Funerals in Yemen are traditionally large affairs. When prominent figures die, hundreds or even thousands of people come to pay their respects and to pray for them. Abdulqader Hilal Al-Dabab, the mayor of Sana’a, Yemen’s capital, could expect such treatment. But Hilal used to ask for a simple burial. “If I get killed when I’m in office, I don’t want a state funeral,” he told his sons. He wanted to be buried in a grave he’d reserved next to his father’s.
Hilal had seen enough devastation to know to make plans for his demise. In the past three decades, Yemen has had nine wars, two insurgencies, and a revolution; Hilal governed a region with strong ties to Al Qaeda, and had survived an assassination attempt. A father of eleven, he was a former marathon runner who won North Yemen’s inter-university challenge three times. In Sana’a, Hilal kept a garden with a gazebo, where he received guests. Stephen Seche, the former United States Ambassador to Yemen, recalled sitting there while Hilal explained Yemeni politics. Other diplomats saw him as a moderating force, someone who could negotiate the intricate mesh of tribal, business, and political affiliations that make up Yemeni society.
Yemen’s most recent conflict began in early 2015, when Houthi rebels, from the country’s northern highlands, overran Sana’a and a Saudi-led coalition began bombing them. The Houthis allied with a former President and co-opted tribal networks in an effort to solidify and expand their power. Now they control much of the northwest of the country, while the internationally recognized government holds the south and the east. The Saudi coalition is made up of nine Middle Eastern and African countries, and is supported by the United States.