Wednesday,18 October, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1233, (12 - 18 February 2015)
Wednesday,18 October, 2017
Issue 1233, (12 - 18 February 2015)

Ahram Weekly

March on Maarib

Houthi forces in Yemen put ousted president Abd Rabbuh Mansour Hadi under house arrest this week before advancing on the oil-rich Maarib province,
writes Gamal Nkrumah

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Al-Ahram Weekly

The Houthi insurgency, also called Ansar Allah, is now an integral part of the Yemeni political scene. Following the resignation of first Prime Minister Khaled Bahah and then President Abd Rabbuh Mansour Hadi earlier this month, Houthi forces imprisoned the former president in the presidential palace in the capital Sanaa. They are now set to take control of the rest of Yemen.

However, their recent successes have been beset by setbacks. When a spokesman for the Houthis delivered a “constitutional declaration” earlier this week, pandemonium spread to various regions of Yemen, where the majority of the population is averse to the Houthi policy of rule by force of arms.

Yet the Houthis are still pressing to take control of the wealthiest province in Yemen, Maarib, the capital of which, Maarib City, was the ancient capital of the legendary Sabaean kingdom. In ancient times, Maarib was the site of sophisticated irrigation works constructed by the ancient Sabaeans and home to the beautiful Bilquis, the legendary Queen of Sheba.

Contemporary Maarib tells a different story, however. While in antiquity Maarib was a fabled land of frankincense and myrrh, today the province is better known as the capital of Al-Qaeda in Yemen.

What makes Maarib particularly important economically is the fact that it is the most significant producer of petroleum and natural gas in Yemen, producing 75 per cent of the country’s hydrocarbons.

Earlier this week, drone strikes by the United States on Hadramaut killed four Al-Qaeda insurgents and wounded scores. US President Barack Obama vowed to continue the assault on Al-Qaeda.

Harith Al-Nadhari, the infamous Yemeni Al-Qaeda leader, threatened to strike French targets in retaliation for the publication of cartoons considered blasphemous to Muslims by the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo.

If the Houthis manage to conquer Maarib, just as they have overrun the capital Sanaa, their home province of Saada in the north of the country and the neighbouring Amran province, they will be in a position to control the country’s economy.

The Houthis have also occupied Hodeida, Yemen’s second most important port on the Red Sea.

But the Houthis have not yet managed to consolidate their authority over the entire country, or even in the provinces they control. They face a popular uprising in Sanaa and Hodeida, and powerful tribal confederations and clans affiliated to Al-Qaeda stand in their way in the southern and central provinces, in particular in Taiz in central Yemen, traditionally the home of the country’s educated elite.

In short, the Houthis and their leader, Abdel-Malik Al-Houthi, may already have reached their apogee. This is the case even as the Houthis celebrate their recent victories, knowing that these may not be reproduced in the southern and eastern provinces of Aden, former capital and chief port of what was once South Yemen, the now defunct People’s Democratic Republic, and Hadramout, bordering Saudi Arabia, the second-largest oil producer after Maarib.

Ibb, another of Yemen’s most populous provinces, along with Taiz in the heart of the country’s most fertile region, is virulently antipathetic to the Houthis, seeing them as the puppets of their main backer Iran, the main Shia power in the region.

The Houthis boast that Tehran now controls four Arab capitals — Baghdad, Damascus, Beirut and now Sanaa. The strategy of the Houthis is modelled on that of Lebanon’s Hizbullah, another Shia movement loyal to Iran, this time in Lebanon. However, whether the Houthis can reproduce Hizbullah’s long-term success is debatable.

It is not known whether the Houthis can emulate Hizbullah and act as a virtual state within the state. Sunni Muslim tribal resistance to the Houthis, belonging to the Zayidi sect of Shia Islam, is fierce in otherwise Sunni Yemen.

The Houthis are seen as fighting a war by proxy on behalf of Iran, and Saudi Arabia and other oil-rich Gulf Arab states are unlikely to permit a replay of the Lebanese political scenario on the Arabian Peninsula.

Earlier, the Houthis dissolved the Yemeni parliament, replacing it with a 551-member Transitional National Council, the members of which are appointed by Houthi Revolutionary Committees. Students at Sanaa and Taiz Universities came out in protest this week at what they described as a Houthi coup d’état.

For the time being, the council is little more than a toothless rubber stamp that lacks credibility and has been boycotted by the Yemeni tribes, the Muslim Brotherhood and other parties hostile to the Houthis.

The council’s proposed appointment of a five-member presidential council is considered, by their political rivals, simply a further antic on the part of the Houthis. But the Houthis now have a crucial voice in determining the political future of Yemen.

This was seen not only in this week’s events, but also earlier this year when on 17 January the Houthis kidnapped Ahmad Awadh bin Mubarak, director of Hadi’s presidential office, with few forces mustering the courage to defy the move.

The party of the country’s ex-president, Ali Abdallah Saleh, the General People’s Congress (GPC), has tacitly aligned itself to the Houthis, even though Saleh himself, like his party, is Sunni.

Two staff members of the Islah Party-affiliated TV channel Suhail were also kidnapped on 3 February. Since Islah is affiliated with the Sunni Yemen Muslim Brotherhood, this bodes ill for confessional relations in the country.

The Nobel Peace Prize laureate Tawakhol Karman summed up the Houthi intrigues in Yemen as “null and void.”

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