The province of Shabwa in Yemen has become home to a minor miracle. First, a hospital was built, and now a holiday resort is in the works. The local governor would like to see the province provide a model for the country’s future.
By Christoph Reuter in Shabwa Province, Yemen
Hundreds died in the early morning. The sun had hardly risen over the mountains before the bees staggered to the ground, the old man recalls with a bitterness in his voice. Yemen government troops had set up roadblocks following an al-Qaida attack. “We were stuck. But we need to set off at night to get there before dawn so our colonies can fly out at first light! Otherwise, a lot of them will die! The bees can’t tolerate being locked in during the day!”
His comments are met with murmurs of agreement from those surrounding him. In wrap-around skirts, some with the traditional dagger strapped to their bellies, the men are squatting among a number of canisters, bottles and tin cans full of honey. As happens every year in November, the beekeepers come in from the remote valleys of southern Yemen to the small provincial capital of Ataq to sell their valuable annual harvest. The color of the honey ranges from bright yellow to deep brown; some of them are quite mild, while others burn in your throat as if made from chilis. Everywhere, people are tasting and haggling, consistencies and colorings are closely examined. Venders intent on exporting the honey to Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Europe pay the equivalent of up to 1,300 euros for a 10-liter canister of the best Sidr honey, made from the tiny flowers of the Christ’s Thorn.
It is an international honey exposition in the heart of Yemen, not exactly what one might expect of a country in the throes of a civil war. For years, Yemen has been shorthand for plagues both ancient and novel: war and cholera, corona and spindly, undernourished children. Ever since dictator Ali Abdullah Saleh, who ruled the country with an iron fist for several decades, was toppled in 2012 as part of the Arab Spring, the country has been wracked by warfare. First, the Shiite Houthis rebelled in the north, conquering the capital of Sanaa and the port city of Aden. Then, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) intervened in 2015 to drive out the Houthis. But that offensive ultimately bogged down, and now, auxiliaries well-armed by the UAE are fighting against both the Houthis and the Yemeni government in exile for a renewed secession of the south. The country is further away than ever from a peaceful resolution.
Between all the fronts, though, people are doing their best to maintain a bit of normalcy and trying to make a living. Few, though, drive through the country as audaciously as the beekeepers in their pickups, with their colonies loaded into the bed. They are constantly chasing the unpredictable rains and the precious blooms of the thorny desert shrubbery. “The militias always let us through the checkpoints,” says Saleh, the old beekeeper. “They are all afraid of the bees.” When 80 colonies grow nervous, he says, even the guy with the machine gun doesn’t stand a chance.
Saleh is from a region that has managed to fight off all attackers, is largely self-sufficient – and is experiencing an unprecedented upswing. Shabwa, a province about twice the size of the German state of Hesse and with a population of just 700,000, was long a backward, forgotten region, even by Yemen standards. It is an arid, mountainous region that extends south to the coast. The provincial city of Ataq, where the beekeepers and vendors meet every November, is home to around 100,000 people.
When oil reserves were discovered in Shabwa in the early 1990s, all revenues ended up in the Yemeni capital of Sanaa. The region didn’t even benefit much when an international consortium under the leadership of the French company Total built a massive, 4.3-billion-euro liquid natural gas terminal in the coastal city of Balhaf. Though it was sufficient to fund about 40 percent of the Yemen national budget for a time, Shabwa got hardly any of it. And the terminal hasn’t been in operation since 2015.
The only person of much prominence generated by the province was Anwar al-Awlaki, the charismatic Islamist preacher who urged the killing of Americans and was allegedly involved in a failed attack on a U.S. cargo plane. He died in a CIA drone attack in 2011.
These days, if you approach Ataq after an hours-long drive through the steppe, the road suddenly turns to asphalt. It is one of many roads that have been improved in recent months. In addition, a 20-year-old unfinished building – occupied by the advancing Houthis in 2015 and then bombed, likely by the U.S. Air Force – is currently being expanded into a modern hospital with 240 beds, a central climate-control system and fire doors. Next door, divided among several buildings, a corona quarantine station has been set up, complete with seven ventilators, two intensive-care stations and a test laboratory.
It may not sound like much, but there used to be nothing at all. Even corona tests had to be driven for several hours to Aden just to be processed. The technology in the laboratory was financed by Saudi Arabia, says Dr. Hisham Said, with the rest coming from the provincial budget. Payments are made whenever a section is completed and engineers from the province monitor the budget and quality.
How, though, was it possible to inject life into this backwater? Governor Mohammed Bin Adio, a friendly, soft-featured man in his mid-40s, says he was able to negotiate a deal with the exile government in Saudi Arabia according to which a fifth of the rather sparse oil revenues from Shabwa would remain in the province from now on.
First, though, he had to reconquer his own province – from the UAE, which had originally come as allies. Bin Adio’s story says a lot about the megalomania of the competing powers and their failures, about the influence of tribal traditions and about the importance of having the right people in the right positions.
The decision by the government in exile to appoint Bin Adio as governor at the end of 2018 was an unusual one. He arrived not as a lackey of the power-hungry president, nor as a heavily armed local potentate. Rather, he is an expert for infrastructure who spent years handling social issues in the Ataq city council. And Bin Adio’s leadership team is perhaps even more unusual. One member is Salim al-Awlaki, the gaunt, eternally smiling “security coordinator” of all troops, police officers and the province’s tiny secret service. A history teacher by training, he came to Bin Adio as a kind of voluntary hostage, a piece of human collateral to pacify a blood feud between his tribe and that of the governor. “For as long as I am with him, the killing must stop,” he says, looking as though he finds it to be a perfectly acceptable role to play in life.
Another is Brigadier General Abd Rabbo Laakab, who is only in his late 30s but looks even younger than that – and who never smiles. Having been involved in countless battles, he is missing a leg and half a hand, and hardly has enough fingers left to count off all those he has fought against in his home province. First, it was the Houthis, who occupied Ataq for four months in 2015 and then hung around for another two years in the northwest. He then had to fight off scattered al-Qaida fighters and criminal gangs. Finally, he found himself up against those powers that arrived in 2015 to save the state: the expeditionary forces from UAE and their heavily armed mercenary militia, the Shabwa Elite Forces. “I once wanted to be a bookkeeper,” he says in a quiet voice.
Initially, the UAE forces were welcome in Shabwa, say the governor’s men, as do shopkeepers and local journalist Awad Saleh: “We thought they were helping us against the Houthis and al-Qaida. And they were,” he says. They hit the battlefield with Apache combat helicopters, drones and Caiman armored vehicle made in America.
But the fewer of the original enemies remained, the more personnel the Emiratis recruited, ultimately establishing a fighting force more than 7,000 strong, one that was feared across the province. “They would head out at night and raid entire villages, haphazardly seizing men and carrying them off,” journalist Saleh recalls. “A commander threatened to rape all those who called his authority into question.”
UAE joined the war in 2015 as Saudi Arabia’s junior partner with the goal of reshaping Yemen according to their preferences. But the brash promises made by Mohammed bin Salman – who was defense minister at the time but who is now Saudi crown prince – that the war would be won within just a few short weeks went unfulfilled. Riyadh’s strategic assumption that the rebels would capitulate after a couple of devastating air strikes proved misplaced. The Houthis turned out to be a tough opponent, driven by a missionary ambition to execute God’s will with the force of arms.
The more obvious the failure became, the further the UAE pulled back from the goal of conquering the whole of Yemen. Instead, they began focusing on establishing a hold on the half of the country they hoped to control: a territory once known as the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen, commonly called South Yemen, which existed at the mercy of Moscow for 23 years until 1990. Those nostalgic for this period of independence proved to be motivated fighters – and UAE thus became the military godfather of the Southern Transitional Council, as the secessionists call themselves today.
The would-be liberators quickly turned into an occupying power that began casting a covetous eye on Shabwa and its oil fields, hoping to add them to the new southern realm. Residents of the province, though, wanted to remain part of united Yemen and not be transferred from one dictatorship into the next.
In August 2019, the Emirates issued an ultimatum: All regular troops in the province had to turn in their heavy weapons and pull out of Ataq. Units totaling more than 7,000 fighters began ruling toward the city from all directions. It didn’t look good for the defenders.
“We had 300 men and two or three roads under our control,” says Brigadier General Laakab during an interview at the seat of government. “We asked the government for military assistance over and over again,” says Salim al-Awlaki, the security coordinator. “But nothing came. So we borrowed weapons.” Governor Bin Adio says: “We told the Emirates, if you want to shoot terrorists, go ahead! But why us?”
The showdown began on the evening of Aug. 21. “We were ready to fight to the death,” says Laakab. But then, the local fighters who belonged to the Emirates’ mercenary troops couldn’t agree on what to do. Should they really fire on their own cousins at the behest of foreigners? Through the night and over the next two days, sheikhs from local tribes spoke to both sides on the phone, begging their kinsmen in the Emirati mercenary units to cease fire. More and more elite fighters gave up, leaving their positions and vehicles. By day three, it was over.
Ultimately, the defenders managed to capture nine of the armored Caiman vehicles. Bin Adio hopes to display them in a museum one day, even as the UAE continues to this day to send emissaries and money in the hopes of getting the vehicles back. “You need to know what you’re fighting for,” says Laakab. “Money isn’t enough. What’s money good for if you’re dead?”
Now, Shabwa is free, for the first time in decades. Bin Adio has become famous in all of Yemen for his bravery in standing up to the UAE. And his independence was on full display when he overcame the resistance of the foreign powers present in Yemen, and that of his own government, to bring a group of foreign reporters to Shabwa in cooperation with the Sanaa Center for Strategic Studies. “We don’t even want complete independence,” he insists. “We just want to be governed fairly.”
These days, the city is gripped by a mood of cautious optimism. The fabulous sum of $31 million flowed into the province’s budget in fall 2019, as its share of the oil revenues. There are new construction jobs available, while teacher salaries have been increased – and they are even being paid. Beekeepers dare to bring their valuable harvests into the city. A local consortium has even begun building a vacation resort on the coast.
But it is an uncertain peace, the duration of which is anybody’s guess. The Emiratis continue to occupy the Alam military camp, located between the oil fields in the north and the liquid natural gas terminal in Balhaf. The UAE maintains a military base at the vast site along with a secret, extralegal prison, the existence of which has been confirmed by the United Nations, Amnesty International and doctors from the state hospital in Ataq. Periodically, one of the doctors intones laconically, released prisoners from Balhaf turn up with “broken bones, hematoma and burns.”
UAE officers and their Yemeni militia leaders aren’t interested in speaking with foreign media. As such, there are no answers forthcoming to a number of urgent questions. Why, for example, do they detain people who aren’t terrorists and who have frequently just criticized the role of the UAE? Or: What is their justification for occupying Yemen’s most important industrial facility?
Still, not even the provincial government of Shabwa can be interested in a complete UAE withdrawal, even if that demand is frequently voiced. The Houthis, after all, continue to lurk in the west of the province, while followers of al-Qaida are hiding out in remote valleys. Maintaining the freedom Shabwa currently enjoys is more a matter of balancing all interest groups against each other than it is of fighting.
But even if Shabwa isn’t able to survive in the long run, there has been a change in how people their approach politics – one which would likely make a return to dictatorship extremely difficult: the desire and respect for a functioning state. Even in places where you might not expect it.
On a recent evening, the leaders of the most important tribes in Shabwa are meeting in the desert an hour-and-a-half outside of Ataq to discuss standard affairs: feuds, grazing land, marriages. A number of half-open tents have been set up in the desert sands, with goats roasting on the fire.
The principle sheikhs from the Hamami, Awlaki and Lakamush have shown up in full regalia. Sheikh Jarbou al-Nassi, a legendary poet and feud mediator, has even brought along an old musket. But the traditional backdrop cannot conceal the fact that something has changed in the elders’ thinking. Once the endless formalities have finally been completed, Nassi says: That whole thing with the laws isn’t too bad. “If they work, tribal law isn’t necessary any longer.” Others express support for the fact that the one-legged Brigadier General Laakab is now even daring to arrest murder suspects out from the middle of their tribes. The old model, whereby the tribe is liable for everything its members do, protecting them and cleaning up the damage, doesn’t really work anymore, they say.
The trial-by-fire for this newly won independence is currently underway within eyesight of the UAE military camp in Alam. Dozens of residents from Hajr have been camped out there for weeks demanding justice following a raid on their village. “The elite forces came at night and immediately started shooting,” says Sheikh Ahmed al-Mehdar. “I ran to the mosque, calling on them over the loudspeakers to stop shooting. Then, the Emiratis bombed us from the air.” Nine residents died in the attack.
The villagers believe they were attacked because they rebuffed a recruiter for the elite force. The UAE has not officially admitted to carrying out the attack. Informally, though, an offer has been made that men from the village could join the elite force as a form of restitution. “First, they massacre us, then they offer us a job with the killer troop,” says Mehdar angrily. “It’s crazy! We demand that all those responsible be tried in court! We’re going to stay peaceful, but we’re staying here until we get justice.”
The winter is coming. Throughout the barren hills of Shabwa, the beekeepers are preparing for their move to the warmer flatlands on the coast. Near Ataq, Said al-Awlaki carefully pulls the last full honeycomb out of the wooden hive box. “It’ll only work if we cooperate,” he says of the honey industry. “If I add sugar or medications, I have to tell the others, because their bees also fly to my hives. If farmers use pesticides, they tell us first because they need our bees for pollination.” He says they also tell each other about roadblocks and sudden rainstorms using several different WhatsApp groups.
He’s talking about honey, but it unintentionally sounds like a manifesto for the entire county: “If we only fight against each other and everyone wants their own way, we’ll all lose.” He knows what he’s talking about: Years ago, he spent five years in prison for supporting al-Qaida. Today, he says, he and the other beekeepers still talk passionately about politics: “Trump, Biden and things like that.” But if they don’t agree, they don’t pull out their weapons, preferring to change the subject instead. “Then, we return to talking about the trees and the bees.”