The Saudi-brokered agreement between the Yemeni government of Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi and the separatist Southern Transitional Council (STC) marks the end of a chapter in the Yemeni conflict that flared into open hostilities in August. To the STC, it might seem like the end of a much longer chapter dating back three decades to Yemen’s north-south conflict in the 1990s.
It took nine weeks of arduous talks, diplomatic shuttling and tugs-of-war on the ground to yield this new addition to the agreements on the Yemeni question. The Riyadh Agreement sets out the principles governing the relationship between the two sides and the measures they are expected to take in the forthcoming period under the supervision of the Arab Coalition.
It includes three annexes addressing various political, military and security, and economic points. From its preamble to its annexes, it accomplishes five strategic goals.
First, it lays out a clear roadmap and timeframe to end the conflict between the Hadi government and the STC. It re-engineers the status of the south within the framework of the Yemeni state and draws upon and reaffirms three frames of reference governing the Yemen question, namely the Gulf Initiative, the Yemeni National Dialogue and UN Security Council Resolution 2216.
As a result, the agreement does more than “contain” the crisis in the south, and instead resolves the “southern question” in the context of the Yemeni crisis as a whole. Final judgement on its success is contingent on the parties’ sustained commitment to implementing its provisions.
Second, the agreement establishes the relationship between the government and the STC on the basis of a power-sharing formula, while establishing a clear hierarchy in which the former prevails. While the north and the south of Yemen will have an equal number of portfolios in the 24-member cabinet, the president remains the chief executive and highest decision-making authority.
Third, the agreement precludes southern secessionist projects or other schemes to divide the country. In recent years, there has been a marked resurgence of secessionist calls, and the agreement draws on the outputs of the National Dialogue pertaining to the establishment of a federal system comprised of six regions, one of which includes the governorates of Aden, Abyan and Al-Dalie.
This forestalls possible STC aspirations to extend its influence eastwards into the governorates of Shabwa, Hadhramawt and Al-Mahra. It is also an indication of the agreement’s focus on long-term stability, feeding hopes that it will last.
Fourth, such hopes are increased by provisions in the agreement providing for the comprehensive redeployment and redistribution of military and security forces.
In order to defuse potential clashes between the two sides, all medium and heavy weapons will be removed from Aden and placed in camps designated and supervised by the Saudi-led Coalition. The redeployments of the military forces of the two main coalition parties, Saudi Arabia and the UAE, have also given preponderance to the former in the south. This will strengthen the coalition’s control over Yemen’s southern coast and the maritime traffic between the Gulf and the Bab Al-Mandeb Strait, bolstering efforts to halt arms supplies to the Houthis in northern Yemen.
Fifth, the agreement rehabilitates the basic frames of reference for the Yemeni crisis and the status and efficacy of the legitimate government and its institutions in the south. These had eroded significantly because of political discord and the pursuit of narrow regional and ideological agendas. The agreement explicitly recognises the STC and an autonomous southern entity with some powers and jurisdictions equal to those of the central government.
Translating all this on the ground will require-confidence building measures, some of which should be put into effect immediately since one of the first steps involves the return of the president to Aden and the resumption of the administration of government there.
Such a partial peace in an environment plagued by multiple crises could serve as a model for peace-making that can be promoted and emulated elsewhere. However, this does not appear to be the case here.
The text of the agreement indicates that one of the motives behind it was “to protect Yemen and its people from the ongoing aggression of the Iranian-backed Houthi militia and to build on the political, security, relief and development successes achieved, such as the regaining of control over most Yemeni territory.”
The eighth point of the agreement calls for the inclusion of the STC in the legitimate government’s delegation “to the political consultations on ending the coup by the Houthi militia supported by the Iranian regime.” It appears, therefore, that the agreement is serving as a means to forge alliances in the framework of a political and/or military escalation against other parties, in this case the Houthis.
In view of past experience of the conflict in the north, it is unlikely that the Riyadh model is applicable there. First, the agreement with the STC is similar to the Peace and Partnership Agreement that preceded the Houthis’ 2014 September coup. Second, the Houthis do not recognise the established frames-of-reference, especially the outputs of the National Dialogue.
Third, the ideological aspect of the Houthi project is inconsistent with the agreement. The Houthis have a religious authority that governs their political project in Saada, but they want to extend their influence over the public sphere in general as a parallel authority in government. This adds a complicating factor that does not exist in the case of the agreement with the STC.
The Houthis have so far shown no official interest in the Riyadh Agreement and the little attention that the Houthi media have accorded it has focused primarily on the replacement of the UAE forces by Saudi forces in Al-Bariqa, Aden airport, the Al-Anad Airbase in Lahaj and an oil terminal belonging to the Aden refinery.
Nevertheless, on 26 October a Houthi delegation headed by Mohamed Abdel-Salam, head of the Houthi negotiating delegation, flew to Tehran for a meeting that appears to have been arranged at the last minute. The meeting coincided with leaked reports about the draft Riyadh Agreement.
So far, neither the Houthis nor the Iranians have made any official statements about the meeting. If it yields a new strategy, most likely it will be unveiled by Houthi leader Abdel-Malek Al-Houthi on an official religious occasion, the nearest being the Anniversary of the Prophet on 9 November when the Houthis plan to organise a major event in Sanaa.
A number of other political forces affiliated with the Southern Movement took part in the dialogue hosted by Riyadh. This may have been an attempt to pre-empt UN plans that involved creating a broader forum representative of diverse southern forces. Eleven rounds of meetings were held in three Arab and African capitals towards this end, but the STC withdrew from the last two rounds.
While the Riyadh Agreement remains a major step towards the resolution of Yemen’s multifaceted conflict, there remains the more difficult hurdle of solving the conflict in the north, not to mention the problems of fighting Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State (IS) group in Yemen.
At a broader level, there remains the problem of building a new state in Yemen, which will entail a broad array of arrangements pertaining to the country’s future system of government. In a sense, therefore, what is unfolding today are efforts to remedy the symptoms rather than the cause of the conflict.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 31 October, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.