Marib is symbolic of the fight to free Yemen
Marib province, on the edge of the desert east of Yemen’s capital, might not seem to be the inevitable route to drive the Houthi-led rebels from Sanaa. But it is essential to the goal of the coalition of Gulf States and Yemeni forces loyal to president Abdrabu Mansur Hadi to restore the internationally recognised government.
Marib is strategically important. A predominantly Sunni region, it has successfully repelled the rebels’ attempts to take control of the oil- and gas-rich province. By the estimate of two of the tribal leaders in Marib, there is an 8,000-strong force of Yemeni fighters and tribal militia members.
In that sense, the fight for Marib is a microcosm of the fight for Yemen as a whole, with all the complexities at play. It is far too reductionist to see what is occurring in Yemen as being a case of the Houthis versus the rest. The Iran-supported Houthis have been fighting alongside elements of Yemen’s military that remain loyal to ousted president Ali Abdullah Saleh.
The groups opposing them within Yemen, assisted by the UAE and other Gulf military forces as part of the Saudi-led Operation Restoring Hope, also reflect a broad range of alliances. In Marib, for example, only one of the five main tribes was supportive of the Zaidi Shiite Houthis and many of the tribes in Marib and the neighbouring Al Jawf and Shabwa provinces remain loyal to Saudi Arabia, which has offered them financial support for many years. Opposition to the Houthi-led rebels is a unifying factor among groups whose alliances are variously to the Hadi government, Saudi Arabia and the Islah Party, a religiously conservative political group.
Despite this complex network of alliances, Marib province is the base from which the liberation of Sanaa will be launched. This explains the significance of this part of Yemen and why the coalition forces had a major base at Safer airport, about 50km east of Marib. This included the stockpile of munitions that was attacked by rebels on Friday with devastating consequences.
Marib’s steadfast opposition to the rebel groups stands as an example for how Yemen will be won back. After the first phase of securing Aden, Marib is a key part of the second phase of liberating Sanaa – a major step towards the goal of reinstating the country’s legitimate government.