Yemen’s provincial governors are seizing unprecedented levels of autonomy in areas retaken from Houthi rebels, spurning the Saudi-backed government and withholding revenue streams from the Central Bank in Aden, local journalists and officials tell Asia Times.

Pre-war Yemen maintained a highly centralized system of government, with local officials required to obtain permission from Sanaa to leave the country, or even to take a vacation. Governors of the 21 provinces were required to send revenues to the Central Bank in Sanaa. They were also obliged to alert the office of the presidency in advance of any travel or meetings with foreign dignitaries. When the Houthi rebels seized control of Sanaa in September 2014, they placed President Abedrabbo Mansour Hadi under house arrest, cutting off his authority while they advanced into other parts of the country.

Now, as the war between the Iran-backed Houthis and the Saudi-led coalition backing the government settles into a stalemate, local officials are increasingly taking affairs into their own hands.

Fatehi Ben Lazrg, the editor of Yemen’s Al Ghad News, says the breakdown of authority started during the Arab Spring protests, which forced the ousting of longtime strongman Ali Abdullah Saleh.

“There was a tough centralization that began to loosen after the revolution in 2011,” he told Asia Times. 

Former president Saleh, who ruled Yemen for more than three decades, spent his final years plotting a comeback, first as an ally of the Houthis, and later reaching out to Saudi Arabia. His assassination by the rebels in December 2017 contributed to the breakdown of the central authority he had maintained for so long.

Oil revenues lost

Early in their power grab, the northern rebels lost no time pushing into the oil and gas-rich provinces in the center and south of the country. They advanced into Marib, Shabwa, and the largest province of Hadhramout, which stretches from the northern border with Saudi Arabia to the Arabian Sea. 

These seizures set off heavy fighting, which led to the oil fields being shut down.

Military operations by the Saudi-led coalition launched in March 2015 tipped the balance of power to Yemeni army units and resistance fighters loyal to the internationally-recognized government of Hadi. This enabled them to push the Houthis out of most of Marib, the southern port city of Aden, and other strategic cities in southern Yemen.

Many of these liberated areas have since been plagued by anarchy and lawlessness. Other areas have quickly recovered, only to become disconnected from the government. 

Map of Yemen: iStock
Map of Yemen: iStock

Governors of Yemen’s wealthiest provinces of Marib and Hadhramout have stopped wiring revenue to the new headquarters of the central bank in Aden, the wartime seat of the Saudi-backed government. Local officials now routinely leave the country without telling their superiors in Riyadh or Aden, and engage in meetings with foreign dignitaries including military delegations and foreign countries’ ambassadors. 

This has caused friction with the government, which has warned them, to no apparent effect, against bypassing the old regulations about informing the government about their activities.

“At the beginning, we saw this as a natural result of the war. Now, we [have] informed them that this is not acceptable,” a senior government official in Aden told Asia Times on condition of anonymity, citing the sensitivity of the issue.

“There is a great lack of transparency about revenue. We do not know how much revenue the governor of Hadhramout collects. The governor of Marib also does not send a single riyal to Aden,” the official said.

Sanctuaries

Yemen’s temporary capital of Aden has slid into disorder in recent years, despite the Houthis being evicted in the early months of the Saudi-led campaign. In contrast, cities such as Marib in the interior and Mukalla further east along the coast were promoted as havens of stability and security.

Critics say local authorities in these cities are detaching themselves from the central government, creating their own military units and sources of income.

“In Mukalla and Marib you have these highly visible local leaders, Bahsani and Aradah, who have been able to build their own systems of governance and — crucially I think — been able to generate local revenues and external support to pay for the work they are doing,” said Peter Salisbury, Yemen expert at the International Crisis Group, referring to the governor of Hadhramout, Faraj al-Bahsani, and the governor of Marib, Sultan al-Aradah.

Both governors were not immediately available to comment, but General Bahsani said in a previous interview with Asia Times that he spends revenue from Mukalla’s seaport and taxes on buying fuel for the electricity stations and paying hundreds of new teachers.

A traffic officer waves at a car in the Yemeni city of Mukalla. The city is among just a few in Yemen that enjoy peace in the midst of a raging war. Photo: Saeed Al-Batati

“I can disclose in detail how I spent the revenue,” Bahsani said.

In Marib, General Aradah does not deny that he is not sending revenue to Aden, saying that all revenue from the province’s gas sales are deposited into the branch of the central bank in Marib.

“The central bank in Marib sends a daily report to the presidency including revenue and expenses,” the governor of Marib said in an interview with Abu Dhabi TV in December last year. Both governors argue that the government has left them dealing with an influx of internally displaced people, crumbling services and unpaid government salaries. “The central bank in Marib is paying for the battlefields and power stations in Marib, Jawf and Shawba,” Aradah said.

Experts say that, despite trying to show it is governing in liberated areas, the government is in fact weak and divided.

President Hadi has been largely based in Saudi Arabia since 2015. Cabinet ministers shuttle mainly between Riyadh and Aden, and are currently confined to the presidential palace in the temporary capital.

“As the conflict has weakened state institutions and the Yemeni central government, a variety of power centers have emerged,” Adam Baron, Yemen expert at European Council on Foreign Relations who regularly visits government-controlled areas, told Asia Times.

As those power centers provide stability, they are making a case for a federal system of governance on the ground.