“Yemen has been at war for 50 years,” my guard Ahmad says, looking over his shoulder as our driver wrestles the pickup truck’s front wheel out of yet another pothole. “When is it our turn for some peace?” In fact, the Shabwa region, linking the mountains of south-central Yemen to the Arabian Sea, has been a comparatively conflict-free spot in the war-torn Arab nation.
Since the civil war began in 2014 the province has in turn played host to government forces and the Iran-backed Houthi militia, as well as al-Qaeda, armed southern separatists and Emirati-backed mercenaries. But since late 2019, when government forces regained control of Shabwa and its capital Ataq, locals have begun to hope that better security could lead to increased prosperity.
Almost everyone I meet during the week-long trip through the area’s half-built streets and lush desert valleys speaks in hushed tones of new work opportunities and even the hope that foreign investment might return. New buildings are popping up and the resurrection of public services is planned – if not quite under way yet. But those living close to the province’s borders fear as much as they hope. In neighbouring governorates to the north and west, the multi-front, multi-party war that has killed more than 120,000 people rages on – and the prospect of the fighting creeping back south is never far away.
Indeed, later the same day we receive word that a car bomb has exploded on the sea road, bringing violence back to an area that had been calm for months. Ahmad might have to wait a little longer for peace – sadly there are still plenty of potholes ahead.
Leila Molana-Allen is Monocle’s Beirut correspondent and reports from throughout the region.