Yemen’s Fate Hinges on The Battle for Marib

Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 19 Issue: 4


In early February, Yemen’s Houthis—also known as Ansar Allah—began a renewed push to capture the oil and gas rich Marib governorate and its capital of the same name (Arab News, February 9). After four weeks of intense and costly fighting, Houthi forces have encircled Marib city on three sides. To the west of the city, Houthi forces are now less than 11 kilometers from Marib’s outskirts.

On February 21, the Houthis also stormed Marib city’s prison and secured the release of prisoners held by the internationally-recognized government (IRG) of Yemen (, February 22). The operation, which was carried out by the Houthis’ rapid reaction force, indicates both the proximity of Houthi forces to the city and the city’s permeability to small groups of well-trained fighters.

The strategic importance of Marib to the Houthis, the IRG, and the whole of Yemen cannot be underestimated, and the stakes could not be higher for all parties involved in Yemen’s interlocking wars. If the Houthis succeed in taking Marib governorate and its capital, the IRG will be dealt a blow from which it may not recover. The IRG’s further diminishment will fundamentally alter the political terrain in Yemen at a time when other important regional political shifts are underway. The fate of Marib will, in many respects, decide the fate of Yemen for years to come.

Military Overreach in Marib

The election of Joseph R. Biden as U.S. president has already shifted U.S. policy in the Middle East and, most specifically, in Yemen. The Trump administration’s close relationship with Saudi Arabia and its crown prince, Muhammad bin Salman, has been replaced with a less permissive policy under the Biden administration. On February 4, President Biden, as part of a broader foreign policy speech, said that the war in Yemen must end and indicated that the U.S. would scale back its support for Saudi Arabia’s offensive operations in Yemen (al-Jazeera, February 4). The Biden administration also reversed the Trump administration’s last-minute designation of the Houthis as a foreign terrorist organization (FTO) (Arab News, February 13). These moves, along with the Biden administration’s desire to restart negotiations with Iran over its nuclear program, have emboldened the Houthis and their primary regional ally, Iran.

While capturing Marib has long been a priority for the Houthis, the Biden administration’s policy and changing regional dynamics altered the cost-benefit equation for the Houthi leadership. The Houthis previously circulated an offer to the IRG on Marib in lieu of a renewed offensive. The offer, which included nine points ranging from the IRG agreeing to not use Marib as a base for military operations to revenue sharing from oil sales, was refused by the IRG months ago. [1] Now that the offensive is underway, the Houthis have replaced this formal offer with more traditional ad-hoc negotiations through tribal elites.

The Houthi leadership believes that if the Houthis take Marib city and most of the governorate, their position as the preeminent political and military power in Yemen will be secure ahead of anticipated negotiations. However, substantial risks accompany the offensive in Marib. Since taking up positions on the outskirts of Marib city, the advance of the Houthis has slowed or become static in many areas. This is despite the fact that the Houthis now occupy mountains near the Marib dam that look down on the city. While the Houthis are consolidating control of their gains, they also face devastating airstrikes by the Royal Saudi Air Force (RSAF). [2] The airstrikes, combined with fierce and well-planned counter-attacks by a range of religiously inspired Salafist militias, tribal militias, and other forces loyal to the IRG, are taking a toll on the Houthis. The accuracy of the airstrikes, something RSAF has up to now struggled with, indicate that there is greater coordination between ground forces and the RSAF.

The Houthis use small highly mobile units of fighters, which makes them difficult to target from the air. However, the size of Marib city (which is home to two-million people) and the abundance of relatively flat terrain have made Houthi forces easier to target. Taking the city of Marib also requires the Houthis to amass men and arms in a way that makes them more vulnerable than they have been in previous campaigns. Casualties on all sides, but especially for the Houthis, are increasingly heavy.

Houthis’ Shortages of Men and Money

The Houthis face two primary obstacles, both of which are being exacerbated by the fight for Marib: first, they cannot replace fighters fast enough; and, second, their revenue and cash shortages are severe. The shortage of fighters, especially well-trained ones, is acute, and has become even more so over the last six months. The Houthis have long used conscription to fill their ranks, but the most recent conscripts are younger, receive less training, and are paid, if they are paid at all, far less than they were six months ago. As a consequence, conscripts are far more inclined to flee from battle when they get the opportunity (Asharq al-Awsat, February 24). To make up for the conscript shortfall, the Houthis are recruiting, often forcibly, more foreigners, including those fleeing the conflict in Ethiopia’s Tigray region (al-Anba Online, February 19). [3]

The Houthis’ financial woes are equally difficult for them to address. Despite collecting ‘taxes’ from Yemeni businesses, businessmen, and tribal elites, the costs of the war far outstrip revenue. Instead of paying government employees and providing basic services, the vast majority of the taxes collected by the Houthis go toward the war. Conscription and the ad-hoc and often arbitrary collection of taxes both feed growing discontent with the Houthis and their government. A prolonged battle for Marib will make the Houthis’ demands for money and men more rapacious, thereby exacerbating growing discontent. [4]

More significantly, a protracted battle for Marib will weaken the Houthis’ southern and western fronts. The Houthis have already redeployed fighters from these fronts to Marib for the offensive there. The fighters that are left to defend positions in the south and west are primarily young recruits, who often have minimal training. Most of the Houthis’ seasoned fighters have been re-deployed to Marib. [5] However, thus far, despite these vulnerabilities, the Houthis’ southern and western fronts have not been attacked by rival forces.

Yemen’s Internationally Recognized Government’s Last Stand

As Marib is the de-facto capital of Yemen’s internationally recognized government, the loss of Marib would be a fatal blow for IRG President Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi’s government. While the IRG has contingency plans, including a retreat to parts of the Hadramawt governorate to the east, the loss of Marib could precipitate sweeping shifts in loyalty. Yemenis from all sides of the conflict would recognize that the pendulum of power has swung decisively in favor of the Houthis. This could prompt a recalibration of loyalties when Yemeni elites act to protect their long-term economic and political interests. These pragmatic calculations are what the Houthi leadership is counting on.

While the Houthis are best known for their formidable skills on the battlefield, they are also adept at making deals—at least domestically. They have often used a carrot and stick approach to secure the grudging loyalty of many of Yemen’s elites and tribes. Even with their military acumen, the Houthis could not rule as they do without the tacit support of many of Yemen’s powerful northern tribes.

The Houthis are not the only force in Yemen that would benefit from the demise of the IRG. Yemen’s Southern Transitional Council (STC) is locked in its own intermittent battle with the IRG as it tries to assert control over southern Yemen. On Yemen’s west coast, the Tihama Resistance Forces are fighting for greater autonomy and are not loyal to the IRG. Saudi Arabia has little influence over the Tihama Resistance Forces or the STC. Instead, its regional ally and competitor, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), wields influence over both forces.

While the STC is not directly involved in the fight against the Houthis in Marib, the battle is attracting Salafist militias from the south. These militias and their commanders are loosely allied with the STC. Their motivation to fight the Houthis stems more from a religious antipathy to the Houthis as Zaidi Shi’a than it does to any loyalty to the STC or the IRG. [6] Salafi-inspired militias, many of which have some overlap with more radical groups like AQAP, have long been welcomed by those tribes battling the Houthis.

Some indications also exist that Tariq Saleh, the nephew of Yemen’s former president Ali Abdullah Saleh, is providing limited support to the IRG in its fight to retain Marib. Tariq Saleh commands the National Resistance Forces that are based near Taiz and in parts of Yemen’s west coast. The National Resistance Forces are well-led and equipped thanks to Emirati support. However, moving significant numbers of forces to the frontlines in Marib is all but impossible over the short-term due to a lack of cooperation with rival militias.

If coordination between Yemen’s anti-Houthi forces increases, the IRG and its tribal allies may hold Marib city. While the Houthis are still the most formidable fighting force in Yemen, they are in danger of being militarily over-extended. Despite their efforts to conscript and recruit as many men as they can, the battle for Marib is taking a serious toll on their forces, especially with conscripts routinely abandoning their positions and Houthi supply lines becoming stretched and frequently targeted by the RSAF. [7] Resupply issues now plague many of the Houthis’ forward positions. If the IRG is able to rally support from anti-Houthi forces, and, more particularly, if some of those forces engage the Houthis on their southern fronts, the momentum in the battle for Marib will likely shift to the IRG.

Yemen’s Outlook

While their enemies and regional foes have consistently underestimated their military capabilities, the Houthis may be in danger of overestimating their own abilities. The offensive in Marib is pushing the Houthis up against their limits with respect to military and political power. The shift in U.S. policy has, however, emboldened the Houthis, and likely contributed to their decision to renew their offensive in Marib. This may be a miscalculation because if the Houthis do succeed in taking Marib, there will be dire humanitarian costs. Marib is home to roughly eight hundred thousand internally displaced persons (IDPs). The Houthis’ mismanagement of a humanitarian crisis that will be largely of their own making may cause the international community, and the United States in particular, to be less supportive of inclusive negotiations.

As the Houthis grapple with a humanitarian crisis caused by their offensive, they will be hard pressed to maintain consistent control of Marib. Even if they are able to make deals with some tribal elites, many tribes will continue to fight. The Houthis may then face an insurgency within an insurgency at a time when they have drawn down their reserves of men and financial resources. Additionally, the Houthis will likely struggle to secure the governorate’s critical oil and gas infrastructure. Armed groups who oppose Houthi control will target these facilities as a way undermining the Houthis and blocking them from extracting revenue. [8]

The most likely scenario for the battle in Marib is a stalemate between the Houthis and the IRG. The Houthi offensive, which appeared to be unstoppable a week ago, is now static. While elite Houthi units have penetrated the outer defenses of Marib city, close coordination between the RSAF, tribal militias, and IRG forces have stopped—at least for now—a large-scale advance on the city.

A stalemate may be the best-case scenario for now. The IRG can claim to have fought off the Houthis and saved the city, which is as important for the IRG as it is for Yemen as a whole. Marib city is one of the places in Yemen that point toward a viable future. The IRG, local government, and tribal elites have worked together to build and re-build functioning state and local institutions from the ground up.

For their part, the Houthis may be forced to realize that there are limits to their military capabilities. The leadership might learn that compromise must be a part of their political and strategic toolkit if they want respect from the international community.


[1] Interview with a former Yemeni government official (February, 25, 2021).

[2] It is not clear if it is only the RSAF conducting air strikes in Marib. The tempo of operations, which is likely beyond the RSAF’s capabilities, suggests other coalition members are aiding the RSAF and or participating in the airstrikes.

[3] Some of those fleeing the war in Ethiopia’s Tigray region already possess significant military training as a result of conscription and service in Ethiopia’s Federal Forces and regional militias. These men are specifically targeted for recruitment by the Houthis. However, migrants from numerous African countries routinely make their way through Yemen, where many fall prey to recruitment, forced or otherwise, by the Houthis and other armed groups operating in Yemen. See:;

[4] Interview with a former member of the Yemeni government (February 23, 2021).

[5] Interview with a Yemen based security analyst (February 23, 2021).

[6] Interview with a senior member of the Southern Transitional Council (February 24, 2021).

[7] Interview with a former Yemeni government official (February 24, 2021).

[8] The ongoing maintenance of critical oil and gas handling infrastructure by Yemeni engineers and technicians is one area where the Houthis and IRG have cooperated. Yemen’s pipelines and pumping stations all require ongoing maintenance and repairs even though many are not in use. It was erroneously reported that the IRG would blow up Marib’s oil and gas facilities if it lost the city to the Houthis. This report was vociferously denied by IRG officials who know that such an action would damn them in the eyes of many Yemenis. Such facilities take years, and even a decade in some cases, to build. The destruction of these facilities would have a severe impact on Yemen’s reconstruction and redevelopment.