As Yemen falls apart, one boomtown rises
SANAA (AFP) – The clang of jackhammers and excavators fills the streets of Marib, an oil-rich Yemeni boomtown once accustomed to the sounds of war, now a rare oasis of stability in a country torn by strife.
Yemen is convulsed by the world’s worst humanitarian crisis, with rampant disease, famine and a ruinous conflict pitting the Saudi-backed government of President Abedrabbo Mansour Hadi against Iran-aligned Huthi rebels.
But the fall of Yemen has coincided with the rise of Marib, once seen as an Al-Qaeda bastion, which has been spared much of the misery owing to its oil and gas reserves, proximity to Saudi Arabia and rare tribal cohesion that has helped repel Huthi incursions.
“We have managed to push the war far away from Marib,” said provincial governor Sultan al-Arada.
“Marib is untouchable,” he told AFP.
Marib is now Yemen’s most thriving city, thanks in part to an influx of hundreds of thousands of internally displaced people, among them entrepreneurs, doctors and a monied class that is driving up investments and real estate prices.
Hundreds of new businesses have come up, from eateries to water bottling plants, and construction sites are everywhere.
Marib offers another novelty to legions of employed youth in a country with chronic joblessness —- salaries.
“The spectacular rise of Marib has come not despite the conflict, but because of it,” Farea al-Muslimi, a Yemen expert at Chatham House think tank, told AFP.
“Marib has gained from the chaos surrounding it.”
A weakened central government —- exiled in the southern port city of Aden, where southern separatists have opened a new front in the conflict —- has strengthened local governance, giving Marib more autonomy to chart its future.
Its university is expanding and businessmen who once fled the war are slowly returning.
That includes Obaid Zubaiyen, head of a family-run trade and construction enterprise with interests across the Gulf, who fled Yemen in 2011 amid increasing turmoil.
“The family is back because Marib means opportunity,” said Misbah Ohag, a group manager, showing AFP a blueprint of a planned multi-million dollar project of villas, apartments and malls.
Governor Arada plans an international airport and aims to make Marib, home to temple ruins from the ancient Sabaean kingdom, a magnet for tourists — a plan hampered by the wrenching conflict.
‘Dead and limbless’
But some scars of the war rumbling on outside Marib are still visible inside the province.
At a rehab centre for child soldiers, drawings sketched by the young survivors are telling.
One showed a grenade, a tank, a helicopter gunship and crimson splashes of blood.
“They blew up my school,” read the caption.
Huthi rebels have planted thousands of landmines around Marib and mangled carcases of cars litter its mountainous border.
“So many dead and limbless people,” said Mohammed Abdo al-Qubati, head of Marib general hospital, home to Yemen’s only functional prosthetic limbs centre in government territory.
“It’s like we are waiting for the remaining people to die.”
Marib, with an original population of around 350,000, is sinking under the weight of what officials say are 1.5 million displaced people from across Yemen, putting a strain on resources.
In a decrepit camp on its outskirts, dozens of people from a tribe called Jaham tugged at the sleeves of Saudi aid officials, imploring them for more relief supplies.
“This is the kind of life you wish upon your enemy. We used to live in palaces, now we live in tents,” said a tribesman from nearby Sirwah district, which was overrun by the Huthis.
“No, no,” interjected another tribesman. “This is not even a tent; this is wood covered with a flimsy blanket.”
Huthi rebels besieged Marib for months in 2015 after they captured the capital Sanaa, but they were pushed back in fierce clashes with local tribesmen aided by the Saudi-led coalition.
Arada, one of the region’s most influential tribal leaders, rallied together fellow elders to pledge loyalty to the Hadi government — even those who traditionally supported the Huthis.
The US, behind regular drone strikes in the territory to combat Al-Qaeda, has imposed sanctions on Arada’s brother, accusing him of supporting the group, a charge the governor vehemently denies.
Marib faces the constant threat of Huthi rockets, hundreds of which have been fired towards the city.
A missile strike killed six children last year during Eid festivities, Arada said.
Yemen is a chessboard of proxy warfare between Saudi Arabia and Iran.
Paying a heavy price for the conflict are thousands of divided families in Yemen, split between Huthi and government territory.
“We go through checkpoint, checkpoint, checkpoint,” said Amina al-Ayashi, 55, describing a circuitous route to Sanaa, where her son journalist Taufiq is in a Huthi jail as the rebels crack down on the media.
“It feels like a whole lifetime. They (rebels) humiliatingly search us. We bring clothes, bread, vegetables. They refuse…” she trailed off.
Morsal Haidara, an English professor at Marib University — which restarted in 2016 after being shut down during months of fighting — draws parallels to Shakespeare’s Hamlet, comparing the rebels to the character King Claudius who seized the throne by poisoning his own brother. “What’s happening in Yemen is a tragedy,” he said.