Nearly seven years since fighting began in Yemen, the battle for control of two key governorates is leading regional powers to step up their direct and indirect involvement in the conflict.
In Yemen, the current battle between the Zaydi Shia movement of the Houthis (also known as Ansar Allah) and pro-government forces in the Marib and Shabwa governorates will be decisive for the overall balance of the war. But that is not the only reason why this frontline matters. In fact, the Marib-Shabwa strategic battlefield reflects two emerging and regionally relevant dimensions: first, foreign players are directly and indirectly involved in the arena; and second, al-Qa’ida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) has the opportunity to exploit the hostilities to reorganise on the ground. These variables stress how urgent a national ceasefire is, almost seven years after the start of the Saudi-led military intervention in 2015.
During 2021, the intermittent battle between the Houthis and pro-government forces for the control of the central governorate of Marib has reignited. Fighting is now spilling over into Shabwa, on Marib’s southeastern border. In fact, the Houthis have launched an offensive in this southern governorate after their territorial gains in neighbouring al-Bayda in order to break the government’s supply lines with Marib.
The military outcome of this battle will be a game-changer for the conflict. Marib and Shabwa, which are currently held by the internationally recognised government, are strategically important for three reasons. First, Marib is the fiefdom of the Yemeni government and the headquarters of what remains of the army; second, Marib and Shabwa host most of the country’s oil and gas fields as well as its energy infrastructure, providing essential economic revenues to the state; and third, these governorates would form the backbone of a future Yemeni federal state. During the war, the governors of Marib and Shabwa, together with Hadhramawt, negotiated with the recognised government to keep about 20% of energy revenues, showing that centre-periphery relations can be partially decentralised.
The Key Players
Given its national relevance, the protracted battle for Marib and Shabwa will lead Middle Eastern players to enhance their direct or indirect involvement on the ground. The Houthis, for instance, are backed by Iran; in recent months, reports from various media sources on the presence – and, in some cases, the deaths – of foreign pro-Iranian combatants (including Lebanese fighters belonging to Hezbollah) fighting with the Houthis in Marib have grown. Their presence has been denounced by the Yemeni government and local authorities. Between Marib and Shabwa, Saudi-backed Yemeni militias are fighting the Houthis; these tribal militias are mostly tied to the Muslim Brotherhood component of the Islah party, which is also receiving economic funding from Qatar as well as increased support from Turkey in the form of military vehicles and equipment. In coastal Shabwa – which has not been involved in clashes so far – local separatist forces are backed by the UAE, which retains a notable influence in the area despite its massive military withdrawal in 2019.
Conflict resolution efforts in Yemen need to involve regional powers, especially now that the strategic battle for Marib and Shabwa is intensifying
The battle for Marib and Shabwa could also offer AQAP a window for reorganisation, motivation and active militancy, as it is currently experiencing deep internal fragmentation. In fact, the two battlefields are geographically close to traditional jihadi safe havens in Bayda, Abyan and inner Hadhramawt. One of AQAP’s current senior leaders, Saad bin Atif al-Awlaqi, is from Shabwa. The presence of Houthi fighters in Marib and Shabwa and of UAE-backed militias in Shabwa could also push the jihadists to focus on two goals: sectarian attacks against the Houthis and revenge against UAE-backed militias for previous counterterrorism operations in the south. Moreover, AQAP could capitalise on local separatist sentiments and the traditional southern enmity towards northerners, in case the Houthis make further territorial advances towards inner Shabwa.
Prospects for Resolution
In this context, conflict resolution efforts in Yemen need to involve regional powers, especially now that the strategic battle for Marib and Shabwa is intensifying. At a regional level, the Saudi–Iranian direct talks, which have been taking place since the spring of this year in Iraq, emphasise the evolution of the Middle East since Riyadh launched its military intervention against the Houthis in March 2015. In recent years, Saudi Arabia has understood that a military victory in Yemen is unachievable; but as Riyadh seeks a political exit from Yemen, the so-called pro-government faction is politically fracturing even more, while the Houthis continue to hold and advance on the ground. Therefore, while regional de-escalation could favour a national ceasefire in Yemen, it will not be sufficient to build a sustainable Yemeni peace process.
In fact, the roots of the conflict in Yemen are primarily local: the regional conflict layer has gradually added to – and intertwined with – the internal competition for power, political representation and resources, which represent the original drivers of the Yemen war. For instance, the connection between Iran and the Houthis is complex and cannot be labelled as a ‘patron-client’ relationship. The newly elected Iranian president, Ebrahim Raisi, has declared his willingness to improve Tehran’s regional ties, especially with its Saudi neighbour – something that would benefit a ceasefire in Yemen.
However, this stance – if genuine – is not sufficient to push the Houthis towards peace. They form the outermost ring of the Iranian-backed network of Shia militias in the region. Indeed, the Houthis are allied with Tehran, but they are not Iran’s proxies, since they have a local agenda pursuing local goals, the first of which is political autonomy from Sanaa. This means the Iranians have limited political leverage over them, excluding arms smuggling and technical expertise transfer.
The decisive battle for Marib and Shabwa is likely to be long, with low-intensity phases followed by periods of high casualties. The variety of armed groups fighting on the ground, mixing segments of the regular army with hybrid or non-state actors, is the perfect cauldron for rising foreign interference and sectarian polarisation. This provides further regional relevance to the battle for political, military and economic power in Yemen.
The views expressed in this Commentary are the author’s, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.