A refuge for many

As a result, the city’s population has grown from around 40,000 to more than 1.5 million, according to local authorities. While travelling around Marib, I was struck by how diverse its population has become. People from all parts of Yemen have settled in Marib in search of a better life – drawn by its reputation as the safest governorate among non-Houthi-controlled areas and by comparatively more economic opportunities.

Yemeni men chewing khat (a stimulant like coca) at a local barbershop (photo: Ahmed Nagi)
The semblance of normality: Marib still faces some serious challenges. Missiles periodically hit the surrounding area, and military confrontations continue not far from the city centre in the districts of Sirwah and Qaniah. What’s more, it is clear that Marib does not have the infrastructure and public services to support such a large influx of people

Before 2015, Marib’s residents were mostly divided into tribes that worked in agricultural sectors spread out across the governorate. Known for its oil wealth and feats of agricultural engineering, such as the Marib Dam, the area has long held strategic importance in Yemen. Since its oil refinery was built in 1986 by Safer, it has provided a substantial proportion of the country’s domestic oil needs. The rapid increase in population, however, has forced the city to diversify its economy, creating a burgeoning network of businesses.

A city under significant pressure

Nevertheless, Marib is still facing serious challenges. Missiles periodically hit the surrounding area, and military confrontations continue not far from the city centre (for example, in the districts of Sirwah and Qaniah). What’s more, it is clear that Marib does not have the infrastructure and public services to support such a large influx of people.

The daily construction of new buildings has led to massive urban expansion. Entire neighbourhoods have popped up in different parts of the city to accommodate new arrivals. Still, the demand for housing far outweighs the supply. The average rental cost has risen by more than 500 percent over the last four years. Some people I interviewed mentioned that lagging economic conditions have forced them to share simple houses and apartments with as many as five other families.

Adding to the pressure, Marib has become a transit hub for African migrants who cross the Gulf of Aden from Somalia. While waiting to be smuggled into wealthier countries, such as Saudi Arabia, the migrants try to find any daily work they can to meet their basic needs. When night comes, they sleep either on the streets or at mosques. Tribal traditions oblige residents to offer food and shelter to strangers but, surprisingly, none of the Yemenis I spoke to sounded resentful. Still, there is little integration or interaction between the two communities. Given the language barrier, migrants mainly communicate using hand gestures, often pointing to their mouths to indicate hunger.

African migrants sleeping in a small room at a mosque entrance (photo: Ahmed Nagi)
Transit hub for African migrants: while waiting to be smuggled into wealthier countries, such as Saudi Arabia, the migrants try to find any daily work they can to meet their basic needs. When night comes, they sleep either on the streets or at mosques. Tribal traditions oblige residents to offer food and shelter to strangers but, surprisingly, none of the Yemenis I spoke to sounded resentful

Being close to the only open border crossing with Saudi Arabia, the city has also become a rest stop for other travellers. Consequently, Marib stays alive late into the night. Some shops and restaurants keep long hours to serve the constant flow of customers. According to one restaurant owner, before 2015, most restaurants used to only serve lunch, but now they are open day and night.

African migrants playing pool in a games and Internet cafe (photo: Ahmed Nagis)
Migrants and locals live lives apart: given the language barrier, African migrants mainly communicate using hand gestures, often pointing to their mouths to indicate hunger

Entrepreneurship is thriving, but business feels fragile

Thousands of small and medium-sized businesses have opened in Marib since 2015, but most are operating in shoddy buildings. Businessmen do not want to waste time on construction work or spend a lot of money on fixed assets. They still feel unsafe, citing the possibility of inbound missiles.

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