Sanaa // Yemen’s Marib province, where a Houthi missile attack on an Arabian Gulf coalition military base killed 45 Emirati forces, has become a strategic focal point in the battle to defeat the Iran-backed rebels.
The province is now a vital staging post for the Saudi-led coalition to drive the Houthis and their allies from the capital Sanaa and restore the internationally recognised government.
Yet the operations in the exposed, flat deserts of Marib are among the most daring for Saudi and Emirati forces since the military campaign began.
Marib is located between the two Houthi strongholds of Saada, the rebels’ homeland along the northern border, and Sanaa, which they seized a year ago.
The province is one of the few in Yemen with oil and gas production and also is home to power plants supplying large parts of the country.
A gas pipeline flows south from Marib to the Gulf of Aden, while the oil is pumped west to the Red Sea.
But the Houthis were unable to capture the area after they seized Sanaa from President Abdrabu Mansur Hadi.
With 80 per cent of the province’s population Sunni and only one of the five main tribes supportive of the Zaidi Shiite Houthis, tribal fighters managed to repel the attack. As a result, the Houthis control only about 20 per cent of Marib and the oil fields remained under Mr Hadi’s control.
Many of the tribes in Marib, and in neighbouring Al Jawf and Shabwa provinces, are loyal to Saudi Arabia, which has offered financial support over many years.
According to two tribal chiefs there are 8,000 Yemeni forces and tribal fighters based in Marib united against the Houthis. Some are directly loyal to President Hadi, others to Saudi Arabia and a large number to the Islah Party, a religiously conservative political group.
The entire First Armoured Brigade, considered a military wing of Islah, based in Sanaa, was transferred to Marib a year ago to defend the province. Other sections of Yemen’s military remained loyal to Ali Abdullah Saleh, the former president overthrown by Arab Spring protests who has now sided with the Houthis against Mr Hadi.
After the Saudi-led coalition joined the war in March and drove the Houthis from most of Yemen’s southern provinces in July, focus shifted to Marib, known as the gateway to Sanaa, where the strong support base made it a natural location for an attack in the north.
The city of Marib is just 173km from the capital and the province adjoins the predominantly Sunni provinces of Al Jawf, Al Baitha and Shabwa, where the Houthis’ control is unlikely to hold if attacked. In particular, Al Jawf to the north would provide a route towards the Houthi’s Saada stronghold.
The coalition began moving supplies to Marib in March, using land routes from Saudi Arabia through Hadramout and Shabwa provinces. Last month, coalition forces started flying more reinforcements to Marib using a small airport in the tiny town of Safer, 60km east of Marib city. Loyalist military sources said further reinforcements including tanks, armoured vehicles, rocket launchers and Apache helicopters arrived last week.
The town serves as a base for the state-run Safer Exploration and Production Operations Company and other foreign companies working in Yemen’s vital energy sector. The main gas pipeline south also runs through the town, which is controlled by the pro-Hadi military commander Abdullah Al Shaddadi.
The nearest Houthi presence was in Baihan in Shabwa province, 50km away.
It was Safer where the Houthi missile crashed into a weapons store on Friday, killing the 45 Emirati troops along with 10 Saudis and five Bahrainis. It was by far the worst loss suffered by the coalition and one of the darkest days in the UAE’s history.
The Houthis claimed they had fired a Russian-made, short-range Tochka ballistic missile at the site.
The attack came as Houthis continue to lose ground militarily as well as local support.
Brigadier General Ahmed Al Asiri, the Saudi-led coalition spokesman, admitted the losses were heavy but said the attack would not “deter our war strategy against the Houthis”.
The cost of restoring President Hadi to power in Yemen has been high but accepting defeat would mean Arabian Gulf nations will have to pay a heavier price in future, said Abdulsalam Mohammed, president of the Abaad Strategic Center, a Yemeni think tank.
“If Iran and its militant proxies win, the region will see more civil wars and chaos,” he said. “Battles must continue until Houthi militants are defeated, regardless of the losses.”