Keeping the power on in Al Mukalla and restoring other services could help keep militants at bay

When al Qaeda ran this port city, the local power plant lacked spare parts, generators had to run on the wrong fuel and residents lived with spotty electricity during peak summer demand.

The militants threatened to hang engineer Mohammed Bahaj if he couldn’t boost production for the province of Hadramout and its capital, Al Mukalla, which was their most-populous territorial holding in the world.

 Now, a year after al Qaeda was ousted, the plant is able to order replacement parts, new workers have joined the staff and power output has roughly doubled, making it possible to keep the lights on most of the time for around 700,000 people in the province, he said.

“Capacity has gone higher to provide more families with a standard of living. That’s a major difference,” said Mr. Bahaj, who has worked at the plant for three decades.

Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, an offshoot of the terror group, took over Al Mukalla in 2015 as Yemen descended into conflict between Shiite Houthi rebels allied with Iran and Saudi Arabia, the region’s leading Sunni Muslim power.

Then, on April 24 of last year, a force of 11,000 Yemenis trained by the United Arab Emirates, a Saudi ally, launched an assault backed by U.A.E. planes and ships. By nightfall, AQAP members were fleeing the city.

A Yemeni soldier stood guard on a beach in Al Mukalla on April 22.
A Yemeni soldier stood guard on a beach in Al Mukalla on April 22. PHOTO: AZIZ EL YAAKOUBI/REUTERS

 

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

The U.S. and its allies may soon face similar challenges in Iraq and Syria, where they are fighting to oust Islamic State extremists from Mosul and Raqqa. Protecting military gains often depends on successfully restoring basic services, because extremists can exploit any failures.

That is especially true in Al Mukalla, where al Qaeda positioned itself as better than previous governments that had neglected the area.

“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 Al Mukalla. “It’s obvious that if you just leave, groups like al Qaeda and Islamic State fill the void.”

The conflict in Yemen has sent much of the country to the brink of famine, according to the World Food Program. The United Nations estimates that more than 10,000 civilians have died in the fighting. And a recent outbreak of cholera has killed at least 129 people across several provinces in recent weeks, according to authorities in San’a, the nation’s capital, where the Houthi rebels have declared a state of emergency.

In Al 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.

While the militants refurbished an operating theater at the local women’s and children’s hospital, militants insisted that only female doctors operate on female patients. Abdulhakim Bin Mugheiry, the director of the hospital, said he asked the militants to provide him with female surgeons; when they couldn’t, he went ahead with operations by men.

“If there’s a shortage in the market, this is people’s lives,” he said. “We have to do what we have to do.”

Ahmed bin Braik, the governor of Hadramout province, of which Al Mukalla is the capital.Ahmed bin Braik, the governor of Hadramout province, of which Al Mukalla is the capital. PHOTO: ASA FITCH/THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

 

AQAP failures contributed to a groundswell of support for its 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 provincial governor.

Now, schools in Al 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 the militants, has been revived.

The new government that took over after AQAP is made up of Yemenis. But many of the reconstruction efforts have been led by the U.A.E. military and the U.A.E.’s Red Crescent chapter.

On a hot afternoon last month, traffic was snarled around the largest shopping center in the city, which has about 300,000 residents. Kids in matching red and yellow uniforms played soccer on sandy lots downtown.

Few foreign shipping firms were willing to stop at Al Mukalla when al Qaeda 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.

The shoreline in Al Mukalla
The shoreline in Al Mukalla PHOTO: ASA FITCH,/THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

 

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, compared with around 6,000 when al Qaeda was in charge.

Keeping Al Mukalla safe is a daily battle for the Yemeni and U.A.E. soldiers who man hastily built camps that ring the city. Many AQAP fighters—local officials estimate between 200 and 400—linger in the rugged valleys that run from the interior to the coast near Al Mukalla.

“One of the major pieces of unfinished business is that we have a serious problem with terrorists,” said Mr. bin Braik.

Fighting is also going on elsewhere in Yemen. Saudi Arabia has been focused on responding to Houthi attacks across the countries’ 1,100-mile land border, and the Houthis still reign in San’a. An offensive by the Saudi-led coalition on the Red Sea coast toward the Houthi-controlled port of Hodeida has been slow.

But at the power plant where Mr. Bahaj works the gigantic engines are roaring again.

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

Yemeni soldiers checked a boat in the port.
Yemeni soldiers checked a boat in the port. PHOTO: AZIZ EL YAAKOUBI/REUTERS

 

By Asa Fitch

Write to Asa Fitch at asa.fitch@wsj.com

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