After al-Qaida, a Yemeni Port Restored


After al-Qaida seized the port city of Mukalla in Yemen, the local power plant could provide only spotty service during peak summer demand. The terrorists threatened to hang plant engineer Mohammed Bahaj if he couldn’t boost energy production for Mukalla and the surrounding province of Hadhramout, home to the largest concentration of al-Qaida members in the world.

Now, more than a year after al-Qaida was ousted from Mukalla, the plant can order replacement parts, new workers have joined the staff, and the power output has roughly doubled, making it possible to keep the lights on for the 700,000 people in the province, Bahaj said.

“Capacity has gone higher to provide more families with a standard of living, he said. “That’s a major difference.”

Al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) occupied Mukalla in 2015 as Yemen descended into conflict. In April 2016, a force of 11,000 Yemenis trained by the United Arab Emirates (UAE) launched an assault backed by UAE planes and ships. By nightfall, AQAP members were fleeing the city.

The quick and decisive victory — the centerpiece of a broader push to defeat AQAP in southern Yemen — was followed by a more time-consuming challenge for the local government: maintaining security and improving daily life as the broader Yemen conflict ground on elsewhere.

Protecting military gains often depends on successfully restoring basic services because extremists exploit government failures. That is especially true in Mukalla, where AQAP positioned itself as better at providing services than the government agencies.

“You do have to compete with them on services,” said Michael Knights, a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy who has studied the campaign to recapture and stabilize Mukalla. “If you just leave, groups like al-Qaida and [Daesh] fill the void.”

To that end, the Emirates Red Crescent organization signed a work agreement in May 2017 with the Public Electricity Corp. in Hadhramout to extend the network of electricity cables in the al-Rayan region, east of Mukalla. Red Crescent also funded a project to strengthen the electrical line of the al-Rayan mosque, providing it with air conditioning and easing the intense summer heat for worshippers.

The conflict in Yemen has pushed much of the country to the brink of famine, according to the World Food Programme. The United Nations estimates that more than 10,000 civilians have died in the fighting. And a cholera outbreak has killed more than 1,500 people across several provinces.

In Mukalla, AQAP tried to improve city services, but a lack of technical expertise, isolation from international markets and extremist ideology got in the way, according to residents and city employees. These failures contributed to a groundswell of support for AQAP’s ouster. A couple of thousand members of the Yemeni force infiltrated the group’s ranks to provide intelligence and prepare for the offensive, said Ahmed bin Braik, the former provincial governor.

Now, schools in Mukalla have been refurbished, and hospitals have been restocked. Water use has roughly doubled, after new wells were drilled and others repaired. Damaged roads have been repaired and new ones built. The radio station, shut down by al-Qaida, has been revived.

Few foreign shipping firms were willing to visit when al-Qaida controlled the port, and the terminal’s operators only had a couple of aging tugboats, which limited the size of ships they could pull into the harbor.

Now, foreign shipping lines have returned to the bustling port. With the recent addition of a Malaysian tug, the port’s capacity has climbed to around 15,000 shipping containers a year, more than doubling the capacity from when the terrorists were failing to run the port. And at the power plant, the gigantic engines are roaring again.

“Everyone is more relaxed, they are happier, salaries are getting paid on time,” Bahaj said.

Sources: The Wall Street Journal,