Yemen city fights to resurrect itself after Al-Qaeda defeat

In azure waters off Yemen, newly minted coast guards stormed a fishing boat in a mock exercise as part of a war-scarred city’s struggle to resurrect state institutions two years after Al-Qaeda’s ouster. (AFP)
Updated 03 December 2018
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Yemen city fights to resurrect itself after Al-Qaeda defeat

  • In a nation torn by conflict, the former extremist bastion of Mukalla stands out as an oasis of stability, offering what many call a blueprint for post-war Yemen
  • Militants who stoned women adulterers and enforced an austere vision of Islam no longer roam Mukalla’s corniche and its squares no longer serve as venues for public executions

MUKALLA, Yemen: In azure waters off Yemen, newly minted coast guards stormed a fishing boat in a mock exercise as part of a war-scarred city’s struggle to resurrect state institutions two years after Al-Qaeda’s ouster.
In a nation torn by conflict, the former extremist bastion of Mukalla stands out as an oasis of stability, offering what many call a blueprint for post-war Yemen.
In a ceremony last week on a beach littered with rusted Soviet-era tanks, dozens of Yemeni officers took charge of securing the 350-kilometer (217 miles) coast of southern Hadramawt province, infested with drug and weapons smugglers.
The handover in Mukalla included management of local ports, with a Saudi-led military coalition giving maritime equipment and surveillance boats to the new coast guard trained by Saudi, Emirati and American officials.
“The real answer to the humanitarian crisis (in Yemen) lies in bringing about an end to the conflict in a way that will restore the institutions of the state,” said Matthew Tueller, the US ambassador to Yemen.
“We cannot afford to see Yemen continue in this failed state status,” he added at the ceremony also attended by Saudi envoy Mohammed Al-Jaber.
Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), seen by the United States as the militant network’s most dangerous franchise, was expelled from Mukalla in April 2016.
It was a rare success for coalition-backed Yemeni forces locked in a bloody stalemate with Iran-aligned Houthi militia.
Militants who stoned women adulterers and enforced an austere vision of Islam no longer roam Mukalla’s corniche and its squares no longer serve as venues for public executions.
But officials concede that the conditions that facilitated the militants’ takeover of the poverty-stricken city of nearly 500,000 — mainly a lack of services and governance — still prevail.
Alongside fishermen in colorful sarongs, Mukalla’s streets host beggars scavenging through overflowing dumpsters while raw sewage flows in open drains.
Neighbourhoods bear the scars of war, including bombed out houses. Joblessness is rampant, and despite Hadramawt being oil-rich, Mukalla is crippled by frequent power outages and fuel shortages.
“In Mukalla, the security is good, services are bad,” said resident and former transport minister Badr Basalmah.
AQAP sleeper cells still lurk in the city, but Hadramawt governor Faraj Al-Bahsani says they do not pose a major threat.
“There is peace in Mukalla but it’s fragile,” said Elisabeth Kendall, a Yemen scholar at Oxford University.
“Militant groups are no longer strong and have mainly gone to ground, but that does not mean they won’t resurge as they attract disillusioned youths who lack opportunities.”
Lasting stability depends on reconstruction and development, but Yemen is reeling from an economic meltdown led by a collapsing Yemeni currency, leaving many out of work and unable to afford even basic food staples.
“With low salaries and high inflation, people are focusing on survival,” said Basalmah.
The local government is struggling to pay wages and banking heavily on the UAE and Saudi Arabia for financial support.
The regional airport remains closed to commercial traffic, further stifling business.
AQAP militants — the target of a long-running US drone war — swept into Mukalla virtually unopposed in 2015.
The militants were feared, but some multiple residents said they sought to offer basic services such as clean water, electricity and fuel, while repairing sewer lines and paying regular salaries on time — seen as an anomaly in Yemen.
The extremists retreated to the province’s mountainous interiors just as swiftly as they took over the city after looting up to 270 billion riyal ($100 million) from Mukalla’s banks, Yemeni officials said.
Governor Bahsani said authorities recovered a tranche of AQAP documents after they left, which revealed intelligence such as blueprints of their military strategy, their sources of revenue and details of storage sites for armaments.
He said the documents had been handed over to Emirati authorities who backed the main Yemeni offensive to retake the city.
“Al-Qaeda’s grip on this place was benefiting Houthis,” said General Abdullah Abu Hatem, from the Yemeni border guard forces.
Though two separate groups, they were mutually benefiting from Yemen’s war economy. The porous Hadramawt coastline controlled by AQAP facilitated the smuggling of weapons which often ended up in Houthi areas, Hatem said.
After their ouster, Mukalla is experimenting with a prohibition on civilians bearing firearms — something unique in a country with a long tradition of carrying guns.
In a first for Yemen, those entering Mukalla are required to hand over their weapons at one of several checkpoints, some of which are controlled by women, Bahsani said, calling the initiative “very successful.”


Muslims pray in banned area of Al-Aqsa for first time since 2003

The worshippers forced their way into the area ahead of Friday prayer. (Reuters)
Updated 23 February 2019
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Muslims pray in banned area of Al-Aqsa for first time since 2003

  • The worshippers chanted religious and national slogans and mounted the flag of Palestine to show their delight at the reopening of the area

AMMAN: For the first time since 2003, Muslim worshippers broke an Israeli ban and offered Friday prayers in the Bab Al-Rahmeh prayer hall, which is part of the Haram Al-Sharif/Al-Aqsa Mosque.

Hundreds of Palestinian worshippers entered the Bab Al-Rahmeh area inside the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound in Jerusalem’s Old City on Friday for the first time since the area was closed to Muslim worship by Israeli authorities.

The worshippers, led by the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, Sheikh Mohammad Hussein and other religious leaders, forced their way into the area ahead of the weekly Friday prayer, defying the Israeli ban.

The worshippers chanted religious and national slogans and mounted the flag of Palestine to show their delight at the reopening of the area, which has only been open during the past 16 years to Jewish fanatics during provocative visits to the Muslim holy place, the third holiest site in Islam, according to the official Palestinian news agency, Wafa.

Sheikh Ekrima Sabri, the former mufti and now a member of the newly constituted Islamic Waqf Council in Jerusalem, delivered a short sermon in which he reiterated that “the Haram Al-Sharif is all 144 dunums of land, including the mosques, prayer halls, courtyard musuems and schools within it.” Sabri said that Muslims will not allow anyone to diminish Muslim rights in the entire mosque area.

The Friday prayer at Bab Al-Rahmeh went off peacefully in part because of an Israeli decision late on Thursday not to make any further escalations, a reliable source in Jerusalem told Arab News.

Khaleel Assali, a member of the new council who participated in the prayer at Bab Al-Rahmeh, told Arab News that the mood was peaceful and upbeat. “It was a beautiful thing to be able to reclaim part of our religious site that we were barred from using for so many years.”

The deputy head of the PLO’s Fatah movement, Mahmoud Alloul, praised the unprecedented action by the popular movement in Jerusalem. 

In a statement published on the Wafa website, Alloul called on Palestinians to stay steadfast in the courtyards of Al-Aqsa and Bab Al-Rahmeh and to “continue to stand up to the occupiers and their repeated incursions in Al-Aqsa courtyards.”

Mohammad Ishtieh, a senior Fatah leader who is expected to be the next Palestinian prime minister, issued a statement saying that what happened in Jerusalem today proves beyond a shadow of doubt that all actions and decisions aimed at Judaization of Jerusalem have failed as a result of the steadfastness of our people in our eternal capital. Ishtieh praised the defenders of Jerusalem who screamed for justice and who again forced the Israeli occupiers to back down.

Mahdi Abdul Hadi, director of the Jerusalem-based Palestinian Academic Society for the Study of International Affairs (PASSIA) and a new member of the Jordanian-appointed Waqf Council, told Arab News that all parties participated and share this success. “Everyone participated and every party should get credit for this success. Jerusalem and Al-Aqsa unite us.”

The popular protests that led to the breakup of the 16-year-old Israeli ban began on Feb. 13 when the newly constituted empowered and expanded 18-member Waqf Council decided to hold a symbolic prayer at the barred Bab Al-Rahmeh site. The Israelis responded by placing heavy chains at the gate and making arrests. 

After four days of arrests, Israel allowed the removal of the chains but would not go as far as allowing Muslim worshippers to enter. On Wednesday the Waqf Council called on worshippers to pray at the Bab Al-Rahmeh site. All five daily prayers were held outside the barred prayer hall. A confrontation was expected Friday, but the insistence of the worshippers on reclaiming their site led to the Israelis backing down, Jerusalem sources told Arab News.