Yemen's Marib: symbolic cornerstone of Arab unity

By Mohammed Samir in Manama

Yemeni tribesmen from the Popular Resistance Committees, loyal to President Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi, sit overlooking the Dam of Marib during ongoing clashes with the Houthis on September 28th, 2015. [Abdullah Hassan/AFP]

Yemeni tribesmen from the Popular Resistance Committees, loyal to President Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi, sit overlooking the Dam of Marib during ongoing clashes with the Houthis on September 28th, 2015. [Abdullah Hassan/AFP]

The central Yemeni city of Marib, with its rich history and its modern dam that provides electricity and water to much of the country, is an area of both strategic and symbolic importance.

Marib serves as a symbolic cornerstone for the Arab world, as it is the birthplace of many Arab tribes and because its ancient dam, which dates back 4,000 years and is now in ruins, is one of the engineering wonders of antiquity.

Among the tribes that can trace their origins to Marib is al-Nahyan, the clan of the late president and founder of the UAE Sheikh Zayed Bin Sultan al-Nahyan.

"The Marib region is of historical importance to the UAE in view of the fact that according to historical documents, al-Nahyan tribe originated in Marib," Emirati political affairs researcher Khalid al-Qasimi told Al-Mashareq.

Birthplace of Arab tribes

"Marib was the original home of all the Arab tribes," al-Qasimi said, noting that many tribes in the Arabian Peninsula can trace their geneaolgy to the area.

This is "confirmed best by the historical documents on the ancient dam of Marib" and the Awwam Temple area, also known as Mahram Bilqis, he added.

After Marib's ancient dam, also known as the Dam of Arim, collapsed for the last time in around 100 BCE, the failure of the surrounding irrigation system drove many tribes -- al-Nahyan included -- to relocate to other parts of the peninsula.

Marib held a special significance for Sheikh Zayed, as it was his ancestral home. In 1984, he ordered the dam to be rebuilt, and financed the $100 million project himself, traveling to Yemen to inaugurate it in December 1986.

The move was widely considered to be a sign of Arab solidarity.

Sheikh Zayed said at the time he had felt "duty bound" to finance the project "because an Arab country that progresses and becomes strong must be considered to be a great support to other Arab nations".

The ancient dam had been vital to Yemen's past, he noted, and in the same way, the new dam was vital for its future development.

Marib's economic importance

In addition to its storied history and its water and energy resources, Marib is of great economic importance to Yemen on account of its oil, gas and other natural resources, al-Qasimi said.

"If these resources are well-exploited, they would make Yemen one of the richest countries," he added.

The Arab coalition's Yemen intervention, code-named Operation Decisive Storm, "seeks to restore Yemen’s historical, economic and political status, and to ensure Yemeni citizens benefit from their [country's] resources", he said.

Al-Qasimi accused the Iran-backed Houthis (Ansarallah) of squandering these resources "to achieve colonial goals" as a proxy of the Iranian regime.

Yemeni and Arab coalition forces had largely succeeded in ousting the Houthis from Marib province by April 2015, but the province is now hosting thousands of internally displaced persons who fled there from other parts of the country.

During the ongoing war, the Houthis have burned, vandalized and looted museums in Taez and Aden, he said, "and antiquities and artefacts were smuggled outside the country for the purpose of financing the Houthis’ terrorist operations".

Al-Qasimi called for the return of Yemeni antiquities that went missing or were smuggled out of the country and sold, in order to preserve Yemen's important history, which is of significance to the region and to humankind.

'The cradle of civilisations'

Yemen's Deputy Minister of Information Saleh al-Hamidi described Marib as "the cradle of civilisations, not only in Yemen but the entire world".

"The Marib Dam is the lifeblood of that province and a historical and archaeological landmark that is steeped in history," he told Al-Mashareq. "It is of great importance and directly linked to the lives of the people there."

In the same way that Marib held special significance for Sheikh Zayed, "his sons are following in their father’s footsteps and continuing to give attention to Yemen", al-Hamidi said.

This is evidenced by the "close ties between the sheikhs of the UAE and Yemen, and Marib in particular", he added.

"Sheikh Zayed’s roots trace back to Marib and the noble al-Nahyan tribe," he said, so "Yemen is essentially the Arabs' first house, from which migration took place to various parts of the Arab world".

This wave of migration followed the collapse of the ancient Marib Dam, he said.

Strong ties with Yemen tribes

Sheikh Zayed visited Marib and communicated with tribal leaders in Yemen on a regular basis, and is known to have been very proud of his Yemeni ancestry, al-Hamidi said, adding that this good relationship continues to this day.

While Marib has a rich history and an abundance of natural resources, the Houthis and extremist groups such as al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) continue to threaten the peace and prosperity of the region.

They pose a threat "to life, as well as to antiquities and tourist sites", al-Hamidi said. "These people have no regard for civilisations or antiquities and do not place any value on anything other than their own dynastic sacerdotal past."

"Yemen lost a large portion of its antiquities in both the looting of museums and archaeological sites and destruction of those sites in the ongoing wars," he said.

Ancient archaeological sites have been used as strongholds and as barracks, and have been targeted with artillery fire on several occasions, he added.

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