The meeting that Yemeni President Abd Rabu Mansour Hadi held with Yemeni government officials, members of parliament and political party leaders in Riyadh last Friday reflected moves to cap the military escalation in southern Yemen between the internationally recognised government and the Southern Transitional Council (STC).
According to participants in the meeting, Riyadh, which brokered the ceasefire that was concluded on 23 June between government and STC forces, persuaded Hadi to back down after clashes erupted again in Abyan and the outskirts of Aden.
Riyadh underscored the urgency of carrying out the Riyadh Agreement of 5 November 2019, towards which end the parties should prioritise the political over the military track and implement it within two months.
During this period, the government should form a new 24-seat cabinet with the STC after which President Hadi will appoint governors of the southern provinces and local security and administration officials that meet the approval of the STC. In return, the STC will relinquish the “self-rule” it declared two months ago and withdraw its military forces from Aden and other lines of conflict. Local sources have confirmed Yemeni news reports that the observer force deployed by Saudi Arabia on the Abyan front has halted the spiralling tensions between the two sides.
While the military hostilities may have subsided, the political friction between the STC and the government seems to have shifted to within the latter camp which grew more sharply divided since STC forces drove out Hadi-aligned forces and took control of Socotra two weeks ago. According to sources close to the Yemeni presidency, there is a faction in the government camp — a kind of alliance between the Yemeni Congregation for Reform (Islah) and the General People’s Congress (GPC) — that now has reservations over the measures called for by the Riyadh Agreement.
They believe that this explains the flare up in violence the day after the 23 June ceasefire was concluded. This Islah-led faction wants to create a military council instead of a power-sharing government with the STC. It also insists on a military operation to retake Socotra. Apparently Hadi managed to prevail over that faction during last Friday’s meeting in Riyadh. A military council would encroach on Hadi’s authorities, on the one hand, and its agenda would precipitate a clash with that of Riyadh, which is currently working to contain the crisis in southern Yemen.
Mohamed Abdul-Hadi of the Southern Revolutionary Council believes that some hurdles lay ahead for the political track and that the two sides — the STC and the government — are still in the haggling phase. “The STC wants to increase its share of seats in the interim government to eight, whereas, according to the political annex of the November agreement, it was only supposed to get two portfolios.
That means the extra six would come at the expense of other southern forces,” he said. The Southern Movement, of which the STC represents a faction, is entitled to 12 of the 24 cabinet seats under the agreement.
Also, according to Abdul-Hadi, the STC wants to retain the governorships of Aden and Socotra. The government countered that the STC could have another ministry, but in exchange President Hadi would name the governor of Aden and the STC would have to surrender Socotra in its entirety to the legitimate government.
“This is not the only controversial point. The two sides can’t even agree over names of candidates for the posts,” Abdul-Hadi said, adding that despite the deployment of a Saudi observer force in Abyan, “there are still intermittent breaches” of the ceasefire.
On the other hand, Abdul-Hadi indicated that Saudi Arabia and the UAE, the two chief members of the Arab Coalition, had reached a number of understandings that will promote a settlement between the two Yemeni sides.
At the same time, Yemeni Parliament Speaker Sultan Al-Burkani appears eager to help restore calm in the south. The STC is a component of the country, even if it committed some “follies”, he said, adding that the legitimate government represents the whole country.
With regard to the thorny question of Socotra, he vowed there could be no question of compromise on that issue, but made no mention of a dialogue or other mechanism to deal with it. Nor did he allude to pressures from certain quarters of the government camp to retake the island by force.
While some observers believe the problem of Socotra could be settled in the framework of the dialogue between the Yemeni parties, others believe that the question of the island, strategically located on major shipping routes, will have to be settled at the Saudi-UAE level first.
The UAE, which backs the STC, welcomed the dialogue that Riyadh sponsored last week to defuse tensions in the south. “Saudi Arabia has our gratitude and esteem for its unflagging efforts to restore stability in brotherly Yemen. We greatly welcome the response of the government and the STC to the comprehensive ceasefire. The implementation of the Riyadh Agreement will dispel the spectre of division and war, and revive hope for the peace we all pray for,” wrote UAE Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Anwar Gargash on his Twitter account.
Although the UAE has maintained an enigmatic silence on Socotra, Yemeni sources, some unofficial and others affiliated with the Saudi backed Hadi government, suspect the UAE plans to build a military base there. Nevertheless, they believe that the question will ultimately be handled diplomatically rather than militarily. Riyadh, alluding to tensions over Socotra, appealed for calm which, in turn, encouraged the Yemeni president to respond favourably to the Saudi call for a return to political dialogue.
Last year, when the UAE withdrew its forces from Yemen it simultaneously stressed its continued commitment to the Arab coalition that was formed to restore the legitimate government in Yemen.
However, reports and sources from southern Yemen indicate that the UAE still harbours concerns over the Islah faction. The Emiratis suspect that faction is scheming to sabotage the Riyadh Agreement by triggering military confrontations with the STC in Abyan, Aden or Socotra. This is why the UAE wants to return to the island, where it had stationed military forces until May 2019.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 2 July, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly