South Yemen has entered a fresh phase of chaos, division, and rivalry on the heels of a declaration by the UAE-backed Southern Transitional Council (STC) to self-govern the southern territories. It has been an adventurous decision that will have serious consequences on the political landscape in Yemen and plunge the south into more instability and infighting.
The Council cited several issues that pushed its leadership to announce self-rule. Among other things, it stated that the Yemeni government had not paid the salaries of the security forces, while fighters on the frontlines had been neglected, and the support for the injured and families of “martyrs” had been stopped. With this escalation, hope for near peace has receded further and a worrying scenario lies in store for Yemen’s south. The concern does not stem from STC’s rule of the south. The genuine apprehension is the inclination of the STC to resort to force to impose its rule in the south.
This move aggravates the complexity of the conflict in Yemen. It will particularly worsen the situation in Aden which is known as Yemen’s temporary capital. The city has been drowning in mayhem over the last two years and the end is nowhere in sight. Aden is heading the path of conflict amidst the first detection of COVID-19 cases in the city in line with a dysfunctional health system.
Yemen’s south is fertile ground for civil strife and ramifications of the self-rule declaration have begun to materialize.
Presently, Yemen’s south is a very fertile ground for civil strife and the ramifications of the self-rule declaration have begun to materialize. On April 1, the southern separatist fighters on Socotra launched an assault on the island’s capital, Hadibu, in a bid to take over the entire province of Socotra. Government forces repelled the attack and the situation remains tense, risking a deadly conflict on the peaceful island.
Nevertheless, in November, the Yemeni government and the STC signed a peace agreement in Riyadh to stem more bloody fighting in the south, though escalations have persisted and the agreement has failed to make a difference. The recent declaration of self-rule mounts to opening fire on peace efforts and it is emblematic of the separatists’ preparedness for further escalation.
However, the STC still faces huge local opposition in many southern provinces as well as international rejection. The Council does not enjoy a strong presence in Hadramout, Shabwa, Al-Mahra, Abyan, and Socotra. Following the declaration of the self-rule, the governors of these provinces released separate statements denouncing the “meaningless” words of the STC. Out of the eight provinces in the south, the STC has a considerable presence in three—namely, Aden, Lahj, and Dhale.
To date, the STC still demonstrates a rigid stance and does not seem ready to offer any concessions to the UN-recognized Yemeni government. The leadership of the Council is unlikely to retract their declaration or order their forces to retreat from positions they have taken over. The separatists are adamant and they have an unbridled ambition to part from Yemen’s north. Besides, the Emirati support has made them more confident and inflexible.
According to STC leading figures, the declaration of self-rule is irreversible as it lays the groundwork for realizing independence from Yemen’s north. Saleh Alnoud, a spokesperson of the STC, said on Friday, May 1: “We don’t make it a secret that people want to establish an independent state . . . the STC will try to achieve the goals for the southern cause as much as possible.” He considered the continuity of Yemen’s unity as “inconceivable.”
STC’s declaration of self-rule is irreversible as it lays the groundwork for realizing independence from Yemen’s north.
Amidst this rapid escalation in Yemen’s south, Saudi Arabia — sticking to the same approach in dealing with the separatists — released a statement rejecting the self-rule. The Saudi-UAE-led Arab Coalition stressed the need for rescinding “any step that breaches the Riyadh Agreement,” calling for accelerated implementation of the deal.
However, the separatists seem unwilling to kowtow to Riyadh. The Saudi-STC relation has just hit another low and the Kingdom has lost its role as a peace broker between the Yemeni government and the secessionists in Yemen’s south.
Maged Al-Madhaji, co-founder and Executive Director of the Sanaa Center for Strategic Studies, a Yemeni think tank, described the relations between the STC and Saudi Arabia as “deteriorating.” Al-Madhaji indicated that Saudi Arabia has the intention of neutralizing the influence of the separatists, stating that “Riyadh has been silently working to dismantle the STC’s strength on the ground – particularly around Aden – through a variety of measures.”
These measures, according to Al-Madhaji, include buying the loyalty of military commanders affiliated with the STC, establishing new southern forces led by pro-Saudi commanders, and imposing their presence to control territory both inside Aden as well as in other key areas outside the city such as in Ras Alara in Lahj province.
The fact remains that Saudi Arabia has been condoning the separatists’ continued fighting with the Yemeni government. It needs firm language and a clear stance on what is happening in South Yemen. The UN-recognized Yemeni government has been largely weakened and it is still awaiting a Saudi rescue. Yet the secessionists’ confidence has inflated, and they look forward to more Emirati support.
South Yemen is obviously fragmented and local leaders are at loggerheads with each other. Their agendas are contingent on the support of their external sponsors. Thus, for South Yemen to stabilize, there is an urgent need for a joint Saudi-Emirati decision to chart a peace plan and help end the power struggle.
For South Yemen to stabilize, there is an urgent need for a joint Saudi-Emirati decision to chart a peace plan.
Saudi Arabia claims to support Yemen’s unity, but the UAE has a deep interest in a divided Yemen. It is hard for this country to see stability as long as key regional players compete to take over strategic locations in the country, taking advantage of Yemen’s feeble political leadership and prevalent internal fragmentation.
In the final analysis, the coalition has disintegrated over the last five years because of the divergent agendas of Saudi Arabia and UAE. The coalition has shifted its focus from fighting the Houthis to battling over dominance in the south particularly the port city of Aden and Socotra island. Presently, the Emirates openly backs the separatists to undermine the UN-recognized government while Saudi Arabia supports the government. It can be safely said that the so-called Saudi-UAE-led coalition has collapsed though these two countries continue to pretend that they are on the same page in Yemen.