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How Maarib stands in the way of a Yemen split

Yemen is effectively divided into two in terms of political and military control, although not along the pre-unification borders

Manuel Almeida

Published: Updated:

Among the few achievements of Marxist rule in the former People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen was the control of Qat consumption. Strict laws that banned consumption of the mildly stimulant flower plant were implemented in the southern capital of Aden (where it was only allowed during weekends) and in some of the eastern provinces. This relieved the high pressure that Qat cultivation put on land and water, allowing their use to grow other crops such as wheat, barley and coffee.

Sign of the fragility of the Yemen Socialist Party’s government and of its strategic overdependence of the Soviet Union, the Soviet implosion speeded up the end of the communist experience in south Yemen. It also provided an important push toward north-south unity, with southern leaders accepting its inevitability.

While the Soviet Union was once the powerful patron of the south, today Russia is developing an important role in the north, where the Zaydi revivalist movement Ansarullah (also known as the Houthis) took over the capital Sanaa and most neighboring provinces all the way to the West coast.

Last week, an Ansarullah delegation was in Moscow where they met with Russian MPs. The delegation was seeking Russian recognition of their control in the north in exchange of contracts for Russian companies in Yemen. In particular, according to Russian press, Russia was offered future exploration rights of the oil in Maarib, a province just east of Sanaa which Ansarullah does not control but has been threatening to take over.

Yemen is effectively divided into two in terms of political and military control, although not along the pre-unification borders

Manuel Almeida

Russia seems to be playing more than one card in Yemen. To its traditional support to stability via the political transition process backed by the UN and the Friends of Yemen, the Russians are also making an effort to cultivate ties with Ansarullah’s leadership. The contrast between the Russian disinterest with the fortunes of the separatist movement Al-Hirak (some its leaders were very close to the Soviet Union’s Communist Party) and its interest in Ansarullah is staggering.

This difference of treatment cannot be explained by the Russian support for a stable and united Yemen, or by a belief that Ansarullah can curb the expansion of Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. Ansarullah’s actions and the movement’s overthrow of the government have deepened Yemen’s crisis, made the country’s disintegration likelier, and provided a recruitment tool for Al-Qaeda among local tribes.

GCC and other Arab states as well as Western ones have closed their embassies in Sanaa in response to Ansarullah’s coup, but the Russian and Iranian embassies have remained open, in an indication of Russian-Iranian proximity in another Middle Eastern crisis.

Political and military control

Yemen is effectively divided into two in terms of political and military control, although not along the pre-unification borders. A main reason why it is not breaking into more parts, for the moment at least, is that Ansarullah’s actions have given the struggling President Abd-Mansour Hadi (who withdrew his resignation) a support boost across the country.

Now based in Aden, where the GCC embassies that closed in Sanaa are re-opening, Hadi is trying to put the government back together. He has the backing of most southerners and the majority of Yemen’s Sunni population, which shows how sectarian tensions have also become a threat in Yemen. A southerner himself, Hadi has always supported a united Yemen but the popular pressure to break-away from the northern territory is growing.

In the north, Ansarullah fighters and forces loyal to former President Ali Abdullah Saleh control the territory from Saada on the border with Saudi Arabia down to Ibb governorate that borders the Taizz governorate in the south-western tip, and from Hodeidah in the western coast to parts of Al-Bayda governorate that sits just below the much coveted Maarib.

Ansarullah’s main sponsor has been Tehran and there have been important developments on this front. On March 1, the first direct flight between Sanaa and Tehran of an Iranian airline landed in the Yemeni capital. The day before Ansarullah and Iran signed a memorandum of understanding according to which a number of direct weekly flights (between 14 and 28 weekly flights according to press) will be operated between Sanaa and Tehran.

Within Yemen, Ansarullah’s greatest backers have been the forces loyal to former President Saleh, who is also a Zaydi but has many non-Zaydi followers. There are no guarantees that the honeymoon between the two former foes will last very long.

Ansarullah spokesmen have previously emphasized a commitment to a united Yemen, yet the movement’s constant violation of the terms of any agreement has shattered their credibility. Most likely, Ansarullah’s leadership very much welcomes the possibility of reviving their Zaidy ancestors’ rule in north Yemen.

One of the main obstacles to that is they do not control any of the key oil and gas producing provinces of Shabwah, Hadhramaut and especially Maarib. Maarib is also home to the power plants that supply electricity to Sanaa. Without Maarib, a new northern state would have to rely on extensive external support from Iran, Russia and even China, and maybe even Saleh’s immense funds.

All this makes control of Maarib province, formerly part of the northern Arab Yemen Republic, key to any possible Zaydi secessionist ambitions. However, the governorate seems beyond their reach. The governor, Sultan al-Arada, has organized defences with heavily armed tribal fighters and military units. Al-Qaeda has also stated it will join the fight in Maarib against Ansarullah in case the movement dears to invade.

Maarib is very unlikely to ever accept being part of a northern state controlled by Ansarullah, but it will also opposed the idea of becoming part of a southern state governed from Aden. Considering its strategic importance, this may prove to be one the factors holding Yemen precariously together.


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Manuel Almeida is a writer, researcher and consultant on the Middle East. He holds a PhD in International Relations from the London of Economics and Political Science and was an editor at Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper. He can be reached on @_ManuelAlmeida on Twitter.

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