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Why have the Houthis failed to seize Yemen’s Marib province?

The Houthi militia in Yemen has been aware of the strategic weight of the oil rich Marib province, but they have faced insurmountable challenges in the course of their unsuccessful attempts to take it over.
Supporters of Houthis participate in march on the occasion of the fifth anniversary of Houthis' control of the Yemeni capital Sanaa, on 21, 2019. [Mohammed Hamoud - Anadolu Agency]
Houthis mark the the fifth anniversary of their control of the Yemeni capital Sanaa, on 21 September 2019 [Mohammed Hamoud/Anadolu Agency]

Marib has thrived over the last five years and enjoyed relative peace as thousands of displaced persons from Sanaa, Al-Jawf, and other provinces have flocked to the city. It has been analogous to an oasis surrounded by landmines.

Located about 170 kilometers away from Houthi-controlled Sanaa, Marib has repelled the Houthi group who has pushed their fighters towards the city relentlessly. It is a life and death battle for both sides. Marib has been a source of concern for the Houthis as they have zero influence on its leadership or people. Any ground advance they have made is in peril, and any gains they score could turn into a loss given the stiff resistance the entire province has put up.

The ongoing battle is not the Houthis’ first bid to bring Marib to its knees. In 2015, tribesmen in the province engaged in fierce clashes with the Houthis and succeeded in pushing them back. Taking over Marib has been a Houthi dream that has not come true so far, and it does not appear it will be achieved. Today, the province is the last stronghold of the UN-recognised Yemeni government in the north. Should it fall to the Houthis, it would mean the government presence is eliminated from North Yemen except for some districts in Taiz.

The Houthis want to bring the province under their rule because it is the richest one in Yemen’s north with significant fuel resources.

Since the start of the year, the Houthis have gained ground in the Nehm district of Sanaa and Al-Jawf province which are adjacent to Marib. The collapse of the government forces in April had emboldened the Houthis to eye a military win in Marib. They want to bring the province under their rule because it is the richest one in Yemen’s north with significant fuel resources, namely gas and oil. Furthermore, the province has a strategic location. It is at a crossroad between Al-Beidha, Al-Jawf, Sanaa, Shabwa, and Saudi Arabia.

READ: Over 100,000 Yemenis have been displaced since beginning of 2020

The Houthis have been aware of the strategic weight of this province, but they have faced insurmountable challenges in the course of their multiple foiled attempts to take it over. This has happened for a variety of reasons.

First, Marib is a tribal society and it is not easy to subjugate its people by force. They tend to fight to the last man. The only possible way to earn their support is by building good connections with their leading tribal figures. Unlike other provinces in North Yemen, people in Marib have felt a collective responsibility to fend off Houthi incursions. And such a sense of responsibility has played a strategic role in hindering the Houthi takeover of the province. Marib youth, men, and elderly all could be seen on the frontline along with the government forces. The Marib tribes have not disintegrated and the Houthis have been incapable of buying the allegiance of tribal leaders in the province.

Marib is a tribal society and it is not easy to subjugate its people by force. They tend to fight to the last man.

The fact that the tribes and the Houthis would never come to a common ground can be attributed to their ideological chasms. Marib’s tribesmen identify themselves as Sunni Muslims while the Houthis follow the Shiite doctrine. The Houthis believe they have the divine right to rule over other people, and that is anathema to the Marib tribes who cherish their independence as long as they still have weapons and the ability to fight. It is a wide ideological gap and the Houthis have not been able to win hearts in the province.

Second, Marib did not fall into the partisan rivalry trap when the Houthis took over  Sanaa in September of 2014. The popular uprising had diverted from a peaceful course to a destructive partisan conflict, particularly between the General People’s Congress (GPC) and the Islah Party. The Houthi takeover of Amran and Sanaa provinces and their subsequent expansion to several cities in Yemen would not have happened without the support of the GPC leadership, including Ali Abdulla Saleh, who was eventually executed by the Houthis in 2017 after breaking his alliance with the group.

READ: Houthis warn oil shortage will lead to suspension of internet services in Yemen

The GPC wanted to take revenge against the Islah Party and all political movements that took to the streets, demanding the ouster of Saleh’s regime. It was a ruinous mistake committed by the political parties, thus providing fertile ground for the Houthi rise and expansion across the country. Indeed, the partisan antagonism among the political parties in Yemen in the wake of the 2011 popular uprising had watered the roots of the Houthi movement and strengthened it, eventually bringing gradual death to the state.

The partisan antagonism among the political parties in Yemen in the wake of the 2011 popular uprising had watered the roots of the Houthi movement and strengthened it.

Remarkably, Marib stood uniquely alone and survived the plague of the divisive partisanship that has cost Yemen dearly since 2014. The province has remained staunchly united and its anti-Houthi fighters have acted collectively to prevent any Houthi attempt to advance towards the districts of the province.

Third, the strong leadership of Marib’s governor has been a catalyst for the steadfast resistance of his province since early 2015. Governor Sultan Al-Arada, who was appointed by President Hadi in 2012, has succeeded in winning internal and external support. The tribes, political parties, and state institutions have been united under his leadership. It helps that he also maintains good relations with both Saudi Arabia and the UAE, who together launched a military campaign against the Houthis in 2015. Al-Arada’s statesmanship and his connection to and understanding of the province have all assisted him at a critical time.

READ: Yemen’s Houthis call for committee to investigate Saudi, UAE ‘coalition crimes’

Finally, the province leadership has not solely focused on war efforts, leaving the economy and the public services needed by civilians unaddressed. Instead, Marib has seen a tremendous improvement in its basic service sectors including health, education, electricity, and road infrastructure. At present, the city has been a safe haven for the locals as well as the displaced and its population has jumped from 300,000 to 3 million.

While the Houthi preoccupation with taking over Marib has not vanished, the forces defending the province have been firm and unwavering. Hence, as long as a comprehensive peace agreement is not reached in Yemen, Marib will continue confronting the Houthis’ onslaughts, and their sporadic missiles that hit civilian neighborhoods and military posts will not cease.

In the end, just as Marib played a critical role in paving the way to the victory of Yemen’s 1962 revolution against the imamate rule which the Houthis seek to revive, it can be inferred from history that this province will not easily kowtow to the Houthi leadership.

This article was first published on 21 July 2020 

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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