With Yemeni president Abd-rabbu Mansour Hadi , the return of prime minister Ahmed Obeid bin Daghr to the port of Aden at the end of December underlined the interim capital’s importance. Amid the carnage of the Yemeni civil war and with the former capital, , Aden is the only major city looking remotely open for international business.
President Hadi’s hometown was one of the few ports after the Saudi-led coalition opted to starve out the northern rebels. Now Aden must work out how to recover from ruinous damage sustained during the 2015 offensive, in which the Houthis came within a whisker of seizing the city.
A capital only in name
Parliament reconvened in Aden last August, and announced the county’s first budget since 2014 – a step towards normality. But with an uneasy coalition in place, achieving stable governance remains very difficult, says . “The security situation isn’t safe, because Aden is controlled by many groups: Hadi’s forces, [separatist movement] , the Salafi militias. And the government still faces many other problems, like al-Qaida and Isis.”
He says the character of this city of 1.7 million people, framed against the smoky backdrop of the extinct Shamsan volcano, has changed. “It was a liberal city, with a mix of people – northerners, southerners, people of Indian origin. But the war turned everything upside-down. Now freedoms are being reduced, and it’s moved to being close-minded, which is one of the biggest problems the city, and the country, faces.”
Aden in numbers
839 – the number of damaged structures in the city, according to .
3rd – Aden’s ranking in world ports during the British colonial period, after New York and Liverpool.
1989 – the last time Aden was a capital, prior to the unification of North and South in 1990.
19m – gallons of water once held in the abandoned Tawila cisterns on the volcano, which may have been built by a pre-Islamic civilisation.
45 – the number of months the French poet Arthur Rimbaud spent living in Aden while there in the 1880s.
History in 100 words
Aden was possibly first referenced in print in , its position at the mouth of the Red Sea making it an early terminus for the western Arabian spice caravans. As it passed through the hands of various Islamic caliphates, it became a bustling global trade centre, even attracting a Chinese delegation in 1421. The collapse of Ottoman rule in the early 17th century had reduced it to a village of around 600 by the time the British snatched it from a local sultan in 1839. Topping up passing vessels heading to and from the Suez Canal with coal and water, this free port became vital to British empire logistics. The mid-1960s made the building pressures of Arab nationalism abundantly clear, and it was ceded as the new capital of the republic of South Yemen on 30 November 1967.
Aden in sound and vision
Recent BBC and Amazon drama is winning praise for its portrayal of a British military police unit in Aden in the final months of colonialism.
Following independence, South Yemen was a socialist stronghold – as this shows.
How liveable is Aden?
Barely. With the Yemeni economy crippled, residents have few job options and remain vulnerable to inflationary price surges on food. Government salaries have gone unpaid for two years. Oil was a major employer; the Little Aden refinery once set up by BP is working again, but supply from Shabwa province to the east is still being re-established. is training as a soldier or security officer in one of the city’s many military camps. Another thing that’s corrupting the soul of Aden, says al-Qalisi: “Most people here are educated, so it’s really depressing to see doctors and teachers training in the camps.”
Biggest urban risk
A city where summer temperatures average in the mid- to high 30C can’t do without electricity for air conditioning, and it is proving a matter of life and death – an Aden resident was shot last May during . “People are still facing really bad days,” says al-Qalisi. According to him, the city still only gets around two hours’ power daily, either at night or early mornings.
Development of the al-Haswa power station in Aden’s outskirts has stalled, and the power infrastructure is currently topped up by mobile generators supplied by the United Arab Emirates and Qatar – undoubtedly welcome, but a symptom of the geopolitical jostling going on in the country.
What’s next for the city?
Prior to the war, there were hopes Aden’s maritime history and strategic location might make it a candidate for a Dubai-style development supernova. Now Djibouti, on the other side of the Gulf of Aden, is . The Dubai operator DP World actually did manage Aden’s facilities between 2008 and 2012 before and accusations of corruption.
The UAE, part of the coalition propping up President Hadi, still retains strong interests in the country and has been pouring resources into Aden’s schools, healthcare and sewage infrastructure through its affiliate. But al-Qalisi says the city needs to be realistic about its future: “We need 50 years to be like Dubai. Now Yemenis need the basics, like electricity and water. Until we get them, then being like Dubai is a dream.”
The popular English-language Sana’a-based paper the Yemen Times has stopped publishing, reflecting the difficult reporting climate in the country. The Guardian’s watching the city dust itself off after the 2015 fighting, while Counter Punch detail that’s holding up reconstruction. This , meanwhile, draws the veil back on the impossible secret life of being gay and Christian in Aden.
Do you live in Aden? What key facts, figures and cultural highlights have we missed? Share your stories below
Follow Guardian Cities on , and to join the discussion, and