A Unified Yemen May Soon Cease to Exist

Finally acting on long-held goals, on April 25 Yemen’s UAE-supported Southern Transitional Council (STC) declared self-rule in the provisional capital, Aden, and other areas it controls in south Yemen. The internationally recognized government of President Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi denounced the move as a coup while some governorates loyal to Hadi are reported to have rejected the STC’s declaration. But this opposition should not be understood as hastening the imminent collapse of the STC’s dream of southern independence nor should it mitigate the devastating impact of the announcement. In fact, the STC’s declaration of self-rule paves the way for a three-way split of the country between the STC, Hadi’s government (in certain governorates), and the areas under the control of the Houthis in the north, including the official capital, Sanaa.

This development unfolds as the civil war drags on, outside intervention continues, and the legitimate government of President Hadi struggles to maintain its writ in the country. That the move does not augur well for Yemen would be an understatement. If the STC’s declaration is allowed to stand over the next few weeks, military clashes are likely to recur between the southern separatists and Hadi’s troops while the Houthis attempt to improve their battlefield positions. Considering the economic trouble engulfing Saudi Arabia––Hadi’s purported friend––and the kingdom’s eagerness for a cease-fire with the Houthis and good relations with the United Arab Emirates, Riyadh may just kick the STC’s ball down the road, thus allowing for a de facto partition of the country.

Erroneous Assumptions of the Riyadh Agreement

The STC’s decision to declare self-rule in its southern canton was a direct outcome of the failure of the Saudi-mediated Riyadh Agreement of November 2019 between the council and Hadi’s government. That agreement was presumed to be the necessary compromise that would prevent a war-within-the-war so that the fight against the Houthi insurgency and its transgressions could continue unabated. Nevertheless, it had some optimistic, yet unfounded, assumptions; its failure shows that the Saudi officials who presided over its mediation may not have thought everything through.

[The Riyadh Agreement] had some optimistic, yet unfounded, assumptions; its failure shows that the Saudi officials who presided over its mediation may not have thought everything through.

First, the architects of the agreement expected that Hadi and his government could quickly impose their writ in Aden and its environs as well as in other governorates where their soldiers held sway. The reality, however, has been different. The president and his cabinet have maintained a long-distance relationship with Aden, the declared provisional capital of the country, while Hadi has been residing in Riyadh and losing support among his compatriots. Hadi’s authority in Aden has been almost nonexistent as the STC continued to hinder his government’s operations in the city. The declaration of self-rule thus ends all doubt about Hadi’s ability to return.

Second, the Riyadh Agreement assumed that the STC was willing to subject itself to the primacy of Hadi’s unified government institutions, such as the ministries of defense and interior, under whose authority all military, intelligence, and security forces would operate. That was folly. Since the liberation of Aden from Houthi control in 2015, southern separatists such as Aidarous al-Zubaidi and Hani bin Breik––founders of the STC in 2017––have not been shy about bringing back an independent South Yemen and appointing themselves as representatives of southern grievances and demands. With tens of thousands of UAE-armed and trained soldiers, no one should have assumed that they would just accept playing second fiddle to the Saudi-supported and weak Hadi.

Third, it is doubtful that the United Arab Emirates would accept to surrender whatever influence it had secured by supporting the STC in Aden and the south of Yemen. To be sure, Yemen for the UAE is—and will remain—an essential station on its way to exercising control over strategic seaports between the Arabian Sea and the Mediterranean. For this reason, the UAE helped southerners in their attempt to create a rump state that would control Aden and its seaport. Also for this reason, President Hadi expressed reservations about the UAE’s role in his country and is famously reported to have accused its leaders of acting as occupiers. That the Saudi leadership thought the Riyadh Agreement they forged between Hadi and the STC would end this Emirati-backed scheme in Yemen was ill-advised, short-sighted, short-lived, and fateful for Yemen.

It is doubtful that the United Arab Emirates would accept to surrender whatever influence it had secured by supporting the STC in Aden and the south of Yemen.

What Is Saudi Arabia to Do?

The STC’s declaration of self-rule came as Saudi Arabia struggles to formulate a sound and effective policy toward Yemen. Over the last month, Saudi Arabia declared a two-week unilateral ceasefire with the Houthis that has been extended for another two weeks, without receiving much consideration from the insurgents. To be sure, it does not appear that the Houthis are interested in ending military operations anytime soon. Instead, they will most assuredly reason that the STC’s declaration helps their position since neither the southern separatists nor the Hadi government can now mount much resistance against them.

With the UAE having withdrawn from direct involvement in Yemen (except for its support of the STC), Saudi Arabia does not have many options in dealing with the council’s declaration. Its attempt at reining in the STC through the Riyadh Agreement has not produced the hoped-for results; at the same time, its support of Hadi has been both lukewarm and ineffective. In addition, Riyadh faces economic hardships resulting from low oil prices amid a global slowdown and international criticism about its war conduct in Yemen; therefore, it may not be able to mount an effective campaign to preserve its neighbor’s unity. Saudi Arabia may find that its call for a return to the Riyadh Agreement is the best option for the time being in order to re-launch an intra-Yemeni political compromise. In the meantime, the STC’s move for self-rule will stand, exposing Yemen to unwarranted circumstances to which the Saudi leadership has contributed by not recognizing the dangers the southern separatists bring to the country.

Imad K. Harb is the Director of Research and Analysis at Arab Center Washington DC. To learn more about Imad and read his previous publications click here

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