Crisis in Marib: Averting a Chain Reaction in Yemen

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A battle looms for Marib in Yemen’s north, home to some three million people as well as major oil and gas facilities. International actors must stave off a humanitarian disaster, as they did in Hodeida in 2018, and then turn toward brokering a wider settlement.

In early February, the rebel Huthi movement (also known as Ansar Allah) reinvigorated its year-long offensive in Yemen’s northern governorate of Marib, launching an intense assault and making territorial and strategic gains in the province’s west. Huthi forces are now reportedly within 30km of Marib city, the ousted government’s last major northern stronghold, and the capital of a governorate whose original population of 300,000 has been swollen by internally displaced persons to perhaps as many as three million. The Huthis have signalled their clear intent to press on, absent a nationwide truce that halts Saudi airstrikes, allows them to reopen the airport in Yemen’s capital city, Sanaa, and permits them to more easily bring goods through Hodeida, the Red Sea port that they control. If fighting reaches Marib city’s outskirts and nearby oil and gas facilities, there could be displacement on a scale unprecedented in Yemen’s contemporary history. Worse may follow if the Huthis seize Marib and then move to expand their territorial control elsewhere. International actors helped avert a disastrous confrontation in Hodeida in 2018. They must mount a similar effort to broker a nationwide ceasefire and then press for interim political and security arrangements, pending longer-term negotiations over the country’s future.

Humanitarian Disaster

A battle for Marib city could worsen Yemen’s already dire humanitarian situation in several ways. First, an assault on Marib would put the estimated three million civilians living there at risk of death or displacement. The Huthis are likely to push toward the city from the west and target oil and gas production facilities to its east. Fighting would probably cut off most of the main highways connecting Marib with government-controlled territory, leaving only a single paved southbound road available to fleeing civilians. The Huthis may sever that road as well while advancing from positions in the governorate’s south. Assuming that this route remains open, those using it to dash for safety would be in the Huthi forces’ crosshairs and would have to travel through Shebwa governorate to the south east, where humanitarian organisations have only a minimal presence. Aid agencies say they are ill prepared to deal with the rapid movement of hundreds of thousands of people into Shebwa and other governorates controlled by the government of President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi where the newly displaced might seek refuge.

Secondly, such a battle would compound Yemen’s already staggering food crisis. In an 18 February briefing to the UN Security Council, Mark Lowcock, the UN’s humanitarian chief, warned of the “worst famine the world has seen in decades”, reporting that malnutrition rates in Yemen were at record highs, with 400,000 children under the age of five severely malnourished and “in their last weeks and months” of life. This hunger crisis is driven not just by direct conflict but also by growing poverty and rising prices of staples. Marib is a trading hub through which large volumes of food and other basic goods are transported into Huthi-held areas; prolonged fighting there would disrupt this essential lifeline.

Thirdly, Marib is also a small but important source of fuel, which is often in short supply in Yemen. If Marib falls, government officials say, they will pre-emptively destroy state-owned oil and gas production and processing facilities there to prevent the Huthis from taking them. The ripple effects could be significant. A refinery at these facilities accounts for almost all domestic fuel production, supplying around 8 per cent of the country’s gasoline, diesel and other forms of fuel (Yemen imports about 90 per cent of its fuel) and almost 90 per cent of its liquefied petroleum gas, an essential source of energy in most Yemeni households. The cost of oil and gas has already shot up over the course of the war due to currency fluctuations and supply interruptions, in turn raising the price of basic goods like potable water (which most Yemenis must pay for, due to its scarcity, and which is extracted from below ground mainly using diesel pumps) and food (which is trucked across the country). If the Marib facilities are disabled or destroyed in fighting, the prices of fuel and LPG, and thus food and water, can only keep going up.

The resulting fuel shortages will be even more keenly felt because of continued barriers imposed on imports to the Huthi-held port of Hodeida by the Hadi government and the Saudi-led coalition that controls Yemen’s airspace and waterways. As part of a dispute over the Huthis’ use of revenues collected at Hodeida and wider government efforts to exert control over import flows, fuel imports through Hodeida have been significantly delayed in recent months.

Chain Reaction

Not only would a battle for Marib likely be lengthy and destructive, but it would also increase the risk of violence spreading or intensifying elsewhere in Yemen. Already, Tareq Saleh, the commander of anti-Huthi forces on Yemen’s Red Sea coast, has called on the Hadi government to withdraw from the UN-brokered 2018 Stockholm Agreement, which put an end to fighting around Hodeida. Saleh wants to prosecute the war on all major fronts, so as to stretch the Huthis more thinly. Such a move would divide the attention of international actors, who would have to work to hold together the ceasefire in Hodeida as they try to wrestle with the crisis in Marib. The renewed fighting around Hodeida would magnify Yemen’s humanitarian calamity still further.

Moreover, if the Huthis prevail in Marib, they are likely to pursue broader territorial gains, perhaps in Shebwa, to which pro-government forces are most likely to withdraw. Yet in trying to control Marib and expand into adjacent tribal territories where residents are strongly opposed to their presence, the Huthis are also likely to find themselves battling several local insurgencies.

The influx of pro-government forces into Shebwa would also likely trigger tensions between local allies of President Hadi and the pro-independence Southern Transitional Council (STC). Already controlling the southern governorates of Lahj, al-Dhale and Aden, the STC aspires to expand its reach across the territories of the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen: between 1967 and 1990, this independent state encompassed Shebwa as well as government-held Abyan, which sits between Shebwa and STC-controlled Aden. Some STC leaders even see cutting a deal with the Huthis that would enhance prospects for renewed southern independence – a move that would spell disaster for Hadi – as preferable to staying in the uneasy unity government they formed with the president in December 2020. Such sentiment would likely grow were the government to fall in Marib and seek to shore up its position in the south.

Ceasefire Challenge

Until recently, Saudi and Yemeni officials had been hopeful that they might turn the war’s tide in their favour by convincing the U.S. to step up its military, logistical and diplomatic backing. But increased military intervention by the U.S. or other outside powers was unlikely even under the Trump administration, given views of the Yemen war among both Democrats and Republicans in Congress and given U.S. assessments of the manpower and military resources that would be required to win it.

In his first weeks in office, President Joe Biden has made it clear that such support is out of the question for his administration. In early February, he announced a complete halt to offensive support for the war and a temporary freeze of arms sales to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, the Saudis’ chief partner in the coalition that formed in 2015 to back Hadi. U.S. Secretary of State Tony Blinken rescinded the designation of the Huthis as a terrorist group, which the Trump administration had announced in its dying days, citing the listing’s expected humanitarian harm.