After al-Qaeda, Yemen's al-Mukalla finds its footing
In azure waters off Yemen, newly qualified coastguards stormed a fishing boat during a training exercise, as part of the port of al-Mukalla's struggle to resurrect state institutions two years after al-Qaeda's ouster.
In a nation torn by conflict, the former extremist stronghold stands out as an oasis of stability, offering what many call a blueprint for post-war Yemen.
In a ceremony last week, dozens of Yemeni officers took charge of securing the 350-kilometre coast of southern Hadramaut province, infested with drug and weapons smugglers.
The handover in al-Mukalla included management of local ports, with the Arab coalition giving maritime equipment and surveillance boats to the new coastguard trained by Saudi, Emirati and US officials.
"The real answer to the humanitarian crisis 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) was expelled from al-Mukalla in April 2016.
Militants who stoned women they accused of adultery and enforced their harsh interpretation of sharia no longer roam al-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.
Good security, bad services
Alongside fishermen in colourful sarongs, al-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 Hadramaut being oil-rich, al-Mukalla is crippled by frequent power outages and fuel shortages.
"In al-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 Hadramaut governor Faraj al-Bahsani says they do not pose a major threat.
"There is peace in al-Mukalla but it is 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 will not 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 swept into al-Mukalla virtually unopposed in 2015, while the Arab coalition was focused on targeting the Iran-backed Houthis (Ansarallah).
The extremists retreated to the province's mountainous interiors just as swiftly as they took over the city, after looting up to 270 billion Yemeni riyals ($1.1 billion) from al-Mukalla's banks, Yemeni officials said.
Al-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 the Houthis," said Gen. Abdullah Abu Hatem, from the Yemeni border guard forces.
Though two separate groups, they were mutually benefiting from Yemen's war economy. The porous Hadramaut coastline controlled by AQAP facilitated the smuggling of weapons which often ended up in Houthi areas, Hatem said.
After al-Qaeda's ouster, al-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 al-Mukalla are required to hand over their weapons at one of several checkpoints, some of which are controlled by women, al-Bahsani said, calling the initiative "very successful".