“There are many devils” – A conversation with Governor of Taiz Ali al-Mamari

“There are many devils” – A conversation with Governor of Taiz Ali al-Mamari

Taiz city and the wider governorate have been an active frontline in the Yemeni conflict for more than two and a half years. Fighters from the Houthi movement and allied forces of former President Ali Abdullah Saleh first stormed Taiz in early 2015, with local resistance groups soon taking up arms against them. Fighting has raged since, with the anti-Houthi forces receiving nominal support from the internationally recognized government of Yemen and the Saudi-led military coalition backing it.

Ali al-Mamari, an esteemed former member of the Parliament of Yemen, became the official local government representative of Taiz in 2016, when President Abdo Rabbu Mansour Hadi appointed him governor of Taiz.

Al-Mamari was in Beirut, Lebanon last month and spoke at an event entitled “The Paths of Conflict in Yemen and Opportunities for Peace”, co-hosted by the Sana’a Center for Strategic Studies and the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut on October 16.

During a question and answer session with Sana’a Center Chairman Farea al-Muslimi, al-Mamari spoke about the political, strategic and economic importance of Taiz. In particular, he described how Houthi-Saleh forces have used industrial areas around the city as a source of revenue generation, and thus why they have made such heavy troop commitments to try and hold these areas.

Al-Mamari spoke about the devastating siege Houthi-Saleh forces applied for more than a year on government-held areas of Taiz city. During this almost total blockade and constant shelling, he outlined how food, water and access to healthcare ran scarce, the collapse of the local economy and how the inability to dispose of waste created dire environmental hazards.

The Yemeni government and its coalition partners have also heavily neglected Taiz, said al-Mamari, pointing to the lack of funding that has caused public services to deteriorate and led to the absence of police and security on the streets in government held areas. In particular, he said the governor of the Central Bank of Yemen has made it a point to obstruct financial support from reaching Taiz.

Al-Mamari said military support for the local resistance has also been vastly inadequate, with anti-Houthi fighters being left heavily disadvantaged against the Houthi-Saleh forces’ better armed and better trained brigades. Al-Mamari said in large part this is due the United Arab Emirates, which has curtailed military support to Taiz due to fears it may aid the Islah Party, affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood in Yemen; al-Mamari insisted these fears are overblown.

In an exception to this rule, however, the UAE has provided the Abu al-Abbas brigades in Taiz special treatment, said al-Mamari, which has led to divided loyalties amongst anti-Houthi forces. Notably, the UAE, whose affiliated forces seized control of Mokha Port along Taiz’s Red Sea coast in early 2017, has refused to relinquish control of the port and even denied al-Mamari permission to visit it.          

The following is a translated transcription of the conversation between al-Muslimi and al-Mamari, edited for clarity and length:

Farea al-Muslimi: First, what has hampered the battle for Taiz?

Second, I know you have submitted your resignation on more than once – indeed, the president rejected your resignation just two days ago – and that one of your biggest concerns was the need to pay public sector employee salaries. Could you provide… insight into the situation in Taiz, especially economically and militarily.

Governor Ali al-Mamari: As for the question why was the battle for Taiz has been hampered, there are many factors. As I noted earlier, Taiz has been a driving force for change and its peoples have been leaders at critical junctions in Yemen’s modern history. The sons of Taiz had an important role in the September 26 [, 1962, Republican] Revolution. Among those who were harmed by this revolution were the Houthis, and this is why they have a true vendetta against Taiz city. Then came the events of February 11, [2011 uprising] which eventually led to the departure of Ali Abdullah Saleh and his regime. The two, the Houthis and Saleh, are now joined in a battle against the sons of Taiz in a personal vendetta against the city.

Prior to February 11, [2011] there were already 11 significant military brigades stationed around the city – such as those stationed at the Khaled bin al-Waleed camp, which fell recently and is a camp of a similar importance to that of the al-Anad Camp in the south. These brigades, such as those commanded by Abdullah al Kadhi that were loyal to Saleh, surrounded the city to ensure it did not revolt. Saleh understood the danger of the city and that it wouldn’t remain patient forever.

Thus, when the Houthis and Saleh initially besieged Taiz it was besieged by all of these brigades, including members of [Saleh’s] special forces and military police. The concentration of these forces around the city made a swift liberation very difficult.

The resistance in Taiz was initially formed by untrained young men who are not battle hardened; teachers, doctors, pharmacists, skilled workers that were forced to defend themselves, their families and their city… Thus, the resistance had inadequate training, as well as armaments.

Imagine, today we are conducting a battle along hundreds of kilometers with only 10 old tanks. A war of these dimensions with 10 tanks… while Houthi-Saleh forces have hundreds of tanks in camps located in western Taiz. Hence, the military balance is tilted towards the Houthis and Saleh…

Another reason, is the [Saudi-led] coalition. I think that the coalition believes that Taiz has more of an Islah presence [than it actually has], and thus it is not in the interest of some coalition members for the battle of Taiz to be won by Islah, [as they believe] that would strengthen it. A particular coalition member sees Islah as an adversary, even though we reiterate the point that there is no one individual, group or party in Taiz that could dominate or control Taiz. All of the sons of Taiz have fought in the national armed forces, including members of different parties and affiliations.

No one can claim that one party is in control or has superior power in the city, but this is the fear and anxiety of one coalition member that is responsible for the fourth [military] district [which includes Abyan, Aden, Dhalea, Lahj and Taiz]. Our Emirati brothers are the ones overseeing the battle and supplies in the fourth district, which includes Taiz. This fear means the supplies reaching the national armed forces are just for sustenance. They are not provided the capacity that could enable them to achieve significant battlefield victories. They [the UAE] are not in a hurry. Maybe one of their objectives is to try and make sure all warring parties are eventually exhausted so the governorate becomes easier to control.

When the Houthis attempted to control Taiz they did not dare enter the areas that are highly populous and highly educated, such as Maafir, Mawaset, Shamatein and Jabal Habashi. They positioned themselves in coastal districts,  and while they control 75 percent of Taiz, these areas have a lower population count and a lower level of education.

The Houthis concentrate on areas around the city with high economic activity for tax collection, such as the industrial area called Hawaban. The factories [there] provide an annual revenue of around 25 billion Yemeni rials (YR), or around $50-60 million (US). This area of economic activity, where the 22nd republican guard brigade is based, has always been controlled. The Houthis are fighting there so as not to lose this revenue. Towards the west of Taiz city there are factories such as al-Shaybani as well as the paint and soap factories, among others. The Houthis allocated their best forces, arms and equipment towards these areas because they know for certain that if they were to lose control they will suffer. This is one of the reasons why it is not easy for the national armed forces to progress in Taiz, because it is home to important areas for the Houthis and Saleh.

As for my resignation, I’ve said that the issue in Taiz is that while his excellency the president, and other esteemed ministers, are responsive and give orders whenever we go to them, we then find that many of those orders are obstructed by bureaucracy and low-level employees, especially at the central bank in Aden.

I remember a cabinet meeting I was invited to that related to the 40 billion in Russian-printed Yemeni rial sent to Aden airport. I heard the ministers talk about how the money should only go to liberated areas. I said at the time that this money belongs to all Yemenis, and it’s not right to consider only spending it in liberated areas. At the end of the day, this is an obligation of the Yemeni state towards its citizens across all of Yemen.

There was contention around this point. When it came to the distribution of security salaries in Taiz, my colleague, the minister of the interior, said salaries should only be given to those affiliated with the legitimacy, to which I said that a security officer’s salary is a right that does not relate to the conflict.

We were very careful to get salary disbursements for all the sons of Taiz. We have 54,000 public employees in Taiz,  and we disbursed salaries across all districts, whether under the control of the legitimacy or Houthi-Saleh forces. Citizens do not deserve to be deprived of their salaries. A salary is a right and people should not be punished on the basis of party or region.

As for my resignation, we were promised the salaries for the sons of Taiz. When the central bank headquarters was relocated to Aden in October [2016] we demanded the salaries be paid… We kept struggling from October until March 2017, and finally in March we managed to obtain the salaries for the month of December 2016. But when we finally came to collect the salaries for December, we received only YR 3 billion, and only for the education sector. They refrained from allocating the YR 750 million for other sectors, including the health sector.

In July this year I met the president and gained a clear order that Taiz was to be placed on an equal footing with liberated areas such as Aden and Shabwa, which now receive [public sector] salaries on a regular, monthly basis. In September, the moment arrived for the collection of August salaries, and the first transgression arrived when they told us to forget the salaries of August and to instead focus on the salaries for September. We agreed… When we arrived in September to receive the salaries, we were surprised that the governor of the central bank was refusing to disburse salaries for all sectors and was only approving salaries for the education sector.

I could not remain governor so long as people’s salaries and their rights were not being granted. After the resignation, the central bank disbursed one month’s salary for all employees across all different sectors in Taiz. We hope this month we will witness the same.

During the last week, after I submitted my resignation to the president, he summoned me to Riyadh and said that I must continue my work. I set a group of conditions to return as governor, regarding the liberation of Taiz, the central bank, salaries, and support for security services in Taiz.

Security services in Taiz are given no support. When the former director of security went to the Ministry of Interior in May to receive the operational security budget for Taiz he was surprised to find that the allocated budget for Taiz for three months was YR 1.9 million, the equivalent of $4,000 to $5,000 USD… $5,000 dollars as an operational budget for a governorate the size of Lebanon during wartime.  

When we created a special forces [unit comprised of] 3,000 well-trained officers and a facility and military police camp for them we used funds from other budgets, including the health budget, not those allocated for security.

In short, the president insisted that I remain in my post and pledged YR 2 billion for security in Taiz as well as YR 5 billion from the central bank. These are presidential orders, and we will go to Aden, to the government or the central bank, and hope that these orders are implemented.

Regarding the economic and military conditions in Taiz, imagine when the public employees have not been paid for 10 to 11 months, with economic mobility in Taiz dependent on this money circulating into the economy. Shop owners are owed huge debts. As I noted, the factories are not under our control and must pay a high, 25 percent tax directly to the Houthis. Wholesale traders are outside the city, and after two and half years of conflict people have run through all their savings.

For those who may not know, Taiz was totally besieged for a year. Even water and air was restricted – oxygen tanks were not allowed in and as a result 15 Yemenis from Taiz died. The King Salman Center had to airdrop medicine and food into Taiz because it was completely under siege. Regarding water, there aren’t any water projects in Taiz. Water used to arrive through mobile water tanks from outside the governorate. When the siege was partially lifted life improved but the economic situation and conditions in Taiz are dire. Hundreds of thousands of city residents have been displaced to other rural areas and regions.

Militarily speaking the national army makes progress every day but it’s not the progress we anticipate or hope for. They are making slow progress. Although the battle is not immensely difficult it requires resources, such as armaments that the government doesn’t have. The coalition is the only source of military support. We try to apply pressure so that our brothers in the coalition provide more support… and try where we can to press the government, which is not very responsive to Taiz.

Al-Muslimi: Who has more space within Taiz to operate, you or Abu al-Abbas, and what is the scope of competition between armed groups and the local authorities, especially those formed as a direct result of the war?

Is support from the coalition channeled through you as the local authority or do external powers deal with different groups on the ground directly?

How do you run a governorate in a time of war and what about crisis management?

Al-Mamari: Of course the role of the local authority might be more war-oriented than development oriented. Throughout a year and half we only demanded salaries. We didn’t dare to dream of saying we need operational budgets for construction, water or electricity projects. At a time when people are not receiving their salaries, and we are unable to demand an operational budget. Our offices work at minimum capacity. Taiz is living through a time of war and so crisis management is the most prominent form of administration.

We do not have the budgets or capacities to initiate water or electricity projects. Sanitation projects are supported by UNICEF and others. The city is living through terrible environmental conditions. The city’s main landfill is in the west in the old airport district where the Houthis are. On numerous occasions we requested that they allow garbage trucks to reach the landfill. Initially, they would not allow any truck to return [from the landfill]. Now, in a small area of the city, all we have are water runoffs. We place the waste in the way of the runoff so that it’s taken by the water to unknown locations. We also burn waste. It’s a true environmental catastrophe in Taiz.

One of God’s blessings is that we discovered unused wells in different areas. People started using them with the help of Kuwaiti, Emirati and Qatari organizations, among others, that provided generators or subsidized fuel.

Regarding Abu al-Abbas, I believe that he listens to me as governor and complies but only insofar as it doesn’t cause friction between him and the UAE supporting him. The UAE provides adequate support to all brigades and the military leadership axis. Abu al-Abbas is an exception though as he is supported personally by the UAE. If you note the message that the Emirati commander sent to the military leadership axis, he saluted the leaders of the 22nd, 35th, 17th, 170th and Abu al-Abbas brigades. That was in the official memo that Al Jazeera and other websites circulated.

No one denies that Abu al-Abbas was among one the first to join the resistance and fight the Houthis in Taiz. He has personnel as well as arms and nominally falls under the [command of] the 35th brigade. Nonetheless, he receives special attention from our Emirati brothers. As I said, the support the coalition provides arrives through the military leadership axis to all brigades, except for Abu al Abbas to whom it arrives directly.

Initially, I could not leave the city of Taiz for a year before my appointment [as governor]. I could only leave for Aden on foot through the Mishraa and Hadnan district toward Mashrakh. Taiz city was totally besieged. There was no way of getting materials to the city, but after that we carved a path. If you could see how supplies used to reach Taiz, I think the prices of donkeys in Sabr reached YR 60,000 to YR 80,000, because the only way goods were able to reach the city was on the backs of donkeys.

This continued for six months, and while I was on my way from Sabr, I saw children in very sad circumstances. Imagine a child climbing a very steep 3 km to 4 Km incline for three to five hours with a box of food, juice, or flour on their back only to make YR 1,500 rials, or around $3 to $4.

We have seven public hospitals in Taiz city, and only three operate at minimum capacity. Schools were also devastated. At the beginning of this year, students began the school year in either destroyed buildings or ones with armed groups. Teachers are not available. The education sector has been completely halted because teachers did not receive their salaries for 10 months. Children are not going to school and the sick cannot find medicine or hospitals. It is disastrous in Taiz, and this hurts to say as a man of the governorate. But no one helps… the only aid is through the King Salman Center. But for a governorate of 4 million, no matter the amount of aid from the King Salman Center, it cannot cover all needs in the city…

To be honest, it has reached the point of feeling like you’re begging from the government. When the president, the prime minister and the governor of the central bank agree that you will receive YR 3.75 billion for people’s salaries, and then in the same day you disagree with them over the sum and complain. You deal with the president, the vice president and the prime minister… and eventually, they tell you that the governor of the central bank says there isn’t 3 billion. You feel like a beggar in their offices. I told [them] I’m not there to beg, I’m demanding people’s rights. This city is fighting on the behalf of all Yemenis, and for legitimacy. If this city were to halt the war, what legitimacy would you have left?

Al-Muslimi: Is Mokha Port under the control of the local administration?

Al-Mamari: The Mokha Port was liberated and UAE forces are there. Now you only have long range missiles striking from long distances. The UAE have positioned patriot batteries that prevent missiles falling on Mokha city.

The port will make a huge difference if activated. It could bring large revenues for the city that might alleviate our grievances – when we talk about hospitals, we are not talking about many millions of dollars; we said that with a few million dollars we can resolve the health or education issues in Taiz.

If Mokha Port is made functional it might resolve the economic problems in the city too. A month and a half ago I met with Saudi officials working on the Yemen file, specifically Taiz. I asked them for Mokha port to be activated, as businessmen in Taiz are prepared to send their goods and fuel through the port.

[But] the UAE still hasn’t transferred the port. The UAE has, however, done a great thing in Mokha. We had a 160 megawatt (MW) power plant in Mokha that was nearly totally dysfunctional due to the war, and they [the UAE] restored it with a capacity of 120 MW. It previously had four turbines, 40 MW each, and they activated three of them. The power from one turbine is used for lighting and other needs in Mokha, and the rest feeds into Taiz, though the electrical network was damaged during the war.

Eight months ago, though, when I went to inaugurate the power plant in Mokha and asked to visit the port, they declined. They said the commander wasn’t there.

Al-Muslimi: What are the coalition’s considerations, as far as you believe, or the UAE specifically, regarding the suspension of salaries. Do they think there is a possibility that salaries might go to Saleh-aligned fighters in other brigades? Do they believe this adds pressure to the battlefronts? For example, the Mokha Port, do they believe that this relates to smuggling, despite the fact that their forces are at the port?

Al-Mamari: The coalition and the UAE have nothing to do with the salary issues. The problem is with the governor of the central bank. From my experience with him, from when he was the Minister of Finance and until he became governor of the central bank, he puts obstacles in the way of anything related to Taiz.

Mokha is still a war zone and there is still fighting in the vicinity of the city. Let’s not exaggerate by saying if we receive the port it will be immediately functional. Not true. The area is one of conflict, and the UAE is present there. At the end of the day, the war is over a few areas… the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Iran and the US are all involved in a struggle over the strategic area [that includes] Mokha, Dhabab, Bab al Mandab. I do not think the UAE is providing all this support to eventually just say, “go ahead and take it.” It is more complicated than we think. It is possible for them to achieve their interests, and for us as well; however, the fact that I couldn’t enter the port was problematic.

For the record, Mokha port was subject to penalties for 35 years. It is an area of smuggling – of “parallel trading.” Ali Abdullah Saleh made billions of dollars from this area as he wanted this area to remain in the dark as a passage for smuggled goods, narcotics and all other prohibited materials. Yemen was a transit for these materials to Saudi Arabia and Gulf states. Mokha and its environs are underdeveloped because more development means a larger population and more monitoring. This is why for 35 years it hasn’t been functional.

Now we expect the Emiratis in Mokha and areas adjacent to Hudaydah. This has been the case for the past few months, as we anticipate a battle in Hudaidah through Mokha. We also hear that the UAE is interested in Mokha as it is located at the center of a triangle between Taiz, Aden and Hudaydah; and is close to the Bab al Mandab Strait. I think the UAE will stay there, but we say to them. “stay there but let us work.” We never asked for them to leave, but to only let the governorate benefit from the activation of the port and the generation of revenue for hospitals and education.

Al-Muslimi: Have you requested from the coalition any justification for striking civilians and civilian facilities in Taiz?.

Are needs in Taiz primarily in the humanitarian field, such as education and health, or in the security sector?

Al-Mamari: There is no doubt that humanitarian needs are grave, but over the past year the loudest voices in Taiz are asking us to save them from violent groups and other security issues. The humanitarian aspect is a severe need, but there were at least active hospitals and [humanitarian] organizations, but the security sector was nonexistent in Taiz. We have no active security institutions in Taiz. This is why people voiced their concerns over their security needs. The government is not paying attention to the security aspect, no organizations are helping either. There are many organizations helping with humanitarian needs, but regarding security concerns no one helps – not the coalition nor the government.

Regarding the issue of airstrikes in which civilians are killed, there is no doubt that in a war of this scale mistakes are made. We affirmed and condemned the mistakes made. The coalition is, however, cautious on the matter of airstrikes. For example, in Taiz there is an operations control room that provides coordinates to the coalition. Coalition aircraft do not target anything unless they’ve been given assurances and precise coordinates from the control room.

We’ve seen the facilities and buildings that are being bombed. The problem is not the coalition, it is those residing in these buildings – the coup forces. They remained in Sofitel for two years, and the coalition was reluctant to destroy this building. It would conduct airstrikes near it and people in Taiz would say on a daily basis: “Why don’t they strike the Sofitel building? Tank shells and artillery fire are killing our sons every day and they are reluctant to destroy the Sofitel building.”

The coalition used to say that, “if we strike Sofitel, they would say we are targeting facilities.” Eventually they struck it after people and the local authorities insisted. Houthi-Saleh forces take over institutions in Taiz and station their artillery and tanks in there and fire. In Taiz University, they took over the buildings such as the Faculty of Medicine and kept shelling the city. Eventually we said that people’s lives are far more important to us than buildings that can be reclaimed. [The targeting of facilities] does not happen until it these attacks are repeated for months. For example, Houthi-Saleh tanks kept shelling from the Sofitel building for two years.

There are even people in some control rooms across the republic that have personal issues. I heard that in Aden and Sana’a some people that had with a personal issue with a merchant or someone gave the coordinates of [that person’s] factory and it was hit. Even personal issues matter. At the end of the day, the coalition uses the intelligence it has, and the people in the army are not angels – there are many devils.