Shihencrossing to the airport after going through Customs. The forces are refusing to release and return them. For more details on this issue, please see the report on the state of shipping at the Port of Nishtun in Mahra, available at this link.


Also at the Ghayda Airport, a group of foreign drivers, e.g. Pakistanis and Syrians, are being imprisoned and held. They operate transit or international cargo trucks belonging to commercial cargo firms operating by land from Dubai to Oman and on to Yemen. They are arrested at Mahra’s land crossings to the airport after arriving in their trucks which carry official authorizations from the exporting country to Yemen.


According to a security source working at the Shihen land crossing which connects Yemen and Oman, the drivers are only guilty of transporting authorized and legal materials which are illegal for the Saudis who control the Yemeni crossing and have issued a list prohibiting many such materials.


*In the next installment, we will continue to uncover the other practices of the Saudi forces at the airport, in addition to the role of the local authority in this concern.


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