My visit to Paris of the ancient world

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On 13 August 2018, I had the distinguished honor of visiting the Republic of Yemen. The fact that I was the first Saudi woman to officially visit Yemen since the country’s crisis began in 2011 triggered the curiosity of journalists. For a moment, I felt like a superstar, and as is common with superstar behavior, I began to avoid the cameras.

Honestly, I was not visiting the country to show off; I was there to do my job and make sure I built up memories so as to absorb every second passing by. Indeed, those memories are as vivid to me today as they were a year ago. They are a mixture of pleasant and sad memories.

Just after sunrise, we flew from Riyadh on a C-130 plane to cover a press conference of the Spokesman of the Coalition Forces which took place in Marib. It was when we touched down in Marib that I realized that standing on a historical site engenders feelings of pride. Marib town is a historical site located in north-central Yemen. It was a fortified city which was the principal center of the kingdom of Saba (950-115 BC). It was in this city that the Sabaean civilization flourished with the transfer of political power from priest-kings to monarchs in the 7th century.

The city lay in a fertile oasis watered by the Marib dam, and as such, it has been christened the “Paris of the ancient world.” Furthermore, it was on one of the vital caravan routes that connected the Arabian Peninsula with Mediterranean markets. This trading monopoly allowed the city to prosper economically as it controlled such goods as frankincense and myrrh.

Unfortunately, this ancient city suffered decades of marginalization and neglect by previous Yemeni governments. Despite the civil war, the city has managed to prosper. Due to its stability, it has become a city of economic opportunities in stark contrast to the country that has been torn apart by the crisis. Marib came into the spotlight in January 2015 when Iranian-backed Houthi rebels attacked and took over Sanaa, Yemen’s capital, a city 170 kilometers away.

Consequently, many Yemenis fled to Marib, where local tribesmen and the Yemeni legitimate government backed by the Arab coalition stood firm against the rebels’ assault. After the victory over the rebels, the city’s people used their resilience and ingenuity to survive. This has thus made it a refuge for thousands of those internally displaced by the civil war. As a result, its population has increased fifty-fold, from 40,000 to more than 1.5 million people, making Marib a large, bustling city.

When I visited the outskirts of the city and the camps of displaced people, I saw the first signs of the horrors caused by the Iran-backed Houthi rebels. People escape from the terror they face daily from the militias in order to live in a secure environment under the legitimate government backed by the Saudi-led military coalition. Upon further inquiry, I found that some people found life under Houthi control unbearable because of injustice and insecurity.

Living as an internally displaced person under the rebels is unheard of, and that is another sign of the benefit of the Saudi-led military and another pointer to what the people want in the country; living in peace away from the Iran-backed Houthi rebels. In Marib, I saw new buildings and others which were still under construction. Moreover, the presence of restaurants, cafes and laundries were all features of ordinary life in this small city.

My visit to the King Salman Humanitarian Aid and Relief Center was a heart-breaking stop. We were greeted by the center’s staff and a group of children who were dressed nicely in black sneakers and pants with a belt, and yellow button-down shirts. The center, however, is for the rehabilitation of child soldiers and those children came from several governorates in the Republic of Yemen. Some of these ex-child soldiers had scars from bullet wounds which they suffered during combat.

All of them were recruited by the Houthis, the Iranian-allied Yemeni group fighting against the legitimate government. Some were kidnapped from their parents and others from school buses to carry arms before being thrown into the firing line. If they did not obey and listen to instructions, they were beaten and starved. Reading about them is different from seeing the pain and hope in their eyes. I was glad to learn that they were happy in the rehabilitation center, and that they loved their teachers and the school, and harbored ambitions, such as becoming doctors or engineers.

Another amazing thing I noticed during my visit was the positive attitude of our brave Saudi soldiers. Saudi Arabia launched a military intervention in Yemen in 2015, where it led a coalition of nine countries. This act was in response to calls for military help by internationally-recognized president Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi who had been ousted by the Houthi militias. This intervention was in compliance with Article 2(4) of the UN Charter on the responsibility to protect. Initially, this military intervention entailed a bombing campaign, a naval blockade and later ground troops were deployed in the country.

Hitherto, I always thought these soldiers serving in a foreign country were mentally and emotionally harsh, but my visit to Marib completely changed my view. They were truly kind and amazingly in good spirits; I saw brave soldiers who were very cooperative and interacted with each other as if they were brothers, and were friendly toward strangers. I also noted that they respected the people of Yemen very much.

Inasmuch as I have lived my life experiencing different cultures and traveling to several countries all over the world, my visit to Yemen was a life-changing one. I saw a people frightened by war and whose livelihood has been disrupted by armed violence. I saw the good Saudi Arabia is doing through the King Salman Humanitarian Aid and Relief Center and our brave Saudi soldiers.

My love for that country is immense, and my wish for it is that it prospers and the war ends for peace to prevail. I am very grateful for visiting this beautiful country, a land of ancient civilizations. This is perfectly symbolized by Marib, which is a homeland of courage and generosity. Just as the city is poised between horror and hope, I desire that the rest of the war-ravaged country move toward stability and cohesion.

— The author is a Saudi writer and a Strategic Partnership Specialist, she can be reached at her Twitter account:
@Hzaherr


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