By Irina Tsukerman
For the last year, the media has been abuzz with rumors of Saudi Arabia’s impending withdrawal from Yemen. Many analysts have ascribed the normalization deal with Iran to the Saudi exist strategy from the conflict, which has cost the Kingdom tens of billions of dollars in humanitarian aid alone, let alone military and other expenses towards the war effort and assorted administrative tasks. Attempted negotiations with Houthis have thus far not worked out after the Houthis demanded extraordinary concessions, in a new de facto rejection of the Saudi overtures. That left the fate of the Saudi-led Arab Coalition forces in limbo – while further complicating the situation inside the conflict-fraught country and raising questions about the future of South Yemen. In the latest diplomatic salvo, pointing to the Kingdom’s search for an exit strategy, Riyadh is making moves to strengthen its positions in Aden and Hadramut, by forming administrative councils (de-facto militias), aimed at promoting unity. Meanwhile, the Southern Transitional Council (STC) leadership, particularly popular in parts of the South, is more determined than ever to forge a pathway to independence. So where does that leave us?
The Arabian Peninsula Institute recently hosted a gathering of experts to discuss these concerns. Amr Al Bidh, the Special Representative of the President for Foreign Affairs at Southern Transitional Council (STC), dismissed the Saudi move to assert power through these regional councils as a non-starter. “It’s been tried before” – he said, pointing that all these groups have consistently failed and that such efforts had thus far been inconsistent. While some view this measure as an effort to maintain a foothold in the South in light of the Houthi intransigence, others are concerned that some of the praetorian guard in the Saudi foreign policy echelons are in fact pursuing an ulterior motive – a potential annexation of Aden and Hadramut, as has already happened with Najd in the 1950s. Gaining control over the fossil fuel rich areas would strengthen the Saudi positions within OPEC, become an additional source of enrichment for the elites, and serve as a security guarantee against future Houthi incursions by expanding Riyadh’s borders outwards. So far, however, there is little practical evidence outside these councils that the Kingdom is preparing for any such moves, which in the best case scenario would take years to implement.
Still, the issue of South Yemen’s independence has become a focal point of debate in the region, with UAE favoring the separation from the Houthi-dominated North and KSA insisting on retaining a unified state. Al Bidh insisted that there is room for all stakeholders to express their views in an inclusive format, but also underscored his concerns about the costs of going with the unity solution. In particular, he pointed out that given Saudi Arabia’s record of on the one hand, rooting out Muslim Brotherhood at home, and on the other, embracing the MB party Al Islah when it comes to Yemen issues, it is hard to understand or predict its policy. Furthermore, the STC positions itself as a counterpoint to the Houthis and Al Islah, both of which share KSA’s dedication to Yemen’s unity – but seek to dominate any future government.
Their extremist views are unacceptable to STC; moreover, there are additional concerns about the national security, particularly after US abandonment of support for the Arab Coalition, logistics of movement, conflicts over oil which is centered in the South, and cultural and religious differences that have developed over decades and that are at this point nearly impossible to overcome. Houthis insist on drawing from the South Yemen reserves, continued Al Bidh, despite they have independent sources of income, routinely loot humanitarian aid to the North, and have institute the khums tax in the territories under their control, whereby they extract 20% of income from the regular population to serve the needs
of the alleged Hashemites – descendants of the prophet Mohammed, which include the Al Houthi family, as they claim. The South, on the other hand, explained Al Bidh, can ill afford the oil smuggling from the North. Despite attempted reforms, civil servants continue to suffer from delayed salaries, which in some instances have not been paid in months. Economic mismanagement has been dire, particularly in the cities controlled by the Muslim Brotherhood affiliates. Moreover, rising security concerns about the return of Al Qaeda and ISIS add to the complexity of the overall situation.
Houthis likely will never settle for anything short of absolute control of the country. However, those who believe KSA has a mind to expand into Yemen at least in order to protect itself from future attacks also seem to ascribe some level of deliberation to the dealings with the Houthis, which, they alleged are being used as proxies for Riyadh to clear the path to taking control of Aden and Hadramout, unbeknownst even to themselves. This vision, brought back from the Old Guard years in Saudi Arabia, before the reforms, the nationalist domestically focused Vision2030 under the Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, and certainly long before the Houthi coup, may be reenacted precisely through the dealings with the Islamists who have no particular respect for national borders, and for Houthis who are so obsessed with power that may just provide Riyadh with the perfect excuse to grab additionally territory as the only measure of countering a permanent existential threat in its vicinity. The US unwillingness to continue assistance in Yemen has only accelerate the desperate scramble to find a solution. Iran, despite all the public proclamations and commitments, has thus far failed to push Houthis into a peace agreement with the Saudis, and has likewise apparently given them a greenlight to continue the attacks inside Yemen.
Even if the Saudis are not in fact scheming to grab a permanent hold of Aden and Hadramut, other challenges remain. The STC has engaged in clashes with some of the newly formed Saudi-backed militias which distracts from putting up a unified defense against the Houthis, Al Qaeda, and other unavoidable threats. The growing distrust between Riyadh and STC has resulted in mutual accusations of backstabbing and subterfuge. Despite years of backchannel deliberations with the Houthis, which has arguably compromised the Arab Coalition offensive successes, Riyadh blames the STC for underhanded contacts with the Iran-backed militias. The STC, on the other hand, feels that KSA’s incorporation of the Muslim Brotherhood weakened the Coalition and created a fifth column which leaked intelligence and other information to the Houthis, undermining the joint effort, and robbed the Yemen Treasury and the local governorships. Lost among this squabble are the voices of other factions in the South – more liberal, pro-Saudi coalitions, who ascribe neither to the Islamist worldview nor to the question for a de jure independence, but who are open to a more autonomous federated cooperation in support of the Saudi vision.
There are also local tribal interests in places like Hadramut which are in general aligned with STC, at least in opposition to the local Al Islah contingent, but on the other hand are fiercely defensive of local interests and autonomy, and wish to avoid control by any federated factions. Moreover, there is also the not-so-ancient history of both the STC and Al Islah before the Arab Spring. The STC was and remains a fluid coalition of varying interests, which at one point also included the pro-separation Muslim Brothers. Al Islah before 2011 consisted of the mixture of the Brotherhood affiliates, tribal interests, and assorted transitional parties. But eventually the Islamists came to dominate the party and subsumed or corrupted their allies among tribal leaderships. Moreover, there is also the issue of the political form of governance, with Houthis being a centralized, authoritarian family led enterprise, the STC calling for a more inclusive election based system, and various tribes seeking a forum where they can self-govern
through traditional forms of dialogue, which has resulted in some successes such as the completion of various prisoner exchanges with the Houthis. All of these nuances reflect the complex social fabric of the diverse communities in Yemen. “There is no real need to talk about how to divide Yemen – concluded Amr Al Bidh. – Yemen is already divided. What we need is to find a solution on how to unite Yemen”. While the STC may well believe that political separation from the Houthi-dominated North will ensure security, preservation of local cultures, and an autonomy from assorted foreign interests, there is also a growing realization that the many of Yemen’s problem surpass the Houthi coup, which is only one form of extreme sectarianism that has led to a state of near-permanent clashes among assorted factions throughout Yemen’s recent history.
Irina Tsukerman is a Fellow at the Arabian Peninsula Institute