The signing of the Riyadh Agreement between the internationally recognised government of Yemen and the Southern Transitional Council has raised the hopes of many Yemenis and many in the region that the bitter conflict in Yemen may now be coming to an end.
The UN Security Council issued a press release saying that the Riyadh deal was “a positive and important step towards a comprehensive political solution in Yemen.”
UN Special Envoy for Yemen Martin Griffiths tweeted that the Riyadh Agreement was “an important step for our collective efforts to advance a peaceful settlement to the conflict in Yemen.”
Arab leaders welcomed the agreement, praising the efforts of the Saudi leadership that sponsored the talks.
However, despite the air of optimism, for some the reality on the ground is that internal conflicts and civil wars do not come to an end with the signing of one agreement or a settlement reached in the first round.
The Yemeni conflict may be no exception to this rule, since the Yemeni parties have already signed several deals, and the southerners who demand a return of the former Democratic Republic of Yemen (South Yemen) have repeatedly engaged in conflicts with the internationally recognised government of Yemeni President Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi.
Each time the two parties have reached a settlement or ceasefire, Hadi’s government has had to operate from its temporary capital in Aden.
Yet, the Riyadh Agreement may be different deal, as it is sponsored by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, two prominent partners in the Arab Coalition against the Iran-backed Houthis in Yemen.
For the first time, all the parties acknowledge that the southern Yemenis and their demands are an integral component of the legitimate government. The Riyadh Agreement gives Yemen a government of no fewer than 24 ministerial portfolios, half of which are to go to the Southern Transitional Council and its allies.
The deal also engages the southerners in talks between Hadi and the Houthis, which means that Saudi Arabia and the UAE will likely accept whatever the Yemenis agree on, even if they have to “accept a Southern Yemen Republic”.
The agreement integrates the southern forces into the government ones, with the former having to hand in medium and heavy weapons to the coalition.
But the application of the Riyadh Agreement will be challenging, as a lack of trust between the two parties reigns supreme. The south is accusing the government of being controlled by northerners, particularly the Islah Party, the political front of the Muslim Brotherhood in Yemen.
Since Hadi fled the house arrest the Houthis imposed on him in the capital Sanaa in late 2014, his government has depended on the Islah Party, in opposition to the Zaydi (Shia) element in Yemen, some of whom represent the Houthis and go by the name of Ansarullah, and the Southern Transitional Council, which has called for the return of the former South Yemen to end the control of the northerners.
The majority of the Islah Party is made up of elements from what was previously known as North Yemen. Islah has always had a weak presence in the South, which saw the semi-dominance of Sufi movements and intellectuals with communist leanings.
The Southern Transitional Council was then in a prominent political position because Hadi’s government needed its support in its war against the Houthis.
“The southerners and Hadi’s government don’t trust each other,” said Mohamed Al-Mekhlafi, Yemen’s former minister for legislative affairs. “It will be difficult for the southerners to give up their weapons and integrate their forces into the army after they have reached semi-autonomy in return for ministerial seats that everybody knows have no rule over the country,” he added.
“Group negotiations will not give us back South Yemen nor remove the control of the north over the south,” said Aden-born Fadl Al-Ali, a resident of the UK who is active in the ranks of the Southern Transitional Council in Europe.
North Yemen has been larger in population than the South by five- or six-fold since Yemeni unification took place in 1990, and many in the North belong to the Zaydi Shia majority.
“We are in no way connected to the war against the Houthis. All the southerners are Sunnis, and we want a country of our own. I believe we are proof that unification under pressure is a failed experience,” said Al-Ali, referring to the South’s acceptance of unification with the North after long years of internal conflicts in the 1970s and 1980s.
At that time, South Yemen had lost its former Soviet ally, which did not want to support weak partners in the rest of the world from whom it gained little strategically or economically. “We fell prey to the illusions of unity. But all we got was the corruption of Abdallah Saleh [Yemen’s former president], his family and the tribes loyal to him,” added Al-Ali.
“It appears that the long time the war is taking against the Houthis, and the inability to defeat them has led the northerners to believe that secession is the only possible solution,” said Al-Mekhlafi. “In a less conservative community, such as the South, people cannot be forced to accept sectarian Houthis when they didn’t accept Hadi and Saleh,” he added.
Al-Mekhlafi, who leans towards unity, told Al-Ahram Weekly that “one of the pros of the Riyadh Agreement is involving the southerners in talks that comprise all the Yemeni factions to reach a political settlement and allowing them to present their point of view about the future of Yemen.”
He added that the majority of Yemenis, including the southerners, had agreed in 2012-13 on a six-region federal state. However, this had not seen the light of day.
He defended the federal system that could have given Yemeni municipalities self-rule within the framework of principles putting weapons solely in the hands of a unified army, establishing diplomatic connections with the rest of the world, creating a fair economic, social, cultural and environmental balance, and keeping an equal distance from all parties.
Despite the signing of the Riyadh Agreement, Yemen still has a long way to go to save itself from famine and the near collapse of the country. The UN has previously warned that Yemen is in the midst of the world’s worst humanitarian crisis, with its people on the verge of famine and more than half its population depending on humanitarian aid.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 14 November, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.