We will never kneel: the struggle of Yemen’s tribal volunteers

Inside the battle against a Houthi offensive in Marib, southern Yemen

epa08731469 Yemeni forces loyal to the Saudi-backed internationally recognized government engage in fighting with Houthi militiamen in the port city of Hodeidah, Yemen, 08 October 2020 (Issued 09 October 2020). According to reports, the United Nations has condemned recent clashes between Houthi militiamen and government forces in Yemen's strategic port city of Hodeidah, which have left more than 50 people killed and around 70 others wounded. Hodeidah is the main entry for food into the war-torn country.  EPA/NAJEEB ALMAHBOOBI

As Iran-backed Houthi rebels tightened the noose around the province of Marib in 2015, there seemed to be little to stop the well-organised force.

The Houthis were not only heavily armed with materiel from the collapsing Yemeni army, but were increasingly receiving Iranian support.

In Murad, on the south-western tip of Yemen, a block of local tribes took the lead to defend their homeland, even before the Saudi-led coalition launched Operation Decisive Storm in March 2015.

Our tribe has sacrificed 3,000 honoured martyrs for the sake of defending Marib

The tribal leaders of Murad gathered in Al Rahbah, their stronghold in southern Marib, bringing their personal arms to the frontlines to fight a desperate battle.

They eventually succeeded in pushing the Houthis back to the northern reaches of Sanaa province.

Prominent tribal leader Sheikh Mohammed Al Qardaei, who has been leading the second round of the war against the Houthis in southern Marib, described the struggle.

“We picked up our personal arms and took to the frontlines before the Saudi-led coalition announced its intervention. With help from Allah we could push them back,” Sheikh Mohammed said.

In the wake of the national army’s collapse and a doomed tribal uprising against the Houthis by the Al Awad tribes in Al Byadha in February 2020, Murad tribes gathered once more, resolving to fight the Houthis to the last man.

"Murad tribes have their own history," Sheikh Mohammed told The National.

“Our men have never been late whenever our homeland called. We don’t fight for the sake of power but we fight for the sake of our land and our dignity,” he said.

But after years of attritional warfare in the country’s rugged terrain, the Houthis have launched a major new offensive, focusing on districts that form the stronghold of the Al Jada’an tribes in north-west Marib.

“They have been pushing more and more personnel towards Marib aiming to subjugate us by force, which will never happen as long we are still breathing,” Sheikh Mohammed said.

The rivalry dates back to 1948 when Ali Naser Al Qardaei Al Muradi, a top tribal leader in the Murad tribe, killed Yehya bin Hamid Al Din, the Zaidi imam of the short-lived Mutawakkilite Kingdom, also referred to as North Yemen.

"All of those who have been fighting the Houthis around Marib nowadays are the grandsons of the revolutionary leader Ali Naser Al Qardaei. We will never kneel except for Allah, that is a pledge we took on ourselves whatever the cost," Sheikh Mohammed told The National.

That cost has indeed been high, and the Murad tribe has suffered greatly in its battle against the Houthis.

"Our tribe has sacrificed 3,000 honoured martyrs for the sake of defending Marib, the dignity of its people and the republican regime in Yemen," Sheikh Ahmed Al Muradi, who is fighting in Al Rahbah, southern Marib, told The National.

The sheikh described how ongoing support from the Saudi-led coalition has given his men “steadfastness on the frontlines”, but with the Houthi offensive unrelenting, they now need this support more than ever. With no end in sight, Yemen’s six-year conflict grinds on and for the tribes of Marib, everything is now on the line.