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The Last Stronghold of Yemenis: How Has the War Changed Ma’rib?

At first glance, Ma’rib appears to be an intense Yemen resisting collapse. One of the last strongholds for the “Republic of Yemen” as a state for all its citizens. This might sound as overloading the place with symbolism, but even this stems from a profound feeling that very place inspires, despite all the challenges it is facing. It also stems from the city’s stubborn clinging to its “Yemenihood” rather than “Ma’ribiness”, whereby all other Yemeni regions resort to and are nervous about tiny identities and pre-national identifications.

Ma’rib is, above all, a major battlefield in the current war in Yemen. This confuses it, affects it and ultimately transforms it. The fact that it is the governorate from which grand battle for Sana’a is being waged exhausts it, exacerbates its fears, multiply its decision-making levels, and makes it an inevitable target and focus of conflicting interests.

Changes in Ma’rib

Ma’rib has endured many burdens, including stereotypes attached to its image. It is the Shafi`is’ sword with which they fight the Zaydis, as many have been wishing it to be since the beginning of the war, when everyone was losing in the face of arrogant and unleashed Houthi fighters expanding throughout Yemen.

Such a reduction belittles it, although it has become one of its implicit definitions. It has also grew farther than its tribal Bedouin identity, in which major and minor tribes fight for influence, such as Murad, Ubaidah, Jahm, Jadaan, Al Tahif and others. After its accommodation of a large numbers of IDPs from all over Yemen, it has become one of the four centers of power, along with Aden, Sana’a, and Taiz (Local officials in Marib estimates the population of the provincial capital to be, by late 2017, 1,170,000, after it had been less than 40,000 before the war). Its acquisition of such massive weight is not only a matter of increased population, but also a matter of collective choice to be a safe haven and an advanced outpost to resist Yemen’s relapse into sects and regions.

Ma’rib has been largely transformed by all pf this. It is no longer the small town surrounded by tribal blocs busy competing and fighting among each other, or stuck in search for utterly needed services in exchange for all the resources drained out of its lands. It has been transformed both demographically and politically, and has opened up for large roles in Yemen, in contrast with the retreat of other cities and governorates for various reasons. Stability and relative security establishes a foundation for its emergence. It has become the city of rising economic prospects due to its distinguished relative stability. Prices of property have increased at least 500% compared to before the war. Brick factories and construction workshops have also mushroomed, and there have been no clashes between the city’s tribal natives and its new arrivals, as the latters have settled in the city while the formers have continued to reside in their countryside and the scattered towns around the city, which reduces disputes and chances of otherwise potential tension.
The Strong Governor of Ma’rib

In this new formation of Ma’rib, its current governor and prominent tribal chief Sultan Al-Aradah appears as a key player. He has managed its complexity and absorbed the pressures acting against it in difficult and decisive times. His presence as an intelligent political leader has thus been consolidated, owing mainly to considerable resources at his disposal, and to his ability to deal wisely with his troubling connections with the Yemeni Congregation for Reform (Yemeni Muslim Brotherhood). This closeness is mainly related to his personal connections, in addition to his brother, a prominent right hand of Vice President Ali Mohsen Al-Ahmar, one of the most notable MB leaders in eastern Yemen, and a strongly influential figure in Ma’rib.

Such a burdensome relationship with the Reform would downsize Al-Aradah if he remains caught up in it. It will also be a concern to several parties. Despite Al-Aradah’s strong presence in Ma’ribi midsts and the definite referral to the legitimate government and the Arab Coalition when it comes to decision-making, there is a noticeable presence and influence swayed by the Reform in Ma’rib and its institutions, and there is a subtle resentment of this acquisition that is only contained by Ma’rib’s tribal nature and strategic location as the forefront of the fateful battle against the Houthi-Saleh forces. For many in Ma’rib, members of the Reform who enjoy high positions within the close circles around the governor are risking blocking his visions even before blocking his actions, which certainly comes at the expense of his potentials and his personal career as a rising figure in modern eastern Yemen.

A reserve for Saudi influence:

At another level, it is remarkable how Ma’rib has proved only penetrable by the Saudis, and that the UAE presence has so far been shy and limited (there was an indicative incident in Ma’rib when the UAE reconstructed the fence of the Third Area headquarters near the city, then tried to name the camp “Martyrs of Emirates Camp” and put up a plaque with that title on its gate, but it was quick to be torn apart and the Camp was renamed after the commander of the region who had been martyred last year). However, it seems that Al-Aradah has managed to develop good, albeit limited, relations with Abu Dhabi, which responded positively to his advances.

This Saudi influence in Ma’rib is protected by a realization of its role in the Yemeni war, as well as the complexities of its location and the transformations of its role that are highly consequential in shaping the future of both this conflict and Yemen itself. Any arrangements to the shape of future Yemen cannot pass over what weighty Ma’rib – and its surroundings – want. In addition, the persistence it has proved in the fight against Houthi-Saleh, who in turn represent at a certain level the ambitions of historically dominant northern tribes, can be leveraged by Saudi Arabia to undermine these pro-Houthi northern tribes and resist their demands.

Saudi Arabia is so immersed in Yemen that it cannot survive it. Yemen is its weak spot, and the Kingdom needs stable footholds there. While this war has created irreparable cracks with former allies in northern Yemen (mainly Saleh), a cohesive and dignified Ma’rib can be an essential pillar and a permanent important ally.

Oil, Gas and the Black Market

The war has led to the emergence of a vast network of Ma’rib-based businesses. As an important source of petroleum and a main gate to the rest of the country (most of domestic gas used in Yemen is produced from the Safer refinery in Ma’rib, where also diesel fuel and gasoline are refined in large quantities). As such, the city has become profitable center of gravity for those with the right influence and connections, especially when it comes to smuggling oil derivatives into black market for military purposes.

This goes beyond the control of local authorities in Ma’rib. The black market businesses and investments are too far-reaching and outrageously profitable, and are brimming with powerful centers of power from all sides, including opposite ones, converging around their financial interests. Everyone is making profits; politicians, tribal chiefs, businessmen, military commanders and others. It is striking how the influence of this market expands across all frontlines!

Al-Qaeda Challenge

AQAP activities continue to trouble Ma’rib, threaten its political prospects, and undermine the appreciation of its stability. The increased drone strikes pose a challenge to its new image and exposes this terrorist threat, which while not new, has been increasingly alarming during the conflict. The war has created wide security gaps that were exacerbated by authorities already weak and preoccupied with the fight against the Houthi-Saleh alliance. In addition, the governorate’s arid environment and its proximity to four other governorates where the AQAP is active (Al-Bayda, Shabwa, Hadramout and Al-Jawf) has made it a safe corridor and occasional haven for the organization’s operatives, especially in the south-western borders with Al-Bayda and Shabwa.

Furthermore, alliances necessitated by the war against the Houthis cripple the ability to take a definite stance against radicalized groups that may be affiliated with AQAP. Given the fluidity of current conditions and the lack of overarching supervision, the flow of arms and cash that could benefit anybody indiscriminately cannot be possibly controlled.

Ma’rib: Opportunity and Challenge

A rising Ma’rib in the current Yemeni scene that both harvests and suffers from the weaknesses of other regions, while also intensifying the burdens and the advantages of the war, showcases the transformative dynamics of the conflict and its effects on the place’s identity and challenges. Therefore, more than two and a half years into the war, which has barely reached the outskirts of the city and is still taking place at its surrounding districts and borders, it is surprising how the small town expanded and became a relatively large city replete with economical prospects accompanied by a reasonable state of stability. But this also does not ameliorate the challenges and fears in case the war continued and its accompanied economy expanded at its expense. That said, a grand battle targeting Sana’a is looming, and it is supposed to be launched from Ma’rib. Finally, territorial ambitions and interest in its relatively abundant resources, compared to other Yemeni regions, are also staring voraciously at the city’s future.

* Yemeni writer and researcher, director of Sana’a Center for Strategic Studies