Deadly armed clashes have repeatedly rocked Aden over the last five years. It all started in 2015 when the Houthis took over northern provinces and expanded to Aden in the south. The Saudi-UAE-led Arab Coalition along with Yemeni forces purged Aden of the Houthis in July 2015 after three months of ferocious fighting. However, the city today is still replete with high tensions and rivalries between the UAE-supported southern separatist forces and Saudi-backed forces.
Since its establishment in 2017, the Southern Transitional Council (STC) had been on good terms with Saudi Arabia. Recently, a rift between the two has surfaced, raising the possibility of a confrontation between the two sides in Aden. Presently, the STC leadership presents itself as the legitimate representative of the southern people and this political body is no longer expected to listen meekly to all Saudi instructions.
With the United Arab Emirates’ (UAE) financial and military support, the STC has emerged as a key political and military player in the country. The council was headed by Aidarus Al-Zubaidi, who was the governor of Aden from December 2015 to April 2017 and was sacked by President Abdu Rabu Mansour Hadi. Following his sacking, he along with other government defectors and southern separatist figures established the STC in May 2017 and called for ending unity with Yemen’s north.
For almost 30 years, Yemen was a divided country composed of North Yemen and South Yemen.
For almost 30 years, Yemen was a divided country composed of the Yemen Arab Republic, also known as North Yemen or Yemen (1962-1990), and South Yemen, officially the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen (1967-1990). The country finally was unified in 1990, only to be now threatened again with another split.
The STC has had the upper hand after defeating the Yemeni government forces in a three-day battle in August 2019. Aden has seen a lull in the clashes over the past five months, but fresh tensions have risen anew, and the city is likely to slip into a new chapter of violence.
Saudi Arabia brokered a power-sharing agreement in November 2019 between the Yemeni government and the STC to end the power struggle in the south particularly in Aden. The agreement implementation has faltered and the situation came to a head in March when Saudi Arabia banned the return of senior STC figures to Aden.
Four key STC figures, including Aden’s security chief Shalal Shaya, were waiting for their flight at Queen Alia Airport in Amman on March 11. The airport authorities revealed to them that the Arab Coalition did not permit their travel to Aden. This marked a tipping point in the relation between Saudi Arabia and the STC.
Official Spokesperson of the STC, Nizar Haitham, declared in a press statement the “Arab Coalition” banned the return of the council members without clear justification.
“In view of this, we ask the Arab Coalition leadership for clarifications about what happened, and under what justification [the council members] are forbidden to return to the homeland,” Haitham stated. He also advised the Saudi coalition to be aware of the repercussions that could stem from this matter.
Over the last three weeks, Aden has seen armed confrontations and mobilization of forces.
Over the last three weeks, Aden has seen armed confrontations and mobilization of forces. The STC fighters have dared to confront Saudi-backed forces and flout Saudi directives in Aden. The STC on March 13, refused to comply with a directive by the commander of the Saudi-led coalition in Aden to hand over Aden International Airport to Saudi-trained Yemeni troops.
Yemen’s local news website Al-Masdar Online reported that the Saudi-trained Yemeni forces moved with Saudi officers from the coalition headquarters in Aden to the airport. The source added, “However, the STC forces controlling the airport, in partnership with Aden’s chief of security, refused to relinquish control and deployed their fighters around the perimeter of the airport.”
A government official on March 15, was quoted as saying, “Security units loyal to the Aden-based STC were deployed around the Republican Palace [in Aden] and prevented the government ministers from holding a meeting inside the building.”
“The security forces loyal to the STC set up several checkpoints at the main entrances of the cabinet headquarters and forced the ministers to go back,” the source said.
Moreover, armed clashes between STC fighters and Saudi-backed forces erupted in Aden on March 20. Reports said the UAE-backed STC fighters attempted to break into a military camp under the control of the Saudi-backed forces. The latter repelled the attack, resulting in heavy clashes in the vicinity of the camp which is located in Crater district in the heart of Aden city.
Such moves by the STC are emblematic of its rising dominance and it is a clear sign of the widening rift between Saudi Arabia and the southern political body.
Amidst this explosive scene in Aden, the Saudi-led Arab Coalition’s spokesperson Turki Al-Maliki denied any discord with the STC or any escalation concerning the airport.
Maliki said in an interview with Al-Alarabiya TV channel that the second phase of the Riyadh Agreement implementation has begun. He also indicated that improving the situation in Aden is a top priority.
“We seek to restore the operation of projects and investments for the reconstruction of Aden, rehabilitate the airport and develop the port there,” Maliki said.
It is true that Saudi Arabia has been leading development and construction efforts in some southern provinces but the STC is struggling to gain international recognition and absolute control of the south. The separatists’ zeal for independence is a formidable challenge for Saudi Arabia. Should the Kingdom allow secession to materialize in the south, the Iran-allied Houthis will cement their rule in the north—a matter which poses a long-term serious concern for the Saudis.
Abdul-Raqeeb Al-Hadiani, an Aden-based Yemeni political analyst, told Inside Arabia that Aden has lately witnessed escalation and the sole solution is the full implementation of the Riyadh Agreement.
“The [Riyadh] Agreement is like a life belt for all—for Yemen, the neighboring countries, and the region.”
“The Agreement is like a life belt for all—for Yemen, the neighboring countries, and the region. Saudi Arabia is trying to dismantle the problem that has been created by the STC in Aden and do all that’s possible to avert any potential conflict in Aden,” said Hadiani.
He pointed out that the Yemeni government does not have a military force in Aden and the UAE-backed STC is dominating the city entirely.
Meanwhile, the UAE has been trying to paper over cracks with Saudi Arabia. UAE Minister of State for Foreign Affairs, Anwar Gargash, commented that his country upholds the Saudi efforts to facilitate the implementation of the pact.
Gargash wrote in a Twitter post, on March 12: “The United Arab Emirates supports the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia in its continuous efforts to implement the Riyadh Agreement and overcome the challenges facing its implementation in the interest of the Yemenis.”
In addition, Gargash tweeted on April 4, “The immediate implementation of the Riyadh agreement is necessary in light of the current developments in Yemen.” He added, “The agreement unites the ranks to confront the Houthis and paves the way for a political solution and strengthens efforts to confront the coronavirus.”
The UAE is a key member of the coalition to restore the Yemeni government but it has been funding militant groups.
The fact remains that the Emirati role in Yemen has been highly contentious. The Emirates is a key member of the coalition to restore the Yemeni legitimate government but it has been supporting and funding militant groups that undermine the government authority. The present chaotic scenario in Aden is an outcome of the UAE’s agenda.
Saudi Arabia and the STC had been shy in engaging in any direct military or political face-off. However, the STC has been flexing its muscles in Aden and this could end up in an overt Saudi-STC feud in this strategic city.
The secessionist leverage in the south has magnified and it no longer seems easy for Saudi Arabia to instruct the STC on what to do in Aden or the entire south of Yemen. The Kingdom is up to its neck in Yemen’s north, fighting the Houthis. Now it has another headache in the south: the separatists.