In 2014, the Houthis took control of Sana’a. Five years later, President Abdo Rabbu Mansour Hadi lost his temporary capital of Aden to the Southern Transitional Council. Yemen’s internationally recognized government is thus in need of a capital. The Cabinet, which spends most of its time in exile in Riyadh and other regional capitals, needs a presence inside Yemen if it hopes to reunite the country and remain legitimate. The fact that several ministers are based in Aden, the heartland of a rival political group, is awkward to say the least. There are few safe cities in Yemen that are well placed to serve as a new capital; Mukalla is the top option.
The capital of Hadramawt governorate in eastern Yemen, Mukalla is the country’s fourth-largest city. It is a coastal urban sprawl, with a low enough population density to accommodate growth, and has an active port with space to expand along the Arabian Sea, home to some of the world’s busiest shipping lanes. Once the government is physically positioned in the city, Mukalla could become Yemen’s economic as well as political capital, revitalizing trade via land routes to Oman and Saudi Arabia and internationally via maritime routes to commercial partners in East Asia.
Mukalla, unlike other large Yemeni cities, does not suffer from water shortages. Hadramawt, which accounts for more than one-third of Yemen’s territory, borders Marib, Shabwa and Al-Mahra, and produces nearly two-thirds of Yemen’s oil and gas for export. The governorate also enjoys wide social diversity, a measure of economic diversity through its fishing industry and post-war tourism potential, and is home to some of Yemen’s best universities.
Sana’a, Aden and Hudaydah — the three largest Yemeni cities — are no longer viable options, and even an end to the war will not necessarily make them better suited. Sana’a, the official capital, is under the control of an armed group, and is likely to run out of water within a few decades due to the projected impact of climate change and years of improper drilling and inland water use. An affordable, sustainable way to supply water to the highland city and its 4 million inhabitants remains out of reach, making growth unsustainable.
Aden has been the internationally recognized government’s interim capital since 2015, but the past few years have demonstrated that the city is incapable of restoring its historical role as a center that embraces all Yemenis. Apparently, it cannot even embrace all southerners. There are a number of competing armed groups in Aden, and it is difficult to control the security situation. Aden’s infrastructure, hit hard by the war since 2015, has effectively collapsed and will take decades to repair, and the city suffers serious problems pertaining to garbage and sanitation. Aden is overcrowded and under-resourced. In addition, the plundering and neglect Aden suffered following Yemen’s 1994 civil war at the hands of northern elites, and Sana’a in particular, deflated its cosmopolitan spirit. It is under this pretext that armed warlords who have emerged since 2015 have turned Aden into a city feared by Yemenis. In recent years, residents with northern roots have been threatened and chased out.
Hudaydah, a port city along the Red Sea coast, has fewer security problems than Aden or Sana’a. It can provide its own water through desalination. However, Hudayah is currently under Houthi control, and has lost much of its earlier economic value and infrastructure. The commercial sector based around the port city was largely destroyed after 1990, as Aden became the main port post-unification. Hudaydah is now among the poorest cities in Yemen.
Choosing an Alternative
A few years ago, Taiz was suggested as a potential capital for geographical, cultural and historical reasons. However, in addition to the social and economic destruction it has suffered during the war, it is densely populated and its geography does not lend itself to expansion. The security situation is unstable, and similar to Aden in terms of the presence of irregular armed groups. Taiz struggles to provide sufficient water to its residents. This problem will worsen as the population increases, mostly due to poor infrastructure, which has been neglected for decades and only deteriorated more rapidly over the course of the war.
During the past few years, there has been talk of setting up a new capital in Marib or Shabwa governorates, with Marib city or Ataq replacing Sana’a. This is simply impractical, wishful thinking. Beyond the contested military situation there, the area of Marib city is barely equal to a single district of Mukalla. The larger governorate of Marib is desert. The infrastructure is underdeveloped within the city, now home to about 1 million people. Marib has been unable to provide services to an increasing number of internally displaced persons (IDPs), estimated by the International Organization for Migration at 1 million across the governorate, and existing schools and healthcare centers are few in number and not properly equipped. Shabwa is in a similar situation, even though it is home to the most economically significant facility in Yemen, the refinery in Balhaf. Shabwa’s oil and gas wealth are not enough, however, to make the governorate suitable for hosting a national capital. Shabwa’s central city, Ataq, has poor infrastructure, and, like Marib, it is in the middle of the desert, home to strong tribal groups that may chafe at urban expansion.
Despite its political and economic advantages, comparatively good infrastructure, and elegance and distinction as a city, Mukalla has drawn little international attention except, perhaps, from Saudi Arabia. Many Hadrami expatriates have acquired Saudi nationality since the formation of the modern kingdom. Over the years, they have developed strong financial and business networks in Saudi Arabia, while maintaining a strong connection to their local community in Hadramawt.
Perhaps the most important reason for establishing Mukalla as the new capital, and keeping it there after the war, is that it would derail the plans of those parties that want to fragment Yemen, such as the Houthis in the north or the Southern Transitional Council in the south. Furthermore, it would help deter dominant regional powers across Yemen from establishing central control. Restraining both fragmentation and centralization from Mukalla could redefine Yemenis’ relationships with each other, and help address and heal the grievances of the country’s citizens.
This piece was originally published in the November 2021 Yemen Review.
The Sana’a Center for Strategic Studies is an independent think-tank that seeks to foster change through knowledge production with a focus on Yemen and the surrounding region. The Center’s publications and programs, offered in both Arabic and English, cover political, social, economic and security related developments, aiming to impact policy locally, regionally, and internationally.