The Southern secessionists enter the Yemeni State and Saudi Arabia regains the upper hand in Yemen, but endorsing implicitly the UAE-preferred strategy, the inclusion of the secessionist Southern Transitional Council (STC) as a recognized political entity, with the purpose to counter, militarily and/or politically, the Huthis.
The power-sharing agreement signed in Riyadh on November 5 between the internationally-recognized government of Yemen, led by president Abdu Rabu Mansur Hadi, and the secessionists of the STC, is a positive step for Yemenis in order to reduce wide-scale violence and state fragmentation. However, Yemeni things are always tremendously complex: only time will tell us if the “Riyadh Agreement” will also turn into a decisive step for durable peace and institutional (re)building.
Under the sponsorship of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (the Saudi crown prince and defense minister, Mohammed bin Salman Al Saud, as well as the crown prince of Abu Dhabi and deputy supreme commander of the armed forces of the UAE, Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, all attended the ceremony), what is rightly called the “anti-Huthi camp”, to shed light on its patchy composition, signed an ambitious deal to unify political and security-military ranks, allowing the coalition to focus on the fight against the Huthis.
According to media sources, the new internationally-recognized government, to return in Aden by seven days, will be formed by twenty-four ministries balanced between Northern and Southern regions of Yemen (12:12), to be appointed within thirty days from the signing ceremony. New security and military structures (under respectively the Interior and Defense ministers) comprising also forces now affiliated with the STC, as in the case of the Security Belt Forces (SBF), will be established by three months. Finally, a Saudi-led joint committee will oversee the implementation of the Riyadh agreement and Saudi soldiers have replaced most of the Emirati ones in Aden.
Such a deal was not granted: talks started more than two months ago in Jeddah as a shuttle diplomacy exercise brokered by the Saudis, since clashes were fracturing the “anti-Huthi camp” not only in Aden, but also in the coastal governorate of Abyan and in the oil-rich Shabwa. In fact, the STC had previously staged in August 2019 a “second coup” against the recognized institutions in Aden (the first coup was carried out in January 2015 by the Northern Huthis in Sanaa), storming the (empty) presidential palace and seizing critical bases and infrastructures in few days.
The agreement can be summarized in a simple statement, but full of political implications: the Southern secessionists, for the first time, enter the state. In fact, the Emirati-backed STC, now recognized as a political interlocutor by the Hadi-led institutions, by Saudi Arabia (and also by the United Nations), will formally become a government force: a new role for the STC, who will be held accountable by Yemenis for state and local governance (also new Southern regions’ governors are going to be chosen), security, services provision and the management of extracting resources. Coordination within the “anti-Huthi camp” has not existed so far: as reported by the Yemen Polling Center in a recent brief, no standard joint operation room for military coordination was established in Aden despite the SBF, the main armed wing of the secessionists, was already technically integrated under the Minister of Interior. “All army divisions will be withdrawn from the main cities within two weeks”, declared a STC spokesman while the ceremony was approaching “while other security forces under the government [SBF?] will remain”, making the sense of a deal opened to conflicting interpretations, as in the case of the Stockholm agreement between the recognized government and the Huthis brokered by the UN in December 2018.
The STC will find hard to balance huge political contradictions: the Riyadh agreement would state that as long as the war with the Huthis will not be solved, the STC will not seek for Southern secession, while a recent STC document defined secession as an “irreversible and irrevocable choice”. Other groups in the South could easily capitalize on STC’s pragmatic choice selling it as an ‘ambiguity’ or even a ‘treason’ of the Southern cause, especially if the new government will not deliver good governance. The STC emerged as the most powerful Southern player thanks to the Emirati support, but the Southern cause, and locally-based claims for autonomy, are supported also by other actors. For instance, parts of the Southern Movement (Al Hiraak al Janubi) did not adhere to the STC and rejected its “second coup” military escalation; a National Salvation Council for the South was founded few months ago in Mahra to denounce the Saudi and Emirati foreign presence in Yemen (and mostly in the border governorate).
Moreover, the STC is going to share the government with Islah, the party rallying also the Yemeni Muslim Brothers who is considered “terrorist” by the STC: since Abu Dhabi announced that “UAE forces would resume jointly with their allies their fight against terrorist forces” in the South of Yemen and in other regions, what will happen if STC-affiliated groups target Islah-tied militias or vice versa, perhaps in oil-rich areas as Shabwa? In this case, which could be the reaction of General Ali Mohisin Al Ahmar, the Islah-tied vice president of Yemen and deputy commander of the armed forces?
For Saudi Arabia, the agreement is the best possible option right now, since it allows Riyadh to regain, as a consequence of a negotiated truce, the direct military control of areas and critical infrastructures (as the port and the airport of Aden) where the Emirati-backed forces of the STC had clear military superiority: for this reason, Riyadh bet on diplomacy this time. Because of Yemen, the strategic partnership between Saudi Arabia and the UAE was the object of unprecedented pressure, with both partners reaching the point of striking against rival supported forces in the South of the country.
Although loosing (apparently) in influence, Abu Dhabi has also several reasons to be satisfied with the Riyadh agreement. After having succeeded in establishing patronage alliances with Yemeni local forces, the UAE can now disengage publicly from an increasing unpopular war at international level, something which in the long-term weakens the Emirati “soft super power” image and its “tolerance” rhetoric. Differently from the return of “martyrs” who lost their lives serving the Emirati nation in Yemen, UAE media are now covering with less emphasis national soldiers coming back home from Aden. At the end of the day, the UAE managed to open the doors of the government to its separatist allies and this was not Saudi Arabia’s first choice, since it paves the way to some sort of partition in Yemen: the Riyadh agreement is also about Abu Dhabi’s soft power vis-à-vis its main ally.
In such a changing political landscape, United Nations Security Council resolution 2216 (passed in April 2015) seems, again, no longer apt to support diplomacy. In fact, the internationally-recognized government that, according to the resolution, had to be reinstated by the Saudi-led coalition, has changed skin to include also Southern secessionists. On the other hand, the Huthis – who, according to the resolution, had to surrender de facto leaving the occupied territories and relinquishing the arms to the regular military – have opened a communication line with the Saudis to de-escalate the fight, eyeing a truce and a reciprocal prisoner swap: this means the northern insurgents will be asked to compromise, but not to surrender, in case Riyadh pursues the diplomatic way.
Finally, the Riyadh agreement stresses the unity of Yemen in a federal framework to be strengthened through unified political and military ranks. But beyond the fight against the Huthis, Yemeni players’ goals remain different: unified state versus independent South. In the medium-long term, the practical outcome of this ambitious deal will primarily depend on which kind of use the parties will do of this agreement: president Hadi could try to regain as much as possible territory to the Huthis, the STC could work to prepare, from within, the Southern independent state. This is why, with the entrance of secessionists in extremely weak state institutions, Yemen seems to have formally entered a top-down managed path towards partition.