Marib: Yemen govt's last northern stronghold

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MARIB, Yemen — Yemen’s Iran-backed Houthi rebels have for over a year set their sights on seizing Marib, the capital of an oil-rich region, with the aim of controlling the country’s entire north.اضافة اعلان

After a period of relative calm, the Houthis launched a fierce offensive in February to take the city from the government, which is backed by a Saudi-led military coalition. 

Here are some key facts about the strategic city and surrounding province of the same name, as deadly clashes rage:

Military prize

Marib is the last northern bastion of the internationally recognized government, which after being pushed out of the capital Sanaa at the start of the conflict is now based in the southern city of Aden.

Loyalist military officials said on Saturday that 53 pro-government and Houthi rebel fighters were killed in clashes to the city’s northwest in the past 24 hours.

If it falls into rebel hands, not only would the Houthis control all the north, but it could also facilitate the capture of other provinces. 

Marib has “significant military weight” for the government, said Ahmed Nagi of the Malcolm H. Kerr Carnegie Middle East Center.

“It carries the symbolic course of the conflict, with it being the area the Houthis have not been able to seize despite relentless efforts over the past six years, even before the intervention of the Saudi-led coalition” from 2015, he told AFP.

Observers say the Houthis are intent on capturing Marib in order to gain leverage before entering into any negotiations with the government, amid a US push to revive peace talks.

Array of forces

Arrayed against the Houthis are pro-government forces who include local tribes, backed by the Saudi-led coalition and its airpower that has until now fended off the rebel advance.

“The coalition stands by the national army by providing air and logistical support,” Marib Governor Sultan Al-Arada told reporters in a briefing on March 8.

“If it were not for air support, the situation could have been different.” 

The Houthis, meanwhile, consider Marib “one of the main frontlines of the aggressors’ war on Yemen”. 

They claim it is “an arena for occupying foreign forces and a bowl swarming with dark forces and organizations from Al-Qaeda, Daesh, and the Muslim Brotherhood”.

Arada denied the allegations, saying it’s “funny when terrorists accuse us of terrorism”.

According to Nagi, fighters of the Muslim Brotherhood-influenced Al-Islah party were a strong presence on the battlefield.

“Al-Islah is present in most provinces in the country, but many of its members fled to Marib since it is a safer region and they fight within the ranks of the government army and the tribes,” he said.

North-south gateway

Marib lies only about 120 kilometers east of the rebel-held capital Sanaa, connected via a major highway.

It also lies near another highway that leads to the south of Saudi Arabia. It’s location is significant not only because of its proximity to Sanaa but also because it sits at a crossroads between the southern and northern regions.

The city has several historical sites, and is surrounded by mountains and valleys. It is said to have once been the capital of the Saba kingdom, best known for the Queen of Sheba.

Safe haven

Marib had between 20,000 and 30,000 inhabitants before the war. But its population has ballooned to hundreds of thousands, as Yemenis fled frontline cities for its “relative stability” and the chance to maintain a livelihood, according to Nagi.

The government says there are 139 camps in Marib province, hosting approximately 2.2 million people, but these displaced civilians are now again caught in the line of fire.

The United Nations has warned that civilians are at grave risk due to the military escalation, which has forced many to flee towards new displacement sites as fighting nears.

Energy wealth

Marib province boasts oil and gas reserves, meaning that control brings major economic benefits.
The Safer refinery, established in 1986, is one of two oil refineries in Yemen with the capacity to produce 10,000 barrels per day at the time, according to Yemen’s ministry of oil and minerals.

In a 2019 report, the ministry said production had reached 20,000 barrels per day. 

Arada said production has so far not been affected and that Marib supplies gas to the entire country, even areas under rebel control. 

Nagi said there was an “economic dimension” to the battle.

“The Houthis are aggressively fighting to control the resources of Marib,” he said.