A Journey Through Yemen’s Al Mahrah Region
Updated July 2023, A Journey Through Yemen’s Al Mahrah Region was originally published in June 2020
Al Mahrah is Yemen’s easternmost governorate, butting up to Oman and Saudi Arabia, and encompassing a large swath of Yemen’s Rub al Khali, or Empty Quarter. The Al Mahrah region is still very wild in a lot of ways. With a rugged coastline that stretches 400 kilometers in length, and the remote and empty Yemeni Empty Quarter, Al Mahrah offers a lot of unique opportunities for adventure travel and cultural exchange should the Yemen Civil War come to an end and the country as a whole stabilize. That said, it is possible to visit certain areas of the Al Mahrah Governorate at present with the proper precautions and the right local team.
Start researching Yemen here: The Yemen Travel Guide
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A Quick Al Mahrah History: From Past To Present
Mahrah has historically been inhabited by the Mahri people, a South Arabian tribe with its own language. The Mahri linguistically, culturally, and genetically have more in common with the Socotri people of Socotra and the Dhofari people of Oman’s neighboring Dhofar region. The Mahri people are by some, considered to be the descendants of the ancient Ad Kingdom, credited as being the first people to domesticate the camel.
In the 620s AD Mehri bin Abyad, the then leader of the Mahrah went to Medina to meet the Prophet Mohammed. Following his return, the Mahri began practicing Islam but quickly returned to their paganistic ways after the death of the prophet in 632.
Eventually, the Mahri once again embraced Islam. Fast-forwarding a bit, Al Mahrah existed as a semi-autonomous Mahrah Sultanate from 1432 to 1967 and included the present Al Mahrah Governorate, as well as the island of Socotra. In 1967 Al Mahrah would go on to become a part of South Yemen.
The most recent Yemeni Civil War that has largely been fought in North Yemen (though appearing west on a map), with Al Mahrah escaping the brunt of the fighting, has attracted people to the region.
More recently, Saudi Arabia and the UAE have been making a presence in Al Mahrah, which has lead to a power struggle between them and the Yemenis. By 2018 protests were carried out in Mahrah due to what many Mahri felt was a Saudi occupation, and in February 2020 protests turned violent after Saudi forces tried to gain control of Mahri seaports.
The Southern National Salvation Council, a resistance movement comprised of several governorate separatist groups, lead by Shaikh Ali Al-Harizi has arisen to prevent the Saudi from the further occupation of Mahrah as many do believe Saudi Arabia is trying to annex the region for access to the Arabian Sea. What outcome will present itself at this point, only the future holds.
Read about what it was like to camp under the stars in the Yemeni Empty Quarter
Destinations In Al Mahrah
Hawf is the first town you’ll reach after the Yemen-Oman border crossing at Surfeet. It’s a dusty fishing village right on the coast. There is little in the way to do in Hawf Village itself, but it’s a good place to stop to exchange money or grab snacks if needed.
Learn everything you need to know to cross the Yemen-Oman border at Surfeet
Hawf Protected Area
Backing the Hawf area are giant craggy cliffs rising inland from the sea. This area is known as the Hawf Protected Area, noted for the Hawf cloud forest, home to unique flora that turns the mountain and cliffsides a deep green during the June-September Khareef season. Khareef season is a special time in Al Mahrah, as well as neighboring Dhofar in Oman the people in these areas are dependant on the Khareef for water supplies.
Al Fatk is a village along the main Surfeet-Al Ghaydah road that stands out among the fishing villages that dot the coastline between Hawf and Al Ghaydah. Al Fatk sits on the eastern edge of an inland pool with only a narrow strip of sand separating it from the sea. The pool is connected with a dry riverbed that extends northwest, I’m assuming that runs with water during Khareef.
Plan your trip to the South of Yemen
Al Ghaydah is a coastal city that very much feels like a border town. The city has seen a boom since 2015, due to people fleeing the war in North Yemen.
There isn’t much in way of sights in Al Ghaydah, but the Al Ghaydah Souq is worth wandering in the evening, especially if you need to purchase local clothing to blend in on your trip through Yemen.
In the mornings there’s a small fish market on the outskirts of town worth visiting if you’re around.
There is a great fish restaurant in Al Ghyadah called Alzafran I highly recommend, every dish we ate there was superb on both visits.
You will see a lot of plastics and trash in the streets in Al Ghaydah, as you will see in many of the towns along the coast in Yemen and in other areas of the country. You’ll also see many women begging on the streets as a lot of them have escaped the fighting on the Red Sea coast of Yemen and have no other means to feed their families they’ve relocated here to Al Ghaydah.
Yemeni Empty Quarter
The Yemeni Empty Quarter is a vast expanse of inland Mahrah extending beyond into neighboring Hadhramaut Governorate, Oman, and Saudi Arabia. Traveling north from Al Ghaydah you’ll traverse through epic stone mountains before dropping off into the scrub desert that marks the fringe of the Yemeni Empty Quarter. From here you’ll need the help of local Mahri Bedouin people that can guide you through the desert of the Empty Quarter.
Beyond the scrub desert gives way to sand dunes. If you’re looking to camp under the stars in the desert, learn about animal husbandry (mostly camel and goat), and the culture of the Mahri Bedouin the Yemeni Empty Quarter will provide countless encounters.
You do need to be cautious as the Saudi military is present in the northern parts of the Yemeni Empty Quarter and running into them could potentially cause problems for you (ie: potential deportation), so a well-connected fixer and the help of locals Mahri are essential.
Want to continue on into the neighboring Hadhramaut? Check out my Hadhramaut Guide
Shihan is the northern border town, crossing to Oman. Shihan is not much more than a dusty border town. Note that it is only possible to exit Yemen to Oman at the Shihan border crossing.
Getting A Yemeni Visa
Note that due to the ongoing Coronavirus pandemic that it is currently not possible to obtain a tourist visa to Yemen.
Once tourist visa issuance resumes, you can follow these steps on getting a Yemeni visa. You’ll need the assistance of a local agent in order to get the approval letter from the ministry and to apply for your visa for you.
Wanna go to Socotra? Find out how to get there
Safety In Al Mahrah
While much like the rest of Yemen, safety cannot be guaranteed, the Al Mahrah region is one of the safer parts of the country to travel in. You do need to contact a good and reputable fixer who is well connected and can guide you in Al Mahrah.
Dressing local is another key way to help prevent standing out and make traveling a bit less risky. Women should wear a black abaya and niqab (it can be flipped back a lot of the time but when you and about it’s wise to wear the veil), and men a fouta with a shirt and keffiyeh. All these items can easily be purchased on arrival in Al Ghaydah at the Souq, or even in Salalah, Oman before crossing the border.
Have Questions About Visiting Al Mahrah?
I arranged this unique addition to a trip into Mainland Yemen and on to Socotra. If you want to set up your own, contact me at adventuresoflilnicki @ gmail.com.