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Yemen: Tribes in Mareb raise alarm over Houthis’ advance

The Houthis are eyeing the restive central province’s oil reserves but local Sunni tribesmen have vowed to take up arms and defend it
A Yemeni gunmen loyal to the Shiite Houthi movement mans a checkpoint in Sanaa on October 30, 2014 (AFP)

AL-MUKALLA: Tribal leaders in Yemen’s central province of Mareb have been meeting on a near-daily basis to work out how to curb an imminent Houthi advance into their territories. In their eighth meeting last Friday, leaders of the tribes agreed to put their fingers on the trigger, sending a letter to President Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi, urging him to intervene and threatening to take the law into their own hands if he does not.

Yemen’s Houthi rebels, also known as “Ansarallah,” have radically altered the political landscape in the impoverished country since they seized parts of the capital Sana’a on 21 September and fanned out across northern Yemen.

Since then, the rebels have entered five provinces (Dhamar, Saada, Ibb, Hajja and Amran) in many facing stiff resistance and losing hundreds of fighters in fierce clashes with both al-Qaeda militants and Sunni tribesman. In Taiz province, the Houthis have set up so-called “popular committees” to help administer state programmes with the local government.  

In the letter to Hadi, the alliance of tribes in Mareb who began to meet as the Houthi campaign spread, called on the president to convince the Houthis to retreat from their province.

Hadi responded, maintaining that Mareb’s governor and the army units he has stationed there are responsible for safeguarding the province.

But instead of assuring the tribes, Hadi’s response has only served to heighten apprehensions. Tribal leaders who spoke to Middle East Eye said they are worried that the loyalties of the army regiment with which Hadi has entrusted their province could flip as they have in other provinces.

“Entrusting the security forces to confront the Houthis means facing the fate of the capital and other provinces when soldiers handed over areas to the Houthis,” said Ali Hussein Ghouraib, a leader encouraging other tribal members to fight the Houthis.

The tribes are demanding that the military take part in any future actions against the Houthis, alongside their members, which will ensure, they said, that soldiers will not shift their allegiances. Ghouraib said the tribes are running out of patience waiting for military support and have already deployed heavily-armed men on the edges of the province.

Excuses

Toppling one province after another, the ostensible reason offered by the Houthis for their offensive is that they are fighting al-Qaeda militants, protecting Shiite minorities and restoring security and stability to the country.

The Houthis say they have taken over provinces to protect the province’s oil and electricity facilities from frequent attacks by tribesmen. “The rebels cannot stand idle while oil and electricity grids are attacked,” read a recent Houthi statement.

Al-Qaeda militants have long sought refuge in Mareb where lawlessness and the power of local tribes has prevented the central government from asserting full control.

Though locals do not deny the presence of al-Qaeda militants and the threat they pose, they say the state should be tasked with fighting al-Qaeda, not the Houthis.

But a government official told MEE that the Houthis have another, so far undisclosed reason for approaching Mareb. “The Houthis have told the tribes in Mareb not to intercept them when they advance to Hadramout province,” the official said. Hadramout, which neighbours Marib, is Yemen’s largest province and home to much of the country’s oil and gas reserves.

Difficult mission  

Analysts and local residents in Mareb argue that the Houthis’ foray into Mareb could be costly and difficult. In the neighbouring Bayda province, despite driving militants out of their stronghold, the Houthis have not been able to defeat al-Qaeda and allied tribesmen. Car bombs, suicide attacks and ambushes have claimed the lives of hundreds of Houthis there in the last couple of weeks. 

Mohammed al-Salihi, the editor of Marebpress.net, a news website in Mareb, told MEE that the Houthis would not bring the tribesmen to their knees as they are experienced combatants regularly engaged in battle with each other and government forces.

“The tribal norms deem the Houthis as outsiders who seek to invade their territories,” al-Salihi said. Religious affiliation of Mareb residents is also driving them into opposing the Shiite Muslim Houthis “Nearly 90 percent of the population is Sunni,” he said.

Repercussions 

The consequences of a prolonged battled in Mareb could be disastrous. Mareb Power Gas Station, according to the government official, feeds nine provinces with electricity and most of locally consumed cooking gas is produced in Mareb. Also, oil fields in the province produce thousands of barrels every day.

The Yemeni government has been unable to stop local armed men in Mareb who have attacked the province’s vital facilities, blowing up oil and gas pipelines and attacking power towers for years in order to demand the release of incarcerated relatives in the capital.

Last year, president Hadi said that power cuts caused in some instances by attack on facilities in Marib had led to the death of premature babies and patients in intensive care units. Yemen even publicised the names of the attackers, banned them from leaving the country and designated them as “terrorists.” Yet the heavy military and security forces presence have failed to prevent the attacks in Mareb which have cost the state hundreds of millions of dollars and plunged the country into near-daily blackouts.

In early November, Mohammed al-Bikhiti, a spokesperson for the Houthi movement, told Al-Jazeera that if the government couldn’t protect power towers and oil pipelines in Mareb province, the Houthis would. Houthi media said that their popular committees have already stationed themselves on the outskirts of Mareb city and would push forward to protect the pipelines.

Ghouraib, the tribal leader, responded: “Government is responsible for protecting oil pipelines, not the Houthis. Houthis incursions will trigger revenge between tribes that back and oppose them.”

Province officials and tribal leaders have advised the government and the Houthis to keep the province calm since violence could cause “disastrous” repercussions that will affect every corner the country.

“If the politicians are rational,” said a government official, “they should keep the province away from the conflict as many people all over the country will be affected any eruption of violence in the province.”