When the Yemeni crisis internationalized in March 2015, two countries—Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE)—overwhelmingly dominated the US-backed Arab coalition. Most other states nominally involved in the Saudi-led campaign (Bahrain, Egypt, Kuwait, Malaysia, Morocco, Qatar,  Senegal, etc.) played small roles that were largely symbolic and meant to create the appearance of a large pan-Sunni Muslim force. Due to various political factors, some of these countries such as Qatar, Malaysia, and Morocco are no longer a part of this coalition fighting in Yemen. For the non-Gulf states in the coalition, especially Sudan, it was mainly their interest in receiving Saudi petro-dollars driving them into the war across the Bab-El-Mandeb.

At earlier stages of the coalition’s campaign in Yemen, Riyadh and Abu Dhabi appeared to be mainly on the same page with respect to their goals. Nonetheless, Saudi Arabia and the UAE had different priorities, threat perceptions, and some divergent interests, even from the beginning as their views of Yemen’s long-term political solution were always a smaller concern for the coalition’s two dominant members than the more immediate perceived need to defeat the Houthi rebels.

Saudi Arabia and the UAE had different priorities, threat perceptions, and some divergent interests, even from the beginning.

Over time, however, it became increasingly undeniable that the two Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) members’ objectives vis-à-vis Yemen have, in certain instances, become conflictual. The Saudis are interested in creating a Saudi-friendly order in northern Yemen and securing the Saudi-Yemeni border. Meanwhile, the UAE is more focused on southern Yemen and how it relates to Abu Dhabi’s wider interests in the Horn of Africa, in addition to the Emiratis’ broader agenda of countering the Muslim Brotherhood’s influence across the greater Arab/Islamic world.

During the 2017 to 2019 period, Emirati forces gradually withdrew from Yemen while Abu Dhabi stepped up its support for the pro-secession Southern Transitional Council (STC)—a self-styled government-in-waiting that grew out of the “Southern Movement” (al-Hirak al-Janoubi) established in 2007. The support which the Emiratis have given the STC has added complications to efforts aimed at resolving the Yemeni civil war.

In August 2019, the Abu Dhabi-backed STC declared autonomous self-rule in the Yemeni port city of Aden, which put significant stress on the Saudi-UAE alliance. As Saudi Arabia favors maintaining Yemen’s post-1990 North/South unity, the STC’s quest to re-establish an independent state in southern Yemen angered Riyadh, which backs the UN-recognized and largely Saudi-based Yemeni government of President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi. Ultimately, the Saudis and Emiratis worked to smooth over their divergent interests in relation to this “civil war within a civil war” through the Riyadh Agreement, signed on November 5, 2019.

Problems with the Riyadh Agreement

The agreement, which the parties began negotiating in August 2019, was a compromise between Hadi’s government and the STC, which required concessions from both sides. More specifically, the agreement called for the strengthening of state institutions; the restructuring of military and security forces under the Defense Ministry and Interior Ministry’s commands, respectively; a cessation of media campaigns between the Hadi and STC sides; targeting of “terrorist” organizations; STC participation in the government delegation tasked with reaching a political solution to Yemen’s crisis; and the formation of a committee under Riyadh’s auspices that would monitor implementation of all the above.

It is “very important for the unity, stability, and prosperity of Yemen that the Yemeni government and STC resolve their dispute.”

Washington was quick to endorse the Riyadh Agreement. At the time, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo stated that it is “very important for the unity, stability, and prosperity of Yemen that the Yemeni government and STC resolve their dispute.” Yet this agreement was problematic for multiple reasons. The different parties left the roundtable in Saudi Arabia with different interpretations of the Riyadh Agreement and the timing of its implementation.

By early January, the STC withdrew from committees that were implementing the agreement. According to Salim al-Awlaqi, a member of the separatist group’s presidential council, the decision to pull out was a result of violent clashes in Shabwa province, which the STC accused the local Muslim Brotherhood branch, al-Islah, of carrying out. Of course, the Hadi government and Saudi Arabia have their own understandings of why there has not been a successful implementation of the agreement.

Hopes that the Riyadh Agreement could provide a lasting solution to the problems between Hadi and the STC faded on April 26 when the latter once again declared self-rule in Aden after forcefully taking control of the city. According to the STC, Yemen’s internationally-recognized government failed to uphold its end of the bargain in the Riyadh Agreement, thus justifying the southern separatist faction’s takeover of Aden.

“The document itself was full of inexact language, had unclear sequencing, and failed to define fundamental matters such as what ‘integrating forces’ would mean in practice,” explained Elana DeLozier, who is a Research Fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “Both sides have taken maximalist political positions since then, and their efforts to defeat each other militarily have been stymied by Saudi interventions. As a result, the agreement has yet to be implemented.”

The Riyadh Agreement lost more credibility in late June after STC fighters forcibly took the island of Socotra, which houses a Saudi military base.

The Riyadh Agreement lost more credibility in late June after STC fighters forcibly took the island of Socotra, off the coast of southern Yemen, which houses a Saudi military base. Rather than fight the UAE-backed fighters, Saudi soldiers protected the governor and other higher up members of Hadi’s government and evacuated them to safety. After announcing an amnesty to all individuals on the island, STC forces began deporting ‘northern’ Yemenis off Socotra, claiming they were “mercenaries.”

Moreover, a sensitive issue that fueled friction between Hadi and the STC was the role of al-Islah. This Islamist group, affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood, has been a part of Yemen’s UN-recognized government and supported the Saudi-led coalition against the Iranian-backed Houthi insurgents. Despite the fact that Saudi Arabia has designated the Muslim Brotherhood a “terrorist” entity, Riyadh makes an exception for al-Islah in Yemen. Like the UAE, however, the STC views al-Islah as an extremist organization it loathes because of its belonging to a “northern tribal-military structure that seeks to subjugate the south.”

Therefore, the Hadi government’s ongoing relationship with al-Islah has been a major factor contributing to the STC’s view that Hadi is illegitimate. The Riyadh Agreement failed to resolve the issue of al-Islah’s role in any potential political settlement in a post-war Yemen. Moreover, as some experts have observed, at best the agreement signed in Saudi Arabia served as a band-aid, but never an arrangement that could realistically solve all of the outstanding issues that have contributed to the STC’s support from elements of the South.

Nonetheless, in the STC’s eyes, benefits did come out of the Riyadh Agreement. Ultimately, the process of the group’s representatives meeting with officials from Yemen’s internationally-recognized government and the Saudis gave the STC greater legitimacy. This factor has indeed proven beneficial, as in late June 2020, President Hadi agreed to a meeting in which committees from both his government and the STC would be involved, following the announcement for a cease-fire on June 22.

Not surprisingly, government military forces launched attacks against STC sites in Zinjibar just hours after the announcement. Whether or not the violence will continue is unknown, still, the former table invitation from Hadi towards the STC authorities incredibly benefits the separatists, as it validates them as a force that must be contended with seriously.

Implications for US Foreign Policy

Since 2015, much of the US focus on Yemen has pertained to the Saudi-Houthi conflict. Yet the southern question is relevant to Washington’s interests as the STC’s “coup” in Aden has implications for American foreign policy.

Although the US does not view the UAE-backed STC as a direct threat to US security, Washington sees its actions as undermining US interests in Yemen and the wider region. As Nabeel Nowairah, an independent Yemeni analyst, explained: “The US thinks of Yemen as a problem. Splitting the country into two makes the problem two.” Prior to 2011, Washington’s efforts in Yemen mainly pertained to counter-terrorism operations targeting al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). “Most of those operations were conducted in southern governorates like Abyan, Shabwa, Al-Dhale’, and Hadramout,” said Nowairah, who argued that “independence of the South [in the current period] is likely to start a new cycle of conflict and violence in the South itself, which would give more opportunities for extremist groups to expand and develop.”

For too long, policymakers in Washington have ignored underlying issues which have resulted in hundreds of thousands of Yemenis supporting the STC.

Yet for too long, policymakers in Washington have ignored underlying issues which have resulted in hundreds of thousands of Yemenis supporting the STC, as well as the idea of secession being so popular in the South. There are two important points that many who analyze southern Yemen overlook.

First, Yemen’s southerners and the Emirates have ties that have grown strong for various reasons, including historical connections. One is the presence of many southern Yemenis in the UAE, among whom are many who have become naturalized Emirati citizens. Another factor is that the STC understands that it will need at least one strong regional backer in order to have any chance at achieving independence.

Second, although the STC is an opaque entity and the UAE’s reasons for supporting the group are not altogether benevolent, there are legitimate grievances stemming from many injustices that have led to hundreds of thousands of southerners supporting the principle of secession. Many in the South see the Hadi government as totally delegitimized by virtue of how it operates as an exile government based in Saudi Arabia, among other factors.

Moreover, ever since Yemen’s rocky and fragile re-unification at the end of the Cold War, certain issues including human rights abuses have united many in the South behind secession. For the past three decades, southern Yemenis have suffered from inhumane treatment by Yemen’s central government, who has extracted resources from the South, curtailed freedom of expression, and deprived locals of education opportunities that were available during the Marxist era (1967-1990), when the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen (PDRY) regime was in power in Aden.

In fact, in the South, a common narrative is that the so-called “Arab Spring” originated in southern Yemen with the birth of al-Hirak al-Janoubi in 2007, not in Tunisia in 2010/2011. Al-Hirak al-Janoubi started as a “rights-based campaign” that had demands for “more equitable access to jobs and services” which largely resembled those of “Arab Spring” protests that shook the wider Arab region nine years ago. In 2007, the “Southern Movement” called for “greater local autonomy,” yet, by 2009, it started demanding total separation from northern Yemen as the government of President Ali Abdullah Saleh – who was ousted in 2012 after months of mass protests and elite defections – grew increasingly authoritarian while its actions to address the southerners’ demands appeared inadequate from the perspective of southern leaders.

Even among southern Yemenis who back a North-South split, there is opposition to the STC.

Not all in the South support the STC today, however. Even among southern Yemenis who back a North-South split, there is opposition to the STC. Locals who stand against the STC do so for various reasons, including the group’s relationship with Abu Dhabi that leads many to label the STC a UAE “proxy.” Ultimately, the political and security situations in the South are fluid and complicated. In this part of Yemen, conflicts never resolve quickly, let alone easily. Within this context, regardless of whether or not the STC holds its power, it is a safe bet that violence between actors in the South will continue making a long-term South-South conflict extremely possible.

Understanding the al-Islah-STC rivalry is key. This struggle for power between the Islamist group and the UAE-backed faction heavily contributes to the South’s complex landscape which is largely shaped by cycles of violence. “For many southerners, the Islah is seen as a major aggressor since the 1994 North-South civil war because its leaders were given room to act with impunity in the South, including taking lands by force and criminalizing dissent” according to Fatima Abo Alasrar, a Non-Resident Scholar at the Middle East Institute. “There is no reason to believe that this will change anytime soon. This makes conflict inevitable in the South. The US understands this and will have to make a decision on whether it would back up the Hadi government in overthrowing the secessionists or take a seat back and watch events unfold.”

Continued fighting between warring factions in the South will of course dim the prospects for peace in Aden and the rest of the area. Such violence will also fuel greater tension between the US’ Gulf partners. Just as the GCC’s Qatar rift has pitted US partners in the Arabian Peninsula against each other at the expense of Washington’s interests, Riyadh and Abu Dhabi’s strategic clashes in southern Yemen are problematic from an American perspective. As a close partner of both the Saudi kingdom and the Emirates, the US would like to see these two Gulf powerhouses working in close coordination, which is less likely if Yemen’s southern question continues fueling friction in Riyadh-Abu Dhabi relations.

Since the STC’s “coup” in late April, the US State Department has been clear that it supports the parties returning to the Riyadh Agreement. The fact that Abu Dhabi never expressed support for the agreement after its signing in November and the lack of pressure from the UAE on the STC to abide by it are likely both sources of tension between Washington and Abu Dhabi. In late April, Pompeo issued a statement that “such unilateral actions [on the STC’s part] only exacerbate instability in Yemen” and are “especially unhelpful at a time when the country is threatened by COVID-19 and also threaten to complicate the efforts of the UN special envoy to revive political negotiations between the government and the Houthi rebels.”

The US, Arab governments, Russia, China, and the UN have voiced their concerns about how the STC’s declaration will severely undermine Yemen’s ability to cope with COVID-19.

To be sure, the STC’s declaration of self-rule adds new complications to UN- and US-endorsed efforts aimed at resolving the Houthi-related conflict in northern Yemen, which was the initial reason for the US-backed Saudi-led campaign that began over five years ago. Additionally, the US and a handful of other western states, Arab governments, Russia, China, and the UN have voiced their concerns about how the STC’s declaration will severely undermine Yemen’s ability to cope with COVID-19. Therefore, although the STC has firm support from the UAE while Russia is open to constructively engaging the southern separatist faction (and perhaps one day being a sponsor/ally of the STC), there is very little sympathy throughout the international community for those in Yemen who seek to split the country along North/South lines.

At this juncture, it seems that the US is not anywhere close to accepting Yemeni partition. The Trump administration is still set on reviving the Riyadh Agreement, even if many observers are pessimistic about the accord’s prospects for successfully resolving the Hadi-STC conflict. Indeed, observers are justifiably pessimistic regarding the Riyadh Agreement, especially considering a speech which Ahmed bin Breik, the President of the National Assembly on the STC, delivered earlier in July in Mukalla. He announced the STC’s plans for beginning the implementation of its own administration in southern Yemen “whether in the absence or presence of the Yemeni government.” Bin Breik declared that Hadramawt needs to belong to this envisioned independent state ruled by the STC. “We cannot accept or give up our right to determine our destiny. We are moving towards the future of these generations and the future of our grandchildren.” Nonetheless, Washington will continue hoping for results which, from the American perspective, are positive.

Ultimately, the possibility of the Riyadh Agreement never succeeding has to be seriously considered given all the factors that dim its prospects—notably the UAE’s pursuit of its own national interests in relation to Socotra and the African continent. As the US weighs its options for how to deal with the STC and its actions that are possible due to Abu Dhabi’s support, officials in Washington may have to contend with a clash of American and Emirati interests vis-à-vis southern Yemen.

In the final analysis, Yemenis themselves, who have been suffering from the horrendous effects of continued warfare, COVID-19, widespread malnourishment, flash floods, a collapsed health care system—to say nothing about a possible ecological catastrophe stemming from the FSO SAFER, will continue to be the victims of the world’s worst humanitarian crisis regardless of the outcomes of geopolitical agendas pursued by the US and its GCC partners.


Co-authors: Giorgio Cafiero (@GiorgioCafiero) is the CEO of Gulf State Analytics and Claire Fuchs (@clairee_fuchs) is an intern at Gulf State Analytics.


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