The whole of Yemen has been affected over the past nine months, either by war or natural disasters. What, though, are the key strategic areas of Yemen and why are they so significant? The following is a brief guide:
Previously the capital of North Yemen, after the unification of the country in 1990, Sana’a was named as the capital of the state. At the moment, Aden has been named as the temporary capital of Yemen for the duration of hostilities; until the government is able to go back to Sana’a. A government move to Sana’a post-conflict will symbolise the stabilisation and normalisation of Yemen.
This city plays a key role in the current conflict, as it is from where the Houthis orchestrated their coup in September 2014. After the Houthis took over Sana’a, they were able to take over other parts of Yemen, including the southern city of Aden; defeating them in Sana’a is imperative as it will defeat their core support.
Sana’a is also the home province of ex-President Ali Abdullah Saleh and where he is still relatively popular. Because of this, if he loses in his home province, it would symbolise him and the forces loyal to him being beaten all over the country.
Since March 2015, Sana’a has been subject to air strikes by the Saudi-led coalition; this has had a serious impact on the civilian population. The air strikes have diminished recently, due to the coalition arming and training local resistance fighters. For them to reach the heartland of Sana’a via its neighbouring province Mareb has proven to be incredibly challenging because of the mountains surrounding the city.
This is the heartland of the Houthi movement and has been its victim since it first surfaced in 2004. Ali Abdullah Saleh fought six wars with the Houthis before forming a tactical alliance with them post-Arab Spring in a bid to recapture political control of Yemen via a coup. In 2009, Saleh requested Saudi Arabia’s military assistance, which then led to Operation Scorched Earth to fight a 6-month war against the Houthis. The exact civilian death toll of the operation is unknown, but it was the cause of an internal refugee crisis.
The Houthis themselves have caused damage in Sa’ada and have taken military action against anyone who disagrees with their tribal hegemony. One of the more brutal examples of this occurred in 2011 when they imposed a siege on the village of Dammaj, in a part of the province that is known for its Salafi population. In October, the Houthis closed all entrances to the village and besieged it, shelling it constantly in violent clashes with the Salafis. The siege and violence led to the killing of dozens of schoolchildren. It is important to note that this happened during the Arab Spring when the Houthis were demanding a corruption-free political system in Yemen.
What used to be the capital city of South Yemen remains a very strategic part of a united Yemen. In August, Aden was named as the temporary capital, although ex-Aden governor Nayef Al-Bakri at the time said that this was in a bid for a permanent change as part of a five-year transition plan. For now, it is unclear what the future of Aden as a capital city will be. Depending on the resolution to the Yemen question, it may even return to be the capital of South Yemen if another split occurs.
Aden was captured by the Houthis soon after they reached its neighbouring province Lahj at the end of March and was liberated by the southern sectionalist group Hirak, which was trained, armed and mobilised by the UAE. Since then, Aden has been insecure due to there being no filling of the security vacuum left by the Houthis. The Yemeni government lacks any incentive to secure Aden against post-conflict instability.
The Gulf of Aden is very strategic to the wider regional power struggle between Saudi Arabia and Iran, as whoever has the most influence in the Gulf has a naval advantage. There has been much concern expressed on the Saudi front because Iran has attempted to ship arms to the Houthis in Yemen via the Gulf of Aden; its security is, therefore, very important.
Taiz has a long history and volatile relations with ex-President Saleh. From the earliest days of his presidency, Taiz was a sensitive subject to Saleh and the focus of some degree of paranoia. Taiz is also where the 2011 Yemeni revolution began and is the prime reason behind Saleh’s downfall. Hence, it is being punished ruthlessly.
There is currently a siege on Taiz imposed by Houthi and Saleh forces which is killing civilians. Hospitals are shelled routinely, activists are held hostage and children are being kidnapped and forced to fight against their own families. One activist in particular, who was abducted on 5 August, is especially symbolic; English-speaker Dr Abdulkader Al-Guneid was one of the most vocal of those in Taiz. His kidnapping was a deliberate attempt to keep the world in the dark about Houthi-Saleh crimes against Taiz and its people, although this has backfired with the onset of a widespread campaign to raise awareness about Al-Guneid and other activists under the hashtag #FreeGuneid. He remains in captivity as I write.
The fact that Taiz is known to be a Muslim Brotherhood stronghold has politicised its liberation; it has the potential to become a political quagmire amongst the Gulf Cooperation Council member states.
By comparison, the capital city of Yemen’s largest province Hadhramout has been largely unaffected by the Houthi movement, although it does have significance as one of the cities that have been taken over by Al-Qaeda. When looking at the elimination of the threat from Al-Qaeda, Al-Mukalla is key; it is important to engage with the tribes who are fighting against the extremist group.
The fact that Al-Mukalla is also one of the main sea ports in Hadhramout only increases its importance for security during wartime, and its economic contribution to the country in peacetime. The post-war future of Al-Mukalla, like Aden, is largely dependent on the unity of the country, as there is a consensus amongst its tribes for Hadhramout either to become a nation state in its own right or to be annexed by Saudi Arabia. For now, though, such sentiments are unrealistic, albeit being expressed loudly; they will most likely be put to the test if the re-emergence of a North/South division of Yemen materialises.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.