Some in Marib think Martin Griffiths' first visit to the governorate was too little, too late and gave the Houthis breathing room ahead of an impending attack
“Houthis don’t believe in peace” – The view from Marib after the UN envoy’s visit
“As a young man from Marib, I have no doubt that any dialogue here or there is just throwing sand in our eyes,” said Abu Hisham Al-Shater, a media activist from Marib. “All the rounds [of talks] that have been held have simply given more space to the Houthis to move and to gain more time to reorganize their forces following any setbacks,” Al-Shater told Almasdar Online following a visit from the UN Special Envoy to Yemen Martin Griffiths.
Earlier this week, Griffiths visited Marib in the wake of the Houthis’ military advancement in neighboring Al-Jawf governorate, where rebel fighters captured the capital Al-Hazm. The Houthis’ rapid advancement has brought them all the way into rural parts of western Marib, leaving many concerned about potential military incursions into Marib city and its nearby energy infrastructure.
Despite his criticism of the peace process, Al-Shater said the envoy’s visit was an important step for the UN Security Council to hear first-hand knowledge about the governorate and the daily life and ongoing suffering. Marib is already hosting hundreds of thousands of internally displaced persons (IDPs), and the fighting in nearby Al-Jawf and the Nihm district of Sana’a governorate has forced thousands more families to seek shelter in Marib.
“The people of Marib don’t want war and did not go to (the Houthi homeland of) Sa’ada (to fight), but we will not allow the Houthis to spoil our way of life under any circumstances,” Al-Shater said. “Marib is ready to defend itself.”
During a recent one-day visit to Marib, which was his first to the governorate since becoming special envoy in early 2018, Griffiths met with Marib Governor Sultan Al-Arada, as well as tribal sheikhs, women, civil society and youth. “Fighting needs to stop now,” he said at a press conference in the capital Marib city. “Military adventurism and the quest for territorial gains are futile.”
Many residents of Marib, however, do not think the envoy’s visit and call for peace will be enough to prevent further escalation.
“He thinks we are foolish, or that we would trust anyone,” Brigadier Hassan Farhan Bin Jalal, a military commander from and serving in Marib, said of Griffiths. “It is just a visit where he wants to give us some hope that he will bring peace, but the opposite will happen,” the brigadier said. “The Houthis don’t believe in peace and we will not allow them to rule Yemen.”
The ongoing high-intensity fighting between Sana’a and Marib to its east intensified at the beginning of the year and took many by surprise. The Houthis and Saudis had been holding secretive talks, which appeared to have led to a reduction in attacks between the Houthis and the Saudi-led coalition, while deadly but relatively moderate clashes continued at stagnant frontlines between Houthi and government forces throughout the country.
Now, many are concerned the Houthis are preparing a renewed offensive to expand across Marib, which is rich in oil and gas resources, and home to Yemen’s largest power plant. The governorate was one of the key areas the Houthis sought to take in late 2014 and 2015, before being mostly pushed out of the governorate by a united alliance of tribes and government forces.
“We welcomed the visit and said that the political parties, including the GPC [General People’s Congress], are with the homeland and legitimacy to defend Marib, its security, and stability and reject any partial solutions which not included all governorates,” said Saoud Al-Yusifi, deputy head of the GPC branch in Marib. “We are with a comprehensive political solution and that requires the Houthi militias to implement the international resolutions, withdraw and hand over power.”
Al-Yusifi, who is also the director of the civil service office in Marib, told Almasdar Online that he and his colleagues asked the special envoy to put more pressure on the Houthis to release the detained GPC leaders in Sana’a, as well as the leaders of other political parties and groups. After the Houthis killed their former ally of convenience, former president Ali Abdullah Saleh – who had remained the disputed head of the GPC – an increasing number of party members fled Sana’a, especially to Marib. Many others, however, have been detained or disappeared as the Houthis tightened their grip on the city.
“We, here in Marib, told the UN special envoy that Marib did not invade Sa’ada, but it is the latter who invaded Marib,” Al-Yusifi said. “It's the Houthis who fire missiles on the unarmed civilians, women, and children. They are the ones who are escalating militarily.”
Khaled Al-Ahraq, a Nasserist party leader in Marib, was critical of intentions behind the special envoy’s visit. “He wished to exploit the opportunity to achieve an agreement for him personally, even at the expense of Yemeni blood,” Al-Ahraq said. “What he is looking for is to make an achievement in his political history, and wants to put pressure as he thinks we are in a vulnerable position. He doesn't know that his visit as UN envoy has given people confidence in themselves and their ability. If we were weak, he wouldn't visit us.”
Abdullah Al-Shulaif, who heads a civil society organization in Marib, met with Griffiths as part of his meeting with representatives of various local organizations. He said the special envoy was asked many tough, and at times embarrassing, questions including, “Why did you not feel concerned during the siege of Hazm city [capital of Al-Jawf], like you were concerned when the legal [government] forces were advancing toward Hodeidah?”
Al-Shulaif said he left the meeting with the conclusion that “neither Yemen nor Yemenis, nor the displaced people, nor the humanitarian situation concerns (Griffiths). All that matters for him is to achieve progress calculated in his favor to say that he succeeded in his endeavor.”
Another one of the criticisms often directed toward the special envoy and his office is that there is a lack of understanding – or even interaction – with leaders at the local level. Instead, the envoy has been focused on only the leadership of the two official warring parties, who don’t represent the diversity of people across Yemen.
For Musali Buhaibah, a doctor at the University of Saba Region University in Marib city, the recent developments have shown how important Marib is to Yemen’s political scene. “It is also a success for the leadership of the local authority, and the UN special envoy realizes the importance of the actors on ground, such as in Marib,” he said.