The battle for an ancient desert city in war-torn Yemen has become a key to understanding wider tensions now inflaming the Middle East and the challenges facing any efforts by President Joe Biden’s administration to shift U.S. troops out of the region, The Associated Press reported.
Fighting has been raging in the mountains outside of Marib as Iranian-backed Houthi rebels, who hold Yemen’s capital of Sanaa, attempt to seize the city, which is crucial to the country’s energy supplies.
Saudi Arabia, which has led a military coalition since 2015 backing Sanaa’s exiled government, has launched airstrike after airstrike to blunt the Houthi advance toward Marib. The Houthis have retaliated with drone and missile attacks deep inside Saudi Arabia, roiling global oil markets.
The battle for Marib likely will determine the outline of any political settlement in Yemen’s second civil war since the 1990s. If seized by the Houthis, the rebels can press that advantage in negotiations and even continue further south. If Marib is held by Yemen’s internationally recognized government, it will save perhaps its only stronghold as secessionists challenge its authority elsewhere.
The fight is also squeezing a pressure point on the most powerful of America’s Gulf Arab allies and ensnarling any U.S. return to Iran’s nuclear deal. It’s even complicating the Biden administration’s efforts to slowly shift the longtime mass U.S. military deployments to the Mideast to counter what it sees as the emerging threat of China and Russia.
Losing Marib would be “the final bullet in the head of the internationally recognized government,” said Abdulghani al-Iryani, a senior researcher at the Sanaa Center for Strategic Studies.
“It will set the stage for the dismemberment of the Yemeni state. You’re looking at a generation of instability and humanitarian crisis. You also will look at a free-for-all theater for regional meddling.”
Located 120 kilometers (75 miles) east of Sanaa, Marib sits on the edge of the Arabian Peninsula’s Empty Quarter Desert at the foot of the Sarawat Mountains running along the Red Sea. It’s believed to be the home of the biblical Queen of Sheba, who gave King Solomon riches of spices and gold. In the Quran, it was the site of massive flooding that accompanied the collapse of its ancient dam.
The disaster gripping the city today is entirely manmade. Over 800,000 refugees fleeing the Houthi takeover of Sanaa in September 2014 and the war that followed swelled the city’s population, according to the U.N. refugee agency.
Taking Marib, or otherwise cutting it off, would represent a major prize for the Houthis, AP adds. It is home to oil and gas fields that international firms including Exxon Mobil Corp. and Total SA have interests. Marib’s natural gas bottling plant produces cooking gas for the nation of 29 million people. Its power plant once provided 40% of Yemen’s electricity. Marib’s modern dam is a key freshwater source for a parched nation, though it was never fully developed even in peacetime.