As forces belonging to the Southern Transitional Council (STC) evacuated government buildings in the Yemeni city of Aden, the two main partners in the Coalition to Support Legitimacy in Yemen — the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA) — promised talks about the south soon.
The development follows swift control of “the capital of the south” by southern groups seeking separation from the north. STC leader Aidroos Al-Zubaidi said at the beginning of the move that his forces “have no intention of leaving Aden”, but he later ceded to calls from the coalition to withdraw from government buildings, though they still control military positions in the vicinity.
To give space for negotiations about the future of Aden, and probably the whole of the south, the STC chose to tactically retreat. Yet its British-based Spokesman Saleh Alnoud told the media, “we are there to remain — but to remain for a positive reason: to maintain stability.”
The latest spat started at the beginning of the month with a Houthi rocket attack on STC forces, which the southerners said the Muslim Brotherhood affiliate the Islah Party was part of.
During the funerals of those killed in the attack, shooting started and an exchange of fire ensued between armed southern Yemenis and the Presidential Guard in Aden.
The STC and its allied groups seized all government buildings and kicked out government officials from Aden, used as the interim capital until the liberation of Sanaa from Houthi control.
Zubaidi and other southern leaders have always been wary of Islah exploiting the weakness of the president of the internationally-recognised government, Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi.
The same sentiment shared by the UAE, that stood firm against Islamist infiltration of ruling structures in the countries of the region.
Islah, and Muslim Brotherhood-linked media, quickly exaggerated the rift between the main coalition partners. But UAE Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Anwar Gargash tweeted Wednesday that Abu Dhabi was committed to its allies and “our shared goals of peace & stability in the region”.
A visit by Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Sheikh Mohamed Bin Zayed to Saudi Arabia and meetings with King Salman and Crown Prince Mohamed Bin Salman was meant to show that the two partners fighting the Iranian-backed Houthi insurgency in Yemen are on the same page.
Yet, analysts keep speculating about a rift in the coalition and a widening gap between the UAE and KSA.
Actually, the two partners are aware that any disagreement in Yemen will only benefit their shared adversary: Iran. However, Abu Dhabi and Riyadh are not always in agreement, especially when it comes to political steps in Yemen.
As the UAE redeployed most of its troops there in June, stating that its strategy is to give more room for a political settlement, deepening disagreement seemed poised to erupt.
But both parties stress they share strategic goals set when they started the military effort in Yemen in 2015. That was mainly to end Houthi control of Yemen and strengthen the hold of the internationally-recognised government of President Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi.
With the fighting in Yemen decreasing, all parties are seeking to prove themselves worthy of a better share in any political settlement. Many on the ground in Yemen are not content with the political share of Hadi and his government, “who stay in nice hotels in KSA”, as some Yemenis bitterly say.
When it comes to action, it has been the UAE which led the way, especially in the south, liberating many areas from Houthi control and training Yemeni allies to fight terrorists there as well as the Houthis.
Saudi Arabia is more concerned with Houthi strongholds in the north of the war-torn country. The Saudis rely on air strikes more than fighting on the ground, in contrast to the Emiratis.
A couple of years ago, after liberating most of the south of Yemen from Houthi rebels, southern leaders formed the STC aiming at a greater role in any future political settlement. In 2017, it became clear that they resent Hadi’s role and started publicly complaining about Saudi favouring inapt leadership.
Moreover, the Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated Islah became part of different governments Hadi formed. While the Saudis tolerated that, the UAE and many groups in southern Yemen were not happy.
Yet, the fear of showing fissures in the front against Iran’s proxy group was enough to swallow their more immediate concerns and look forward to the day that legitimacy prevails to sort it all out.
Now, almost five years after the coalition intervened, southerners are uneasy about any settlement they’re not part of as a “separate” entity from the “legitimate” government of President Hadi.
South Yemen was a separate state until unification in 1990 under Yemen’s then-president Ali Abdullah Saleh, marred by a civil war in 1994. Some in the Gulf see that separation of south and north might be a de-facto outcome of the current struggle; possibly autonomy within one state, or some sort of federation.
It’s still early to predict an end result of the war in Yemen, but southerners — represented by STC and other groups opposed to Islah and the Houthis – are proving themselves a powerful force, impossible to ignore in any prospective political settlement.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 22 August, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: Yemen in transition