In Yemen, the Southern Movement calling for separation between the North and South of Yemen is controversial. For those who oppose it, it is a simple secessionist movement; but for those who take a more neutral position, it is a movement for self-determination. Its supporters think of it as not merely a secessionist movement but a struggle for both independence from a northern “occupation” and the reestablishment of the now defunct state of South Yemen (the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen), which in 1990 was unified with North Yemen (the Yemen Arab Republic) following more than a decade of conflict.
After the 1994 Civil War between the southern socialist separatists and the northern pro-union forces, which the latter won, the Southern Movement (known in Yemen as al-Hirak) gradually emerged as a peaceful movement. It grew to prominence due to its regular and continuous protests, demonstrations, and marches starting in 2007 in the city of Aden and in many other places in the southern region. The protests were met with a brutal crackdown by the Yemeni government’s forces. Although the movement was composed of a mix of several southern factions with different ideologies and politics, they all shared a common goal: independence for the South. In addition to the disregard of injustices carried out during the crackdown, southern grievances include protests against political and economic marginalization.
The Southern Transition Council (STC) is the major player within the Southern Movement today. Since its establishment in 2017, the STC has effectively been calling for the establishment of “a sovereign independent federal state” in southern Yemen—a proposal the internationally recognized government of Yemen (IRGY) has continuously rejected. The IRGY and the STC are adversaries and politically and militarily challenge each other. But despite this, both have been members of the Presidential Leadership Council (PLC) since its establishment in April 2022, opening the door for a pragmatic relationship between the two, especially in light of recent Saudi-Houthi talks in Sanaa.
Increased Southern Grievances
The STC and the Yemeni government’s problematic relationship today is directly impacted by a long historical context of deep-seated, decades-long tensions between the government of former President Ali Abdullah Saleh and the Southern Movement. Many argue that the tensions began in 2007, at the beginning of the Southern Movement. However, these tensions have their roots in the unification period, when a combination of nation-building and the attempted integration of the North and the South ultimately turned out to be a failure. The unified government under Saleh’s rule failed to manage the challenges of integrating the northern and southern economic systems and resolving the implications of the post-civil war period. Over the next three decades, the Southern Movement faced a fierce crackdown by Saleh’s regime, which antagonized Yemeni citizens in the south and essentially made them second-class citizens.
Prior to 2015, southern grievances included exclusion from political power, discrimination, abuses against southern security and military officers, and land rights violations. Similar grievances existed in the North, but they were differently motivated in each region. The southern region suffered the most from alienation and exploitation by Saleh’s regime.
Despite the liberation of Aden from the Houthis, the government has failed to provide citizens in the South with basic services.
In the wake of Yemen’s 2011 uprising and the overthrow of Saleh’s regime, national plans for federalism were intended to resolve southern grievances. However, with the beginning of the current civil war between the Houthi armed group and then President Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi’s government in 2014, the conflict weakened the government, deepened southern grievances, and radicalized the Southern Movement. Today, southern grievances include insecurity, negligence, and poverty. The government has failed to protect people in the South on many occasions; but the Southern Resistance Committees and later the STC did. Despite the liberation of Aden from the Houthi armed group in 2015, the government has failed to provide citizens in the South with basic services such as electricity, water, and infrastructure development, and has also failed to stabilize the Yemeni currency, which has depreciated more in the South than in the North.
The STC-IRGY Relationship
There exists an undeniable incompatibility between the IRGY and the STC. This incompatibility includes the 2017 dispute between former President Hadi, and the then governor of Aden (who is also the leader of the STC), Aidarous al-Zubaidi. Although Hadi is a southerner, he was unpopular in the South because he supported the pro-unification northern war against the South in 1994 and favored the Islah political party that dominated his government, and that was a foe of southerners. The dispute between Hadi and al-Zubaidi included the fact that Hadi’s government had northern generals who were loyal to him but adversaries of al-Zubaidi, and also stemmed from al-Zubaidi’s close ties with the United Arab Emirates, which had strained relations with the Hadi government. Consequently, Hadi sacked al-Zubaidi, who the following month announced the establishment of the Southern Transitional Council, with which numerous armed groups are affiliated. In 2018, STC-affiliated armed forces seized control of the Yemeni government’s headquarters in Aden. This “takeover” of Aden marked the increasingly strained relations between Hadi and the UAE.
In the ensuing months, several serious military confrontations occurred between the STC and IRGY forces. In August 2019, unprecedented violence and deadly clashes took place in the wake of the killing of a senior STC military commander. The Houthi armed group claimed responsibility for the killing; the STC, however, accused the Yemeni government of assisting the Houthi offensive. The STC then removed IRGY political officials from Aden and Abyan. After Saudi mediation, the two sides signed the Riyadh Agreement at the end of 2019, ensuring the establishment of a power-sharing government and temporarily reducing tensions. But the following year, tensions and military confrontations resumed, leading to additional Saudi mediation attempts in 2020 and 2021.
After the formation of the PLC in Saudi Arabia in 2022, the relationship between the two sides took a new turn motivated by pragmatism. Because of their divergent political agendas, the STC and the IRGY were made members of the same council and put under Saudi pressure to cooperate, a desperate attempt to mitigate the volatile situation. At first glance, it seems illogical that al-Zubaidi would be a member of the PLC while still heading the STC. Although the STC has a uniquely different political agenda than the rest of the PLC’s members, it has remained in the PLC out of pragmatic interest.
At this point, the PLC and the STC need each other for different reasons. The IRGY may be internationally recognized, but it is not recognized by many Yemenis. In the view of the majority of the Yemeni public, the Yemeni government has lost legitimacy over the course of the conflict due to its countless failures in securing a stable economy and providing basic services, and for its having violated Yemen’s constitution. All this time, the government has survived because of Saudi Arabia’s support. Meanwhile, the STC has gained a sufficient popular base in the majority of Yemen’s southern region, including in Hadramawt Governorate, which has the same political aspiration of separation. And yet, the STC has been repeatedly sidelined from political peace talks. Thus, on one hand, the PLC needs the STC because the latter has a popular base in the South, something the Presidential Council lacks in both the South and the North. No matter what comes, the PLC would reject the breakaway of southern Yemen, including of Hadramawt; should that happen, it would not have much to govern in the country. On the other hand, the STC also needs the PLC—although obviously temporarily—because the latter provides the political opportunity and venue for the former to finally ensure its political participation in any upcoming political process and to push for a political roadmap for restoring the state of South Yemen.
The UAE Has Its Thumb on the Scale
One sign of the Saudi-UAE spat is their divergent approaches in Yemen, with the UAE’s approach being essentially a thumb on the scale. Although Saudi Arabia and the UAE together intervened militarily in Yemen to fight the Houthi armed group, they have been supporting opposing sides in southern Yemen. Saudi Arabia supports the IRGY while the UAE supports the STC politically, financially, and militarily. The UAE also supports other Yemeni forces operating outside of government control, mostly situated along Yemen’s Red Sea coast and the Gulf of Aden.
The IRGY has publicly condemned the UAE’s role on several occasions. In 2017, former President Hadi described the UAE’s role in Yemen as an occupation. In 2019, at a UNSC briefing, Yemen’s representative to the UN, Abdullah al-Saadi condemned the UAE’s support for the STC. But condemnations did not deter the UAE from expanding its role. During the August 2019 military confrontations between the STC and the IRGY, the UAE was directly involved, launching airstrikes on government forces, apparently in support of STC-affiliated forces. The UAE denied such accusations, saying that the strikes were carried out on terrorist targets. Subsequently, the IRGY demanded an end to the UAE’s participation in the Saudi-led coalition.
The UAE sees Yemen as holding strategic significance for its commercial and military interests.
The UAE sees Yemen as holding strategic significance for its commercial and military interests, for example in its developing an airbase on the island of Mayun in the Bab al-Mandab Strait. And Yemen’s Socotra Island, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is controlled by UAE-backed armed forces.
Saudi Arabia has not publicly expressed opposition to the Southern Transitional Council. However, the kingdom’s tireless attempts to merge STC-affiliated armed forces with those of the IRGY demonstrate its desire to dissolve the STC’s military power. The Riyadh Agreement, which calls for a unity government, along with a subsequent push to implement the agreement and the creation of the PLC in Saudi Arabia are all Saudi attempts to challenge the UAE’s plans in southern Yemen by tinkering with fundamental domestic rifts.
On April 9, the Saudi ambassador to Yemen, Mohammed bin Saeed Al-Jaber arrived in Sanaa for talks with Houthi officials regarding a solution to the conflict. The UAE has not officially commented on the Saudi-Houthi talks, but two days after the Saudi visit to Sanaa, the STC said that the South seeks to restore “its usurped state with full sovereignty as a strategic goal for the people of the South,” and that it would accept no alternatives to this goal. Moreover, Amr al-Bidh, an STC official, reportedly indicated on March 9 that due to the isolation of the STC, the potential Saudi-Houthi deal cannot be binding on the STC.
The Saudi-Houthi talks provide hints that the kingdom is starting to recognize the Houthi group as a legitimate political component in the country. A new round of Saudi-Houthi talks is expected soon, many believe that there will be a push to reach a joint political agreement between the country’s domestic warring parties. This is indeed the focus of the current visit by US Special Envoy for Yemen, Tim Lenderking, to the Gulf where he is to push toward securing “a durable ceasefire and inclusive, UN-mediated political process, while ensuring continued efforts to ease the economic crisis and suffering of Yemenis.”
The Saudi-Houthi talks provide hints that the kingdom is starting to recognize the Houthis as a legitimate political component in the country.
One of two scenarios might follow. In one scenario, if a deal to establish a national transitional government were to be discussed, one in which there would be a power-sharing government between the Houthis and the PLC, the STC would completely refuse to sign on. From the STC’s viewpoint, the Houthis would not allow for the possibility of southern independence, let alone the opportunity to hold a peaceful democratic process of self-determination for the South. The STC would disregard Saudi pressure because it enjoys the UAE’s support. In a Houthi-PLC political dialogue, the STC would use every opportunity to try to ensure southern independence, which would be met with the Houthis’ rejection. In this scenario, fighting would rage again, likely seeing Houthi attacks on Aden similar to those in 2015; but this time clashes would occur between Houthi forces and STC-affiliated forces and their supporter, the UAE. Yemeni analysts anticipate that in this scenario Yemen would become yet another of the world’s incredibly protracted conflicts. This would obviously derail whatever efforts the United Nations envoy to Yemen, Hans Grundberg,
In another scenario, the STC might sign onto a Houthi-PLC deal, but only if Saudi Arabia succeeds in convincing the UAE of its value. The STC might then acquiesce to UAE pressure and sign such a deal. Public outrage in the South would surely follow, leading to greater unrest, instability, and quite possibly the outbreak of armed public resistance since the Southern Movement is ultimately larger than the STC. It would then be up to the Southern Movement to reposition itself and decide the South’s future. In this scenario, the chance for a power-sharing government would be quite limited as well. Both scenarios thus promise to lead Yemen even further down the road of conflict and instability.
The views expressed in this publication are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the position of Arab Center Washington DC, its staff, or its Board of Directors.
Featured image credit: Twitter/STC