On 5 November 2019 a power-sharing agreement was signed in Riyadh between the Saudi-backed Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi government and the Southern Transitional Council supported by the United Arab Emirates. The document sets forth a range of points and dispensations, most importantly providing for power-sharing between north and south and the return of Prime Minister Moeen Abdelmalek to Aden to set up state institutions. It also includes three annexes covering a range of political, economic, military and security issues the implementation of which will be overseen by Saudi Arabia.
The agreement was signed after negotiations were initiated by Saudi Arabia on August 11, 2019, following the STC’s move to expel Hadi loyalists from Aden and other southern regions. This section outlines the most important points covered by the agreement.1
1) State Institutions
The agreement provides for various procedures to put state institutions into operation, the most important of which are:
- Strengthening the role of Yemeni state institutions and bodies both politically and economically.
- Reorganizing military forces under the command of the Defense Ministry.
- Reorganizing security forces under the command of the Interior Ministry.
- Commitment to full citizenship rights and an end to regional and sectarian discrimination and division.
- An end to current media campaigns between the two sides.
- A unified military effort under coalition leadership, restoring security and stability to Yemen.
- Confronting terrorist organizations.
- Forming a committee under Saudi leadership and coalition oversight to monitor implementation of the agreement and its annexes.
- STC participation in the government delegation to the negotiations to find a final political solution to the Houthi coup.
- As soon as the document is signed, President Hadi will issue directives to state institutions to implement the agreement.
2) Annex 1: Political and Economic Arrangements
These provisions govern the first point of the agreement. They include a national unity government of 24 ministers equally divided between north and south, to be formed within 30 days of signature; Hadi will name the premier and appoint its members from representatives not implicated in fighting or incitement during the events of August 2019. The prime minister-designate will then appoint in consultation a governor and director of security for the Aden Governorate within 15 days, for Abyan and Dhalea within 30, and for the other southern provinces within 60.
The current premier will begin his work in Aden within less than a week of signature. He will work to get the institutions of the state functioning and manage its resources and income including oil, tax and customs revenues, deposit them in the central bank in Aden, dispense salaries and fees and provide parliament with a regular report on revenues and spending. He will also ensure that the Central Agency for Auditing and Accounting begins carrying out its functions and restructure the National Anti-Corruption Commission and the Higher Economic Council.
3) Annex 2: Military Arrangements
These provisions regulate the second point of the agreement. The forces that advanced towards Aden, Abyan and Shabwa since the beginning of August 2019 will return to their original positions and their place will be taken by local security forces within fifteen days of signature. Within the same period, the military and security forces stationed in the city of Aden will be disarmed and redeployed outside the city under the supervision of and according to timelines set by the coalition. All government and STC forces within the governorate of Aden will be redeployed to camps outside the governorate, according to guidelines set by the coalition command. The only exception to this is the First Presidential Protection Brigade, which will continue to protect the presidential palaces and their environs and guarantee the safe movement of the president. Similar protection will be afforded to STC leaders under coalition supervision.
The government and STC forces distributed across Aden are also to be unified, given new unit designations and placed under Defense Ministry control before being redeployed under coalition supervision, all within sixty days of signature. Forces in Abyan and Lahj will be reorganized under Defense Ministry control through the same procedure within the same period, with an additional thirty days for forces in the other southern provinces.
4) Annex 3: Security Arrangements
These arrangements regulate Point 3 of the agreement. Police and support forces in the Governorate of Aden will take responsibility for their implementation and reorganization of government and STC forces under the governorate’s Director of Security under the Interior Ministry, within 30 days of signature. The same applies to the reorganization of security and counterterrorism forces in Aden and their reinforcement with troops from government and STC forces, the appointment of new commanders and the assignment of new unit numbers under the Interior Ministry. Similar provisions, this time within 90 days, cover the Facilities Defense Forces tasked with protecting vital civilian infrastructure in liberated provinces, including ports and the natural gas installation in Balhaf.
The agreement and its full or partial implementation are expected to face challenges of various kinds:
1) Political Challenges
The UAE’s applied pressure in order to limit the participation of prominent members of the current Yemeni government in the unity cabinet provided for by the agreement2 because of their anti-Emirati positions.3 It is also notable that the agreement makes no reference to Hadi, his deputy General Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar, or other members of the government (other than the current premier) returning to the capital. This raises various questions about what exactly a unity government means if neither the president nor the vice-president are able to return to the temporary capital.
The STC has also scored a major political victory in solidifying the military defeat it inflicted on the government forces in the first round of confrontations in August 2019, securing control over three provinces (Aden, Lahj, and Dhalea). The STC is now a full partner in the Hadi government and is recognized by the agreement and its sponsors as the strongest of the southern political entities. The agreement in this sense is a qualitative shift for the STC, whether it ultimately plans to secede or to lead the south as a fully autonomous region as part of a comprehensive political solution.
2) Challenges on the Ground
The agreement may serve as a means for the STC to consolidate its military and security control over some of the southern governorates. It does not explicitly determine the status of the forces spread out across the western coast, which remain outside Defense Ministry control. It likewise does not determine the status of Socotra, where tensions are steadily escalating between the local government and elements loyal to the STC. This ambiguity may leave the door open to further clashes, especially if the STC does not keep to its commitment to withdraw from government camps and buildings or to integrate its forces under the government’s Defense and Interior Ministries.4 The government will not simply stand by and allow the STC to shirk its responsibilities under the agreement. This may lead to flare-ups, bearing in mind the existing conflict between the different poles of regional and party politics that have served as drivers of the violence that has periodically wracked the south.5
Moreover, the timeframe for the agreement seems impractical given the complications on the ground and the possibility that Al Qaeda may resume its activities and the Houthis may attempt to directly target the agreement.6
Ramifications for Saudi-Emirati Relations
The agreement allows for a Saudi military presence in areas of UAE influence in the southern coastal cities in addition to its existing forces in Shabwa, Mahra, and Hadhramawt. Saudi numbers began to increase after the August events under the pretext of ceasefire observation and preventing any further military escalation, and their units have been and still are steadily replacing their Emirati counterparts in military bases, Aden Airport, and at coalition headquarters. This will only increase with Saudi oversight of the agreement’s implementation.7
This has meant a concomitant decrease in the role played by the UAE, particularly in Aden. Since the beginning of its military intervention in Yemen approximately five years ago, the UAE has worked hard to cultivate local representatives to protect its interests in the geostrategically important maritime region. This region controls international trading routes and the flow of oil and is tied up in other Emirati regional interests since it serves as an economic and commercial complement allowing it to extend its influence from the Suez Canal to the western Indian Ocean.8 It has now become obvious how unrealistic these conceptions are and how fragile this extension is. This may have ramifications for the Saudi-Emirati coalition, which recently has experienced various tribulations both in Yemen and regarding Iran.
The divisions between the different Yemeni parties may also reflect Saudi-Emirati competition. While Hadi’s government has stuck close by Saudi Arabia and openly condemned the UAE’s policies in Yemen, the STC appears to be much closer to the Emirati position and much more willing to work under the UAE’s umbrella.
What is forgotten in all this is the major issue that began the war: the Houthis’ control over Sanaa and swathes of Yemen. There are early indications that the Saudis may be engaging in dialogue with the Houthis, and it is not yet clear the extent to which it addresses both parties’ interests.
The Riyadh Agreement’s success will depend in large part on the local parties’ conviction that it serves their purposes at this time more than continued war does. It will also require that Riyadh and Abu Dhabi’s interests in Yemen continue to coincide, which is far from guaranteed in the long term: Riyadh seems more concerned with the possibility of a Houthi state being established on its southern borders, while the UAE’s efforts are focused entirely on its interests in the south, where it still has forces in Hadhramawt, parts of the Shabwa coastline, and Socotra and maintains strong links with the joint force on the western coast.
An earlier version of this paper was published on November 7, 2019 by the Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies (ACRPS) in Doha, Qatar.
1 “Text of the “Riyadh Agreement” Between Yemeni Government and STC “Document””, Anadolu Agency, 05/11/2019 (accessed on 08/11/2019 at https://bit.ly/2CiQPnW).
2 “Jeddah Agreement Delayed: Government Frustrates UAE Amendments And Security Arrangements Ongoing In Aden”, Alaraby Aljadeed, 20/10/2019 (accessed on 20/10/2019 at https://bit.ly/2WOWECU).
3 The agreement forbids all those who participated in acts of violence or incitement during the August 2019 confrontations from participating. This includes for example the Interior Minister Ahmad Al Massiri and the Transport Minister Salah Al Jabawani, who will be unable to take on portfolios in the new government. The same applies to the Governor of Shabwa Mohammed Saleh Bin Adyu, and military leaders like General Abdullah Al Subeihi and Colonel Mahran Al Qabati, both commanders in the Presidential Protection Brigades. Brigadiers Fadl Hassan and Fadl Baesh will be exempted because they did not participate in the fighting and are sympathetic to the STC: the first is in command of the Fourth Military Region and the second is in charge of the Special Forces in Aden and Abyan Governorates. On the STC’s side, the commander of the Shabwa Elite Forces Major Muhammad Salem Al Bouher, the Vice-President of the STC’s Leadership Committee Hani Bin Bureik and the head of the STC’s National Assembly, Brigadier Ahmad Said Bin Bureik.
4 “STC Takes Control Of Aden, Expands East: Ramifications And Scenarios”, Situation Assessment, Al Jazeera Institute for Studies, 05/09/2019 (accessed on 21/10/2019 at https://bit.ly/2JYGjX7).
5 ACRPS, “Aden Conflict: Implications of the pro-Hadi Forces’ Defeat in the Capital”, Situation Assessment, 19 August 2019 (accessed on 27/10/2019 at https://bit.ly/2NonMpp).
6 Terrorist bombings, assassinations and targeting of energy transport have been well known tactics in Aden, Hadhramawt and Shabwa for four years in which tens of preachers, imams and others opposed to the Emirati presence have died. Various incidents were recorded before the agreement was signed including an IED attack targeting the house of the anti-Emirati Governor in Ataq (Shabwa Governorate).
7 Aziz Al Yaqoubi, “Saudi Takes Control Of Aden To End Yemen Allies Conflict,” Reuters, 14/10/2019 (accessed on 27/10/2019 at https://bit.ly/36JK5xh).
8 “STC Takes Control of Aden,” op. cit.