A city like Marib

Rising above the Yemen conflict

With the Yemen conflict now in its fourth year, Ahmed Nagi, a Yemeni scholar visited the city of Marib and found that, against all odds, people are using their resilience and ingenuity to survive the devastation of war

In April 2019, I went back to Yemen, my homeland, to witness first-hand how the ongoing war is affecting local communities. Upon reaching my first destination, the city of Marib, I was taken aback by the scale of change. The marginalised tribal area I once knew has become an epicentre in North Yemen.

Unlike its neighbours in the north, Marib has been able to fend off constant Houthi rebel attacks, making it a refuge for thousands of internally displaced Yemenis. In just four years, its population has increased fifty-fold, transforming Marib into a large, bustling city run by a Saudi-backed government, tribal leaders, political elites and the military. It hangs on as a stable exception in Yemen. But from what I saw and heard, the relative peace is fragile.

Crowding in Marib has led to new neighbourhoods that resemble small cities in their own right (photo: Ahmed Nagi)
A stable exception: unlike its neighbours, Marib has been able to fend off constant Houthi rebel attacks, making it a refuge for thousands of internally displaced Yemenis. In just four years, its population has increased fifty-fold, transforming Marib into a large, bustling city run by a Saudi-backed government, tribal leaders, political elites and the military. Yet the relative peace is fragile

Protected from the worst ravages of war

Marib was brought into the spotlight of the conflict in January 2015, after the Houthis took over Yemen’s capital, Sanaa, about 170 kilometres away. By this point, almost all other cities in the country’s northern region were under Houthi control. Many people consequently fled to Marib, where local tribes were standing strong against the rebels’ expansion.

Despite being outnumbered and less equipped, the tribal fighters were able to resist the Houthis for several weeks and prevented their advancement on multiple fronts. This was largely due to the tribal leaders’ defence strategy that contained the fight in the mountains instead of turning the populated areas into battlefields.

A checkpoint leading into the city. The large billboards remember those killed while fighting the Houthis (photo: Ahmed Nagi)
A martyrʹs fate: billboards at a checkpoint leading into Marib honour those who lost their lives fighting the Houthis. Despite being outnumbered and less equipped, the tribal fighters were able to resist the Houthis for several weeks and prevented their advancement on multiple fronts – partly owing to the tribal leaders’ defence strategy of containing the fight in the mountains

In March 2015, the Saudi-led coalition began providing military and security support to Marib, solidifying the area as a resistance hub and helping to take back many nearby districts from the Houthis’ grip. Given ongoing skirmishes, the Saudis continue to provide the governorate’s authorities with weapons, training, funding and assistance for the security sector.

Meanwhile, people who oppose the Houthis or have been harmed by Houthi policies continue to flock to the area. They speak of arbitrary arrests against supporters of President Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi or the Islah Party and extra taxes on merchants. For them, Marib offers a stable environment, thanks to its relatively unified local governance.

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