The STC is leading the campaign to oust him, and despite his longstanding membership in the Socialist Party has labeled him a “Muslim Brotherhood governor”
The Socialist in Socotra at the crossroads of unity, secession and foreign intervention
His name first emerged in 2017, when he voiced his refusal to recruit and train a UAE-sponsored group of Yemeni fighters outside the authority of Yemen’s Interior Ministry. Since then, and despite living nearly 1,000 kilometers away from any frontlines in Yemen’s civil war, he has been at the center of a simmering conflict in the archipelago of Socotra, the Yemeni governorate off the horn of Africa.
Who is Ramzi Mahrous?
Ramzi Ahmed Saeed Mahrous, 44, was born in Socotra and grew up on the island. His middle-class family was one of the most politically active Socotri families, as his father, Ahmed Mahrous, was a member of the Supreme People's Assembly, which ran the Democratic Republic of Yemen (South Yemen) at the time. Mahrous’s father was also the first secretary of the ruling Yemeni Socialist Party, a position that made him a prominent figure on the island.
In 1980, when Mahrous was just four years old, his father and his older brother Sabri died in an airplane crash. Their plane went down en route to Socotra, shortly after departing Al-Rayyan Airport on Yemen’s mainland. Many politicians and observers at the time alleged that the airplane was downed for political reasons, but like countless other incidents that transpired in southern Yemen, no investigation was conducted.
Mahrous attended high school at the Martyr Madram School in Hadebo, the main town on the island of Socotra, and then he enrolled at the Teachers' Institute in Khormaksar district of Aden, then capital of South Yemen. After receiving his diploma in 1996, that same year he started working as a teacher in Aden city, before returning to Socotra to continue his work as an educator.
In 2006, Mahrous returned to his studies in Aden and received his bachelor’s degree from the Faculty of Education in Aden University in 2010. He then returned to Socotra island to work in educational guidance, a supervisory position within the Ministry of Education. In 2014, he was appointed director-general of Socotra’s Office of Youth and Sport, following President Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi’s declaration of Socotra as its own governorate. One year later, in 2015 Mahrous was appointed deputy governor of Socotra, and in April 2018 Hadi appointed him governor.
Alongside his career as an educator, Mahrous has also followed in his father’s footsteps as a politician. Mahrous says that his father's experience in the Socialist Party influenced him intellectually and politically, and he became active in the party early on. He led left-wing protest groups in support of the youth revolution in 2011, and worked his way up the ranks of the Socialist Party to become head of its Oversight Committee in Socotra, a position he continues to hold.
Starting in 2004, the Socialist Party and the Congregation for Reform, better known as the Islah Party, joined forces with other smaller parties on the island to form a bloc against the policies of the regime of then-president Ali Abdullah Saleh. “The partisan experience in Yemen is rich and should not be erased by the sound of guns," Mahrous said, explaining that in his view the people of Socotra have long been marginalized and without their rights.
In the crosshairs of foreign powers
Socotra has been the target of colonial ambitions from many countries throughout history, from India and Portugal to Great Britain and the Soviet Union. The archipelago is unique in its topography, environment and unexplored nature, and amongst Yemenis from the mainland, Socotris have a positive reputation as joyful, kind people. After the declaration of Yemen’s unity in 1990, Gulf states began taking interest in the island, but this did not extend to more than curiosity and admiration.
Oman, for example, which is the closest geographical Gulf neighbor to Socotra, has been and continues to have strong links with the islanders, and provides the most relief and assistance. According to a local authority official on the island, despite considerable investments by the UAE and Saudi Arabia in Socotra, Oman's assistance has been serious and received as more acceptable and genuine.
The official said the island has been a prime destination for most ruling families from the Gulf, including from Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Oman and Bahrain. A close relative of the former Emir of Qatar, Sheikh Hamad Bin Khalifa Al-Thani, lived in Socotra for a short time and died and was buried there. A number of princes and sheikhs from the UAE and Saudi Arabia have owned private resorts on the island, and they used to visit often for recreation, especially before Yemen’s civil war started in 2015, according to the official.
However, the collapse of state institutions in Yemen after the Houthis took control of Sana'a in late 2014, and the UAE's handling of Yemen’s southern governorates as part of the Saudi-led coalition’s intervention in 2015, shifted this dynamic and positioned Socotra to some Gulf rulers not as a tourist and investment destination but one of military and political value.
Two Yemeni officials, one in Socotra’s General Environment Authority and another in the governor's office, said the local authority had doubts about the UAE’s motivations since the end of 2015. Speaking to Almasdar Online from the island, the officials explained the UAE began conducting commercial tourist trips for foreigners without visas, drilling on the coasts of the island, salvaging its coral reefs, transporting rare birds found only on the island, buying up swathes of land from locals, and building unlicensed resorts, all in complete disregard of the laws of the country.
The main shift in this equation came when the UAE began recruiting hundreds of young people in Socotra to form a “security belt” outside the authority of the local government. This prompted Mahrous, who was deputy governor at the time, to lead a resistance bloc against what they considered abuses by the UAE against the legitimate authorities.
According to the source in Mahrous’s office, the governor, along with a group of local authority officials and tribal elders, has documented a large number of violations by the UAE, most of which have been handed over to UNESCO (Socotra is a UNESCO World Heritage Site) and to the leadership of the Saudi-led coalition. Once the group expressed its opposition to the UAE's actions, the Emiratis sent in military battalions and warplanes, distributed money to tribal sheikhs, and granted citizenship to a large number of them, exacerbating the UAE's conflict with the local authority in Socotra and the Hadi government as a whole.
In early 2018, Yemen’s then-Prime Minister Ahmed Bin Dagher sought to visit the island, but UAE forces prevented his plane from landing. This sparked outrage on social media and exacerbated the government's dispute with the UAE. He returned months later and was able to land, but was surprised by the huge number of Emirati troops on the remote island.
Mahrous complained to Bin Dagher about the UAE's violations and expressed fears that the UAE intended to impose effective military control, which prompted the prime minister to promise not to leave the island until Emirati troops had fully withdrawn. After about a month of formal objections, mediation by Riyadh succeeded in calming the tensions on the basis that the departing UAE forces would be replaced by Saudi forces. However, the UAE returned some of its troops and started a new phase of recruiting and financing an armed faction of the separatist Southern Transitional Council (STC) there.
The UAE's statements at the time rejecting Bin Dagher's visit to the island prompted wider support among Yemenis for the prime minister's position, with some considering him a national hero for his decision to stand alongside Mahrous Mahrous on the island. Coverage of his visit was widely shared on social media, and remains a defining moment in the island’s recent history of dealing with intervention and interference by foreign powers.
Khalfan Al-Marzoui, an Emirati officer based on the island since 2015, has purchased vast amounts of land on the island, according to the local authority source, despite Yemeni law prohibiting the purchase and sale of land in Socotra by non-Yemenis. Al-Marzoui is accused of organizing and facilitating the rebellion against the local authority in Socotra on behalf of the UAE.
For his part, Mahrous lacks adequate support and operates with tight resources on the island. “Government employees and government soldiers do not receive their salaries regularly, as opposed to generous support from the UAE for their loyalists," a government official said.
Mahrous voiced concerns that the unrest the UAE has concocted and the divisions it has sowed in Socotra are creating a social rift that will be difficult to recover from. “They took advantage of the moment of weakness of the legitimate government, and it’s all part of their escalation plan, whether it is in Aden, Socotra, or previously in Shabwa before the STC were pushed out,” he said.
Mahrous said he does not view the problem as the demands for secession, but rather with the greed of actors from outside the governorate as well as regional countries using the “southern cause” to advance their own agendas.
Many Socotris see Mahrous as a hero defending them and their interests, including the sheikh of the Socotra tribes Issa Al-Socotri, who believes that the UAE has ambitions to take control of the island and that it is using the STC to carry out its own plans. Others in Socotra have demonstrated against Mahrous and demanded his dismissal. The STC is leading the campaign to oust him, and despite his longstanding membership in the Socialist Party has labeled him a “Muslim Brotherhood governor.”
When asked by Almasdar Online whether he has a special relationship with the Islah Party, Mahrous responded: “I have an excellent relationship with all parties; the people of Socotra practice politics differently and you will find brothers sitting in one house and they are all affiliated to different parties.”
In this regard, it is notable that Badr Al-Thaqali, the head of the Islah Party in Socotra, is the uncle of Rafat Al-Thaqali, who heads the STC in Socotra. Their family has held prominent official positions including ministers in both the south and north.
In May, in the latest flare-up of tensions in Socotra, the island witnessed its first military confrontation, when the commander of the First Marine Infantry Brigade, led by Nasser Qais, rebelled against the Yemeni government. In response, Mahrous appeared in a video saying, "the people of Al-Dhale and Abyan came to the island to fight the sons of Socotra, we will defend the sons of Socotra,” in reference to the rebel military commanders who are from outside the governorate. President Hadi appointed a native of Socotra, Col. Ali Salemin Ahmed, as a replacement commander for Qais, but the brigade's weapons and military equipment were already handed over by the former commander to the UAE and STC-aligned fighters.
In the midst of the ongoing conflict, Mahrous has emerged as a symbol of Yemeni legitimacy and unity. Despite his young age, as governor and a leader in the Socialist party – the party which has long played a leading role in supporting the southern cause – Mahrous is leading the struggle against the separatist body demanding secession. He is also leading the resistance campaign against the UAE, with scant national resources and little international support.
More than anything, away from the battlefield of Yemen's civil war on the mainland, the dire situation facing Mahrous and the people of Socotra serves as an example that the repercussions of the war in Yemen continue to reverberate in all corners of the country.