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Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 15 December 2018

Yemen city fights to resurrect itself after Al Qaeda defeat

Arab coalition hands over management of ports and security in Mukalla to Yemeni coastguard

Yemeni pro-government forces on patrol near Mukalla airport, southwestern Yemen. AFP
Yemeni pro-government forces on patrol near Mukalla airport, southwestern Yemen. AFP

In azure waters off Yemen, new coastguards stormed a fishing boat in a mock exercise which is part of a war-torn city's struggle to rebuild its institutions two years after Al Qaeda's removal.

In a nation torn apart by conflict, the former extremist bastion of Mukalla stands out as an oasis of stability, offering what many call a blueprint for postwar Yemen.

Last week, on a beach littered with rusted Soviet-era tanks, dozens of Yemeni officers took charge of securing the 350-kilometre coast of southern Hadramawt province, which is infested with drug gangs and weapons smugglers.

The handover in Mukalla included the management of local ports, with a Saudi-led military coalition giving maritime equipment and surveillance boats to the new coastguard trained by Saudi, Emirati and American officials.

"The real answer to the humanitarian crisis [in Yemen] lies in bringing about an end to the conflict in a way that will restore the institutions of the state," said Matthew Tueller, the US ambassador to Yemen.

"We cannot afford to see Yemen continue in this failed-state status," he told the ceremony, which was also attended by Saudi envoy Mohammed Al Jaber.

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Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, regarded by the US as the militant network's most dangerous franchise, was expelled from Mukalla in April 2016.

It was a rare success for coalition-backed Yemeni forces which are locked in a bloody stalemate with Iran-aligned Houthi rebels.

Militants who stoned women adulterers and enforced an austere vision of Islam no longer roam Mukalla's corniche, and its squares no longer serve as venues for public executions.

But officials concede that the conditions that facilitated the militants' takeover of the poverty-stricken city of nearly 500,000 – mainly a lack of services and governance – persist.

Alongside fishermen in colourful sarongs, Mukalla's streets host beggars scavenging through overflowing rubbish bins while raw sewage flows in open drains.

Neighbourhoods bear the scars of war, including bombed houses. Joblessness is high, and despite Hadramawt being rich in oil, Mukalla is hit by frequent power cuts and fuel shortages.

"In Mukalla, the security is good, services are bad," said resident and former transport minister Badr Basalmah.

Aqap sleeper cells still lurk in the city, but Hadramawt governor Faraj Al Bahsani says they do not pose a major threat.

"There is peace in Mukalla but it's fragile," said Elisabeth Kendall, a Yemen scholar at Oxford University.

"Militant groups are no longer strong and have mainly gone to ground, but that does not mean they won't resurge as they attract disillusioned youths who lack opportunities."

Lasting stability depends on reconstruction and development, but Yemen is reeling from an economic meltdown led by a collapsing currency, leaving many out of work and unable to afford even basic food staples.

The local government is struggling to pay wages and banking heavily on the UAE and Saudi Arabia for financial support.

The regional airport remains closed to commercial traffic, further stifling business.

Aqap militants – the target of a long-running US drone war – swept into Mukalla virtually unopposed in 2015 while the Saudi-led coalition was focused on targeting the Houthi rebels.

The militants were feared, but many residents said they sought to offer basic services such as clean water, electricity and fuel, while repairing sewer lines and paying salaries on time – something seen as an anomaly in Yemen.

The extremists retreated to the province's mountainous interiors just as swiftly as they took over the city after looting up to 270 billion riyals ($100 million) from Mukalla's banks, Yemeni officials said.

Governor Bahsani said the authorities recovered Aqap documents which revealed their military strategy, their sources of revenue and details of arms caches.

He said the documents were handed over to the Emirati authorities who backed the main Yemeni offensive to retake the city.

"Al Qaeda's grip on this place was benefiting Houthis," said Gen Abdullah Abu Hatem, from the Yemeni border guard.

Though two separate groups, they both benefited from Yemen's war economy. The porous Hadramawt coastline controlled by Aqap was a route for weapons which often ended up in Houthi areas, Gen Hatem said.

After their removal, Mukalla is experimenting with a ban on civilians carrying gun – something unique in a country with a long tradition of carrying firearms.

In a first for Yemen, those entering Mukalla are required to hand over their weapons at one of several checkpoints, some of which are controlled by women, Governor Bahsani said, calling the move "very successful".