Grievances have been piling up unaddressed in Tihama, Yemen’s Red Sea coastal plain, for almost a hundred years. Since the revolt of al-Zaraniq against Imam Yahya Hameed al-Din of the Mutawakkilite Kingdom (then North Yemen) in 1925-26, consecutive Imams and the republican elite have pursued policies that have systematically marginalized the Tihamis. They have been deprived of a fair share of their region’s wealth, as well as opportunities for equitable power-sharing and economic empowerment.

In Arabic, Tihama refers to the low-lying land by the coast. Following the Saudi annexation of Asir, Sabia, Najran, and Jizan prior to the 1934 al-Taif Treaty and the 2000 Treaty of Jeddah officially ceding control of these areas, the Tihama region in Yemen officially stretches from Midi in Hajja governorate through the strategic port city of Hodeida to al-Mocha. By the literal meaning of the term, however, the Red Sea coastal plain could extend all the way to the strategic strait of Bab al-Mandeb.

The Tihama’s great swathes of flat fertile land and rich agricultural produce made it the country’s food basket. Hodeida governorate, for instance, contributed an estimated 40% of Yemen’s agriculture produce. Its ports overlooking the southern Red Sea have historically been vital for trade and the subject of foreign competition, from the Ottomans in the 1800s to the British in 1918-21. Some 70-80% of Yemen’s imports come through the port of Hodeida, including during the recent conflict, generating customs revenues, increasing regional connectivity, and providing a measure of power to whoever controls it.

Amid the growing geopolitical rivalry in the Horn of Africa, Hodeida’s geographical proximity to many of the new foreign military bases there — such as the United Arab Emirates’ (UAE) base in Asab, and the U.S., French, Turkish, and Chinese bases in Djibouti — and access to the Bab al-Mandeb Strait make the region of considerable geostrategic significance. “As Yemen’s gateway to the Red Sea and the Horn of Africa, control of the Tihama is critical to controlling and supplying northwest Yemen,” Michael Horton, a fellow for Arabian affairs at the Jamestown Foundation, points out. The region’s importance has endured, but a range of grievances have accumulated through cycles of peace and conflict and changes in political systems over the past 100 years, piling up almost unacknowledged, including during Yemen’s historic National Dialogue Conference (NDC). These grievances remain unresolved today and in recent years wartime dynamics have only exacerbated them.

The Formation of al-Hirak al-Tihami

Inspired by the peaceful struggle of the Southern Movement (al-Hirak al-Janoubi) and resistance movements of the 20th century and beyond in Tihama, the Arab Spring uprising brought the people of Hodeida together, eventually mobilizing to form the Tihami Movement (al-Hirak al-Tihami) in 2011. But unlike the southern Hirak, al-Hirak al-Tihami does not seek secession. Instead, it demands the reversal and correction of deep-rooted political, economic, military, security, and social grievances. The movement also demands self-governance (autonomy) for the region and the allocation of a fair share of its wealth to fund local development and economic growth, consistent with the federal aspirations in Yemen or the outcomes of the NDC.

In March 2012, thousands of Tihamis staged the Karama (“dignity”) sit-in in Bab al-Naqa, the entry point to Hodeida when driving down the mountains from Sanaa. Demonstrators — including artists, academics, tribal figures, high-ranking officials, military commanders, and youth — appealed to the transitional government to include the Tihama cause on the NDC’s agenda, address their grievances, and end exploitation of the region. The demonstration’s location was rich in symbolism, signifying the rejection of the client-patron relationships between Zaydi plateau and Shafi’e coast/valley elite, as described by Stephen Day. In the early years of the republic, Hodeida’s governor, Sheikh Senan Abu Luhom, dismissed the Tihama’s demands for reform and instead sought to advance feudal politics, carrying out the Qawqar massacre on Dec. 17, 1967, in which dozens of villages were burned and hundreds of people killed, to subjugate the Tihamis, control their resources, and build up Zaydi hegemony in the highlands.

In an article about this often-overlooked episode, Ishaq Salah, Hodeida’s former chief prosecutor and a historian, noted that blocking the passage of oppressive officials, including in Bab al-Naqa, was among the means used by locals to highlight injustice and demand their rights. Judge Ishaq said that the absence of “possible means to convey the voices and demands of the people of Tihama other than blocking the road to al-Qawqar” led to the adoption of this tactic. “This is much less than what the tribes of the governor himself [in Nihm, Sanaa] do in their northern mountainous regions and in coordination with the outside as well, and the state agrees with them and satisfies their demands without firing a single shot at them or accusing them of betrayal, unlike how it dealt with the people in Tihama,” said Ishaq. Even earlier, following the furious battle of al-Qawqar in 1929, which came after multiple defeats of the royalist forces of Imam Yahya’s son, Ahmed, the latter, after breaking through, arbitrarily arrested, tortured, and eventually killed more than 800 al-Zaraneeq tribesmen, burned dozens of villages, and destroyed hundreds of houses and trees to subjugate Tihama.

Ever since, the Zaydi elite has exploited local lands and resources, akin to the injustices experienced in Hadramawt and Aden, and failed to reverse the political marginalization begun by the royalists. Ambassador Ali al-Amrani noted that the very appointment of Tihama’s statesman Dr. Hassan Makki — who made tangible contributions to the republic’s state-building and Yemen’s reunification — as prime minister in 1974 was received with elite discomfort as he is a Shafi’e from the coast. This sheds light on another motive for marginalization: preservation of Zaydi hegemony in Yemen’s political landscape. Although former President Ali Abdullah Saleh (1978-2011) ensured the appointment of one or two cabinet ministers from Hodeida in his government and satisfied tribal figures with parliamentary seats and trade facilitation, the economic exploitation and patronage relationships, coupled with the unjust legacy of the Imamate, prevented the rise of new local merchants and influential elite, and living standards in Tihama remained low.

The NDC and exclusion from the national agenda

Even before the current phase of the conflict, the Yemeni Arab Spring that awakened nationwide demands for reform failed to bring the Tihama cause onto the domestic agenda. Although the 2013-14 NDC sought to tackle a wide range of grievances, it did not address the peaceful Tihami cause when it had a chance to do so, as it did the armed Sa’ada or peaceful southern causes. The Houthi rebels, who waged six wars against the state between 2004 and 2010, made the inclusion of the Sa’ada cause a condition of their engagement. It was subsequently included and the state apologized for its counterinsurgency campaigns. However, the state still has yet to recognize the 1967 Qawqar massacre or even the Imam’s brutal campaigns against al-Zaraniq and more broadly the Tihamis since the 1920s, some of which Abdullah al-Baradoni, Yemen’s popular poet and a republican social figure, acknowledged and defended in his book entitled The Republican Yemen.

The reluctance to address accumulated grievances and include the Tihami question as a national issue suggests that the central authorities cherry-picked grievances, depending on the nature and extent of the threats, rather than out of a true desire to bring about transitional justice and address the underlying concerns. This deepened the resentment and anger in the Tihama, which reached new heights during the war.

The rise of the Tihami Resistance

Following the Houthi takeover of Sanaa in September 2014, the Tihami movement armed itself with light weapons. The ensuing months brought the Arab Coalition’s intervention and the rise of the Tihami Resistance. Between 2015 and 2018, the UAE organized the popular resistance against the Houthis through at least 10 Tihami and Zaraniq brigades.

The Emiratis then intensively trained, armed, financed, and supervised the Tihami Resistance Forces, alongside the Giants Brigades. These forces fought the Houthis shoulder-to-shoulder and recaptured territory before the defection of Brig. Gen. Tareq Saleh, the nephew of former President Saleh, in December 2017, when the Houthi-Saleh marriage of convenience collapsed. After Tareq received Emirati support following his trip to Abu Dhabi and formed the first few brigades of the Guards of the Republic in early 2018, the Tihami Resistance Forces and Giants Brigades led the Hodeida offensive, advancing to the city’s airport and reaching the outskirts of the port by November 2018, with Tareq’s newly formed forces in the line of defense. Tareq Saleh thus did not play a major role in the battle for Hodeida and the greatest sacrifices on the Tihami coast were made by the Tihami Resistance and the Giants Brigades.

The conclusion of the Stockholm Agreement in December 2018 halted the Hodeida offensive and gave the Houthis a lifeline, allowing them to retain control over Hodeida’s port, and eventually prompted the UAE’s drawdown in July 2019, which marked the rise of Tareq Saleh. The UAE then restructured and integrated troops on the Tihami coast under the Joint Forces, and handed over de facto command and control to Tareq Saleh, a move that sparked controversy among the Tihami Resistance and Giants Brigades, which felt that they deserved greater reward and recognition. The Tihami Resistance Forces have several field leaders but still require a unified leadership and a proper command-and-control structure, which might have been a factor in their relative sidelining.

Going by the old playbook, Tareq eventually sought to dissolve the Tihami Resistance and integrate as many brigades as possible into the Guards of the Republic and Giants Brigades, mainly through the suspension of salaries, and under Emirati supervision. Due to financial challenges and dependency on the coalition, as well as internal issues, several Tihami brigades were integrated into the two groups. However, this does not mean that the Tihamis have given up on reversing old grievances, achieving a regional role consistent with their federal aspirations, and gaining an equitable share of power and resources. During a mass demonstration in al-Khokha in late January 2021, Hodeida Governor Sheikh al-Hassan Taher demanded the Tihami Resistance be empowered and the battle for Hodeida’s port be relaunched in view of the collapsing Stockholm Agreement, having warned in 2020 of a conspiracy to divide the region.
 

A cargo ship and oil tanker sit docked at the port of Hodeida, on Sept. 29, 2018. Photo by Hani Al-Ansi/picture alliance via Getty Images.
A cargo ship and oil tanker sit docked at the port of Hodeida, on Sept. 29, 2018. Photo by Hani Al-Ansi/picture alliance via Getty Images.

 

Contemporary manifestations of marginalization

Over the past seven years, several manifestations of deepening grievances have surfaced. The first is the exclusion of Tihami figures, including those in the resistance, from discussions concerning war and peace in their territory during the Stockholm talks, which eventually left Hodeida caught in the middle. This made for a state of neither war nor peace, with sporadic firefights continuing to deepen the humanitarian suffering and increase the number of casualties among Tihami civilians. Since Stockholm, Hodeida’s southern region has been separated from the city, and to go either way, travelers have to take a trip lasting several days, instead of one taking 30-45 minutes.

The second manifestation is Tareq’s ongoing attempt to fully quash the Tihami Resistance, whether as an extension of old grievances, in response to the failure to integrate some of these forces, or with the intention of establishing a consolidated presence on the Tihami coast. This triggered several demonstrations in al-Khokha in 2019, 2020, and 2021. The January 2021 armed dispute between brigades of the Guards of the Republic and the Tihama Resistance underscores the ongoing tensions, discontent toward, and suspicion of Tareq’s intentions. Mohammed Waraq, a member of parliament and the chief of the Tihama National Council (another movement formed in 2019), accused the UAE, through Tareq, of seeking to divide the Tihami coast by forming a west coast governorate. The borders of the region in question — stretching from al-Jah (to the south of Hodeida city), passing through al-Mocha, to the Bab al-Mandeb Strait to the south — are seen as a sign that this is an attempt to consolidate Tareq’s territorial and maritime control. It is speculated that this is aimed at applying pressure on the Islah in Taiz, strengthening of the position of the General People’s Congress in U.N.-led peace talks as well as Tareq’s political office, and providing security support to regional actors, including the UAE and Saudi Arabia.

The third manifestation is the exclusion of Hodeida and the Tihama federal region — Hodeida, Hajjah, Mahwit, and Raimah governorates, which together account for nearly one-fifth of Yemen’s population, or more than 6 million people — from Prime Minister Maeen Abdul Malik Saeed’s cabinet. This would have been unprecedented even during Saleh’s time and is an indisputable sign of the declining representation of Tihamis across state institutions, as well as deepening marginalization.

Moving forward

It is clear that the grievances of the Tihami cause have continued to grow during the war, but to address this the region must develop a unified leadership to gain a seat at the table. This could be a council of social forces from across the spectrum, rather than a single leader, under which come political, military, social, and media instruments. The factions that advocate for the reversal of grievances — regardless of their political affiliation — could convene an overreaching conference and make up one united front to aid the Tihami cause, echoing the Hadramawt Conference model. Politically, the formation of an overarching umbrella — whether a leadership council or a political office — could allow local forces to engage with regional and international parties, including organizations. To amplify their presence, Tihama’s elites and grassroots must establish a discourse to message internal and external audiences, increase public awareness of the century-old grievances, and celebrate the beauty of Tihami Yemeni identity. A high-level Tihami figure told MEI that “a media discourse is needed to unite, not divide people.” For the Tihamis to gradually reclaim their role in Yemen’s domestic landscape, they must adopt new tactics and a more assertive approach, given that no political party or regime has been willing to acknowledge Tihami grievances.

The current landscape in Yemen only seems to reward entities with tools of power, influence, and subjugation (i.e. arms and forces), not peaceful movements. With this in mind and for Tihama’s unified leadership to have more political clout, the Tihami movement must rehabilitate and restructure its brigades long term under a military umbrella that backs the Tihama cause, akin to how the preservation of the Hadrami Elite Forces, which are greatly celebrated by Hadramis, amplified the Hadrami cause and added a layer of security in the region. This would not only be reflected in greater political weight, autonomy, and detachment from the historical dominance of the power that commands the plateau, but it would also improve the local security landscape and protect fishermen and civilians, were they to be adequately trained, financed, and supported. Drawing on the politics of the past century and beyond, these political, military, and media priorities are key to negotiating a reversal of grievances. As things stand, the government risks further deepening them and increasing polarization in the long term, potentially leading the Tihami cause to depart from its largely peaceful approach to date and revive the historical path of armed struggle. Only time will tell if the Tihamis manage to reverse these alarming trends, and perhaps more importantly, whether the rest of Yemeni society will perceive the Tihami cause as a truly national issue, rather than one that affects only the Tihama region.

 

Ibrahim Jalal is a Yemeni security, conflict, and defense researcher; a Non-Resident Scholar at MEI; and a co-founding member of the Security Distillery Think Tank. Among his research interests are the U.N.-led peace process in Yemen, U.S. counterterrorism strategy in Yemen, and the rise of the Houthi insurgency. The views expressed in this piece are his own.

Photo by NABIL HASAN/AFP via Getty Images