Analysis

As Yemen Separatists Declare Self-rule, Saudi Arabia Looks for an Exit Strategy

A self-rule declaration has put paid to a recent cease-fire in Yemen, the country is slipping away from Riyadh’s grip and the coronavirus threatens to engulf it

A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el
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Troops from Yemen’s separatist Southern Transitional Council deploy in Aden, on April 26, 2020.
Troops from Yemen’s separatist Southern Transitional Council deploy in Aden, on April 26, 2020.Credit: Saleh Al-Obeidi/AFP
A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el

A new “state” arose over the weekend on the soil of Yemen. The Southern Transitional Council, led by former governor of Aden Aidarous al-Zubaidi, seized government buildings and the central bank in the port city, and declared self-rule in the country’s southern districts, on the way to creating the state of South Yemen. The declaration effectively annulled the cease-fire agreement signed last November between the recognized government of Yemen, headed by Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi, and the secessionist council. The accord was signed under the aegis of the Saudi Arabian government, which joined local forces five years ago to battle the Iranian-affiliated Houthi movement in Yemen.

But now Saudi Arabia has no viable political control over the developments in Yemen. Meanwhile, the United States, which lost no time in “expressing concern” over the latest move, understands that the effort to curb Iranian influence in Yemen is ebbing. Also looming ominously on the horizon is the coronavirus pandemic, which hasn’t yet erupted in full force in Yemen, but under the new situation will be far more difficult to eradicate when it does strike.

The separatist aspirations of the 26 districts represented in the Southern Transitional Council are not new. Since Yemen’s unification, in 1990, under the leadership of Ali Abdullah Saleh, the south has been excluded from the centers of government, from the military and from state funding, even though most of the country’s oil fields are located in the south of the country.

When the Houthis, in the north, launched their war against the Yemeni government that was established after the upheavals of the Arab Spring – during which the long-serving Saleh was deposed as president and succeeded by Mansour Hadi in 2012 – the southern tribes agreed to join the campaign against the Houthis, but demanded political and budgetary rewards in return. That, however, did not actually come to pass.

In 2015, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, together with the ruler of the United Arab Emirates, created an Arab coalition to fight Iran’s strongholds in Yemen – in cooperation with the militias that support the government in Aden and the army – thus unleashing a blood-drenched campaign in which more than 100,000 people have died, from both the fighting and from disease and hunger. However, military cooperation against a common enemy did not prevent eruption of old disputes or resolve differences of strategy between Riyadh and Abu Dhabi.

While Saudi Arabia strove to forge a united Yemeni state, which it would be able to control from afar, the UAE supported the separatists, with the aim of consolidating their rule in southern Yemen and in the strategic Bab al-Mandab strait. Subsequently, however, the UAE – after being hit by Houthi missile barrages and fearing that it, too, like Saudi Arabia, would become an ongoing target – revisited its policy, tightened its ties with Tehran and withdrew most of its forces from Yemen.

The Saudis, who found themselves almost alone, sought a way out of the unending hostilities, in which their military weakness was once again displayed – even though they were equipped with cutting-edge U.S.-made arms and munitions. After about five years of fighting, it was clear that the coalition forces were incapable of subduing the Houthis, although Riyadh had originally hoped to eliminate them within a few weeks. As a result, Saudi Arabia and U.S. President Donald Trump found themselves in a confrontation with the U.S. Congress, which held Crown Prince Mohammed responsible for the killing of thousands of Yemenis – as well as for the murder of journalist and Saudi regime opponent Jamal Khashoggi.

Diverting resources

The deep rift between the Southern Transitional Council and the recognized government morphed from a political into a military clash. It became even more heated when Yemen’s president, who lives in Saudi Arabia and keeps his distance from his homeland, decided to dismiss the leader of the southern militias, Zubaidi, from his post as governor of Aden, claiming, apparently rightly, that Zubaidi was trying to subvert him.

In 2016, Zubaidi, who lives in Dubai now, announced his intention to establish an independent political body and cut his connection to the central Yemeni government. In April 2017, after implementing the move, he seized control of the presidential palace and arrested the president, who was released only after the intervention of Saudi Arabia and the UAE.

But the confrontations between the sides did not cease. Last November, Riyadh sponsored a cease-fire agreement between the government forces and the secessionist council. Under the agreement, a joint government was to be formed in which the southern separatists were promised equality in terms of both the number of cabinet ministers and the state budget. At the time, the accord seemed to demarcate a roadmap accepted by both sides that could bring about a long-term cessation of hostilities and a political horizon. Above all, it was thought that the agreement could provide Saudi Arabia with an escape route from the Yemeni morass.

But the hostilities have not ceased in the months since the agreement was signed. Indeed, it now appears that the political process, in which the United Nations is also involved, has reached an impasse. Following the disintegration of what was considered to be a generous agreement, Saudi Arabia does not have much ammunition left in its arsenal to offer the separatists, in return for joining the recognized government. Moreover, the UAE has stopped paying salaries to the fighters in the south and is distancing itself from the Yemeni arena. In contrast, the Houthis and Iran view the new southern self-rule declaration as an opportunity.

Without the prospect of a military decision, and with Riyadh and Abu Dhabi growing more divided, the Houthis have two options: to expand their military offensives into southern Yemen in order to capture Aden and the oil regions, or to reach an agreement on a cease-fire and governmental cooperation with the authorities in Yemen – a move that Riyadh has begun to promote recently under American pressure. About two weeks ago, Saudi Arabia and the UAE declared a general cease-fire in Yemen, at a time when they have begun to seriously combat the coronavirus pandemic.

However, the Houthis have shown little enthusiasm, demanding more and more concessions from Riyadh in return for signing a new cease-fire. In the meantime, fighting continues on the ground, aid organizations are finding it difficult to reach the needy with food and medication, and health services are little more than an abstract concept. International intervention, which was limited to begin with, has gone into deep freeze because resources have been diverted to the international struggle against the coronavirus.