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Changing the Yemeni capital and the country’s future

Last week, it was announced by Aden governor Nayef Al-Bakri that the city is to become the capital of Yemen for the next five years. The decision comes mainly because of Aden’s strategic location; in many points in history Aden has been at the forefront of Yemeni military and economic affairs, and was one of the most strategic parts of the British Empire. It was the second most important base after the Suez Canal and, after the loss of Suez, Aden became the main base for the British in the Middle East, North Africa and South Asia. It also served as the capital of South Yemen pre-unification. It may appear as though changing the capital from Sana’a to Aden is a sign of preparing some form of conflict resolution, but the context that the decision was made in says otherwise.

It’s easy to see why Aden is seen as the door to Yemen’s post-war reconstruction. When looking back to its ancient roots, in 7th Century BC, it was the centre for merchants who exported textiles and a station for those who shipped incense and spices. South Arabia or what is now Yemen was very important to Prophet Mohammed (pbuh). Those in Yemen were the first to shake Prophet Mohammed (pbuh)’s hand and were the ones who helped spread Islam north, west and east. It was through the Gulf of Aden that Islam was exported beyond the Arabian borders. When it was a British colony, at its peak, the Port of Aden was the second busiest port in the world after New York and on average 50 vessels entered it a day. Post-unification, the port became a free-trading zone making Aden the commercial capital of Yemen.

In addition to being a centre for the exportation of incense, spices and the spread of Islam, the strait of Bab-el-Mandeb was the first to trade coffee. The fact that it separates Asia from Africa and connects the Red Sea to the Indian Ocean means that there is a continuous threat from both state and non-state actors if control is lost. Piracy and terrorism are very real threats that may materialise if the right security measures are not taken.

Changing Yemen’s capital does not come without implications. Under Ali Abdullah Saleh, the south of Yemen was heavily marginalised, which was one of the driving forces behind separatism. Turning Aden into the capital city of Yemen would not guarantee the unity of the city’s movements. If a social movement does occur, it would most likely be led by the most armed, most popular and best organised group, which seems to be the southern separatist Herak movement at this stage. For those who have been pushed into separatism under Saleh’s anti-south sentiments, this represents a boost in southern dignity and morale and a push in a new direction in domestic policy.

For staunch separatists, this represents a defeat because they are being forced into a system that they are trying to resist. Many rightfully believe that although the capital is now Aden, the political hierarchy will still be strongly held in the hands of those in Riyadh who have escaped from Sana’a. The fact that Aden governor Nayef Al-Bakri is highly respected by many in the city further complicates the debate. There was a suspected assassination attempt on Al-Bakri on 20 August when a bomb exploded outside the government building. Top military officials said it was an RPG firing by mistake, which was debunked almost immediately. Since then, the blame has been shifting between Herak and the Muslim Brotherhood affiliated Al-Islah, though in this case, it is in Al-Islah’s interest more than Herak’s to assassinate Al-Bakri.

This gives an insight as to what may happen in the north. On 20 August it was announced that within the next few days 1,000 Saudi airstrikes are expected to hit Houthi bases in Sana’a. The Hodeida seaport was completely bombed on the night of 18 May, as a part of the Saudi-led airstrikes, destroying all five cranes and the container terminal leaving it unable to receive food, fuel or medicines. United Nations aid chief Stephen O’Brien condemned the attacks saying: “These attacks are in clear contravention of international humanitarian law and are unacceptable.”

Civilians continue to bear the burden of this cause and as each day passes, if they are not killed as a result of the airstrikes, shelling or a street fight, they have to fight to live as the infrastructure that carries their lifelines is destroyed.

Politically speaking, it also shows that there is little hope for northern Yemen to recover from the damage that has been inflicted on it. Although Aden has the geographical potential to be the hub of Yemen’s reconstruction, the reality is the war will only get more violent and the breath-taking skylines of Sana’a which were once associated with Yemen may soon crumble before our eyes. Speaking during a visit to Yemen, Peter Maurer, head of the International Red Cross, said: “Yemen after five months looks like Syria after five years.”

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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