Saudi New Quandary in Southern Yemen

Situation Assessment | 5 Jul 2020 00:00
 Saudi New Quandary in Southern Yemen





     The UAE-supported Southern Transitional Council, which was established in 2017, took control of Aden, the temporary capital of Yemen, on August 10, 2019, and then its forces moved towards the city of Zinjibar, the capital of Abyan (adjacent to Aden), and managed to overthrow it, in addition to the centers of al-Dhalea and Lahj. But the transitional council failed to extend its control over the other five southern governorates.

Saudi Arabia, which is leading the Arab coalition to support the legitimacy against the Houthi coup, intervened to stop the division within its camp in Yemen and sponsored  indirect consultations that resulted in the known “Riyadh Agreement”, the first achievement by Prince Khalid bin Salman, brother of the Crown Prince and Deputy Minister of Defense after he received the Yemeni file.

A timetable for the implementation of the Riyadh Agreement was set to end early March 2020, but like all Yemeni agreements, the implementation failed to be done on time for several reasons related to the external sponsor of the Southern Transitional Council, e.i. the United Arab Emirates, and the unclear content of the agreement that made it fails, because each party interpreted it according to its own interests.

In April 2020, the Southern Transitional Council announced the self-rule of the southern governorates, in a formal and clear declaration against the "Riyadh Agreement". The council established a committee to manage the southern governorates. The step was  described as unilateral separation measure. The committee continued to work despite the local and international rejection of its existence and the self-rule declaration, which put the Southern Transitional Council in front of great internal and external pressures, and revealed that the size of the transitional council does not make it a sole representative of " The Southern Issue," especially with the continuing popular rejection and the multiplicity of local actors who are interest in the southern issue.

In this paper, we try to read the content of the Self-rule Declaration by the Transitional Council and its regional sponsors, its role in promoting the conflict in southern Yemen and turning it into a "regional conflict", its political dimensions within Yemen and the international community's vision towards the Transitional Council after the self-rule declaration. The paper focuses on the limited options of Saudi Arabia to get out of the war in Yemen after the latest measures by the transitional that were described as separatism.


The Repercussions of Not Implementing the "Riyadh Agreement":

Leaders in the Southern Transitional Council attributed the declaration of the self-rule to the failure to implement the "Riyadh Agreement", but the reality is that the UAE-backed transition council had an intention to control the southern governorates since May 2017, when the council was established and demonstrations by the STC’s supporters in Aden were organized to support the "historical Aden announcement" which included the formation of a presidency for "the administration and representation of the South".[1] This was confirmed a few days later by the announcement of the Presidency of the Transitional Council, led by "Aidarous al-Zubeidi".[2]

The supporters and leaders of the council consider that the "management" of southern Yemen represents a goal, not a real administration, so that the transitional council can acquire power at the lowest cost. But the context of events and developments since the "Riyadh Agreement" was established, pushed the southern transitional council to show the end of the drawn plans prematurely, which caused a local and international anger, including the governorates that do not belong to the triangle region (Yafe, Al-Dhalea and Lahj).


The most prominent indicators that affected the Southern Transitional Council:

Management Failure:

The pressure on the Southern Transitional Council after controlling Aden and other governorates in the south of the country in August 2019, and expelling the legitimate government. And the STC’s inability to assume responsibility for services, political, security and financial affairs in Aden alone. The legitimate government returned to Aden in December 2019, but was expelled by the Southern Transitional Council in February 2020.

The transitional council faces mounting public pressure after it has prevented the government from operating in Aden and other southern cities. After its return, the government was unable to get access to the main southern cities and its activities were suspended. With the season of floods and rains that invaded Aden and other cities, the United Nations estimates those affected by the torrential rains at 100,000 people, most of them in Aden, Lahj, Abyan, Marib and Sanaa. The floods caused the return of "epidemics and fevers" to Aden. When the government tried to return, the Southern Transitional Council rejected its return and said that it had expired, requesting representation in a new government.

Hundreds of residents went out in the city of Aden to demonstrate against the Yemeni government and the Southern Transitional Council due to the apparent failure to manage the public services that had collapsed to the most. Epidemics broke out in the city, including the global Coronavirus pandemic (COVID19). The number of deaths recorded due to epidemics, rose to more than 1,000 during the month of May 2020.[3]

The popular resentment against the southern transitional council increased as it could not  pay salaries, despite its control over resources. The council was forced to find a new issue to divert the public opinion, so it announced the "self-rule". But the STC was surprised that the population continued to looking for services rather than a new form of management and governance.

Saudi Reactions:

Under pressure and at a Saudi request, the UAE suspended the delivery of  salaries to the militias affiliated with the transitional council in Aden and Abyan, while continuing to pay salaries and funds to the remaining forces loyal to Abu Dhabi in Hadramaut and Shabwa. The UAE has trained 120,000 Yemeni fighters in the southern governorates and on the west coast. It also provides them with weapons and machines.

After assuming the Aden administration, Saudi Arabia began training the Yemeni forces and pushed them, from February 2020 through May 2020, to return to Aden. The Kingdom also managed to gain the loyalty of a number of military and security leaders, who were loyal to the Emirates.

Saudi Arabia also prevented the Director of Aden Security, the head and members of the Negotiations Affairs Unit in the Transitional Council, from returning to Aden, while trying to leave Amman Airport in Jordan in the middle of March 2020 because of their involvement in the events of August 2019 in Aden.

The Southern Transitional Council and its ally, the Emirates, felt that the rug was being pulled out from under them, and that the STC might lose its fighting force and its leaders might be prevented from returning to Aden, so the STC would become a hostage to the Saudi decision. Those who changed their loyalty can create a fighting in the center of Aden and take control of a large number of neighborhoods. The increasing presence of forces loyal to Saudi Arabia in Aden will make the Emirati strategy out of the accounts.

Military Escalation:

The Yemeni government continued to reinforce its forces to the Abyan Governorate (east of Aden) and the neighboring Shabwa Governorate, including forces that received training in the Ma'rib Governorate (adjacent to Shabwa). Most of these forces belong to the southern governorates and support the Yemeni government against the Southern Transitional Council. The army forces continued to be present in the "Shuqra" area of ​​Abyan Governorate, 80 km from Aden. On the other hand, the Southern Transitional Council continued to strengthen its defenses in "Shuqra" and "Zinjibar” in Abyan, as well as in Aden.

The Southern Transitional Council did not find the ability to recruit fighters, or to create a "fighting doctrine" that enables it to move forward to confront the Yemeni government. Most of the fighters within the STC are fighting for money. So the Vice-President of the Transitional Council, Hani bin Brik, issued a "religious fatwa" authorizing the killing of the army forces of the internationally recognized government.[4] In a remarkable development in the thought of the Southern Transitional Council that claims that it is a liberal movement.

Failure in Negotiations:

Consultations between the Southern Transitional Council and the Yemeni government continued under the Saudi patronage, and several committees were formed at three levels (one on the ground, one at the intermediary level, and one at the senior leadership level). The two sides exchanged accusations of trying to thwart the work of the committees. The  Transitional Council has repeatedly refused to disclose its stocks of weapons and vehicles. In two incidents, about which Abaad Center researchers acknowledged, the STC refused a visit by a committee of inspectors to their arms stores in Jabal Hadid in Aden.

Failure in Socotra:

The governorate of Socotra Archipelago was not mentioned in the Riyadh Agreement, and the Transitional Council - funded and supported by the Emirates - moved to control the strategic island through a series of military rebellions in the Marine Corps First Brigade and Security Forces Department, but at the end, it was unable to bring down the local authority on the island. The events on the island demonstrated the Emirati vision of a long-term stay on Socotra Island, near Bab al-Mandab Strait. It is clear that the Southern Transitional Council is operating as an Emirati tool.

The Pressures on the UAE:

Two Gulf diplomats and an Emirati opponent have spoken of sharp differences between the rulers of the six Emirates and Abu Dhabi over their approach in Yemen.[5] The ruler of Dubai and the Vice President of the country, Mohammed bin Rashid, shows the most vocal opponent to this policy in light of a looming economic crisis in the oil-rich Gulf state, as the economic sectors in the UAE retreated to unprecedented levels following the closure policy due to the outbreak of the Coronavirus pandemic (COVID-19) in the country, the decline in oil prices, and the departure of foreign companies and capitals from the country. Abu Dhabi did not provide any amount during the donors' conference for Yemen that was held in Riyadh on June 2, 2020, which collected $ 1.35 billion, half of what the United Nations requested to help Yemen. Saudi Arabia alone donated about half a billion dollars.

The UAE has rushed to cut off some of its funding for wars, trying to get out of costly wars in the Middle East, with its military retreat in Libya, including the closure of a military base it was planning to establish in the separatist region of "Somaliland" - the unrecognized country in Somalia. The UAE also tried to get out of the war in Yemen with no responsibility for reconstruction, with obtaining a permanent influence at the Bab al-Mandab.

The pressure that the allies of the transitional council in Abu Dhabi are facing, reflected to  the local goals of the armed group, the STC, and the regional goals of the UAE. Without the Emirati funding and political support, the transitional council in southern Yemen would be in a very bad position.

For the Yemeni government, the political partnership with the transitional council, without getting rid of its military militia in most of southern governorates, is considered serious.  The government had already recognized the "Southern Transitional Council" as a Yemeni political component by signing the "Riyadh Agreement", but it would not risk with accepting a representation for the STC in the new expected government without getting rid of the STC’s militias, trained and supported by the UAE.


Declaration of Self-rule:

It is possible to understand the feeling of the leaders of the Southern Transitional Council that this is the only opportunity for them to achieve the goals of the council in 2017 (managing the southern governorates or the secession of southern Yemen). It is difficult to obtain a similar opportunity in light of the state of congestion in the south of the country and the rejection by many parties- which say that they adopt the southern issue – for the Southern Transitional Council's actions. As Saudi Arabia takes over Aden and most southern governorates, rather than the Emirates, it appears that the leaders of the council have lost patience due to the popular and political pressure to announce the "separation of the Riyadh agreement."

On April 23, 2020 - two days before the declaration of the self-rule, the Southern Transitional Council prevented the Yemeni government from returning to the country to tackle the natural disaster that had occurred due to floods and diseases, so the government declared Aden as an infected city. The cabinet described the government's return as "a safeguard of national gains," considering that the STC move was a response to Saudi Arabia’s ban on the STC’s leaders from returning to Aden (March 2020) and the Arab coalition’s refusal to provide any response to the council’s correspondence.

Although the Southern Transitional Council prevented the government from returning to Aden, disrupted state institutions from working, and controlled the resources, it accused the government of "failing to fulfill the obligations stipulated in the Riyadh Agreement, particularly providing public services, paying salaries and wages, and serving citizens and meeting their needs." After the floods in Aden, the transitional council also accused the government of not playing its role in serving the citizens and tackling the disaster.

In 2017, the council began establishing itself as a parallel authority to the legitimate government in the liberated southern provinces. In February 2018, the "security belt" that the UAE trained and funded controlled Aden and most of southern governorates since that time. The Yemeni president only returned to Aden for a few days.

In August 2019, the Southern Transitional Council seized Aden and expelled the legitimate government. The Southern Transitional Council continued to present itself as a de facto alternative to the legitimate government until it declared the self-rule the southern regions. The Yemeni government has been struggling ever since for its influence and to end the erosion of its authority.

On April 25, 2020, the Southern Transitional Council announced a "self-rule" of the southern governorates. In fact, the council did not provide an explanation to the meaning of "the self-rule" - it is not known in the political sciences or in the ruling systems. If it means "autonomy" and the declaration of secession, as the media outlets affiliated with the council and funded by the UAE, always repeat the words "independence / separation", so this emphasizes that a new power is being formed. One of indicators is that the transitional council made appointments in some government institutions and canceled the government’s ones.[6]

The declaration of "autonomy" contains several topics, which all absolutely confirm the goal behind the establishment of the Southern Transitional Council and its role as a tool within a broader regional scheme to dismantle the new Yemeni state. The topics include:

The “Self-rule” Term:

it is not clear what this term stands for.[7] It was announced before in Syria, where militia, by the force of arms, imposed a "self-rule" region in northern and eastern Syria (parts of Hasaka, Raqqa, Aleppo, and Deir Ezzor) within a multi-ethnic region. Its mission is to combat terrorism and to impose de facto in areas of its control. The idea behind this  term is to confirm the STC management of the country's southern provinces and its possession of militias that are able to enforce its rule.

At the same time, the Council wants to launch this term to match what the UAE wants and what Saudi Arabia does not. Riyadh formally declares its support for Yemeni unity and refuses to secede or divide Yemen. Therefore, the Kingdom’s leadership will risk its reputation if a fragmentation happens in the country in light of the kingdom’s leadership of the coalition against the armed Houthi group.

The State of Emergency:

The Transitional Council declared a state of emergency beginning in April 25 in Aden and other southern governorates. This declaration, according to the Yemeni constitution, is only entitled to the President of the Republic of Yemen. Article (121) stipulates that "the President of the Republic declares a state of emergency via a Republican decree in the event indicated in the law, and the House of Representatives must review this declaration within seven days following the announcement."

Monitoring Committees:

In the fourth item of the Declaration of Self-rule, the Council called for "the formation of monitoring committees to monitor  the performance of the public institutions and to combat corruption in coordination with President of the council and affiliated leaders in the provinces." This method is taken from the Supreme Revolutionary Committee of the Houthis, who controlled the state institutions after September 2014, and imposed representatives to monitor government institutions. The reproduction of the Houthi experience confirms that what the Southern Transitional Council is doing is a coup that makes it difficult to be dismantled, if the government decides to share power with it without dismantling its armed militia.

Economic and Legal Committees:

The transitional council called on its committees (economic, legal, military and security) to directly start working  to implement the "Self-rule", but the self-rule committee, led by Major General Ahmed bin Brik [the dismissal Hadramout governor and the head of the STC’s National Assembly - a parallel parliament] appointed its own  subcommittees. This indicates that the STC launched a "consolation" campaign targeting those who oppose it or those who are neutral in order to  absorb them amid the continued popular rejection by different southern components, some of which are affiliated with the Southern Movement [Al-Hirak] that was established in 2007.[8]


Local and Regional Reactions:

The Southern Transitional Council devoted the fifth item of its declaration to invite governors of southern governorates to support its move toward "Self-rule", and in the sixth item it invited the coalition and the international community to support the same step, but the reactions were disappointing to the southern transitional council. Rather, the Transitional Council did not expect that reactions would completely oppose the objectives of its  declaration amid a wide local and global confrontation against the Coronavirus pandemic.

• At the local level, six southern governorates of eight, including Hadramaut, Shabwa, Abyan,  al-Mahrah,  Lahj and Socotra, the largest liberated  governorates from the Houthis,  have rejected the STC declaration," affirming their loyalty to the legitimate government.

Politically, the National Alliance of Yemeni Political Forces (13 parties) announced its total rejection of the Southern Transitional Council's declaration, and considered it as an outright rebellion against the Yemeni state, and an infringement on the powers of the President of the Republic. The armed Houthi group did not comment on the STC’s declaration.

Many southerners - in Aden, for example - believe that the Southern Transitional Council took advantage of the situation in the southern  governorates to achieve political gains, in light of facing natural disasters that led to hundreds of deaths. They believe that the southern transitional council is making trouble, given the southern need for relief. They believe that the military and political war between the Southern Transitional Council and the government may worsen the life of population in the current circumstances, with the spread of epidemics such as corona, cholera, malaria and dengue fever.[9]

At the regional level, the Southern Transitional Council announcement did not receive a single endorsement. Saudi Arabia, the Arab coalition, the Arab League, and other Arab countries have called on the transitional council to reverse the declaration and implement the Riyadh Agreement.

Even the United Arab Emirates did not support the council’s moves, and  remained silent about the declaration, fearing of Saudi anger.

The UAE hosts the leaders of the Transitional Council in Abu Dhabi, and it is doing everything it can to support its goals - the goals of the council - at the local, regional and international levels. But it is trying not to increase Saudi anger and push the Transitional Council to face this anger instead of officials in Abu Dhabi.

• At the international level, the statements by the UN Special Envoy to Yemen, Martin Griffiths, the UN Security Council, the US Secretary of State, and a number of ambassadors of major countries rejected the STC’s declaration of the self-rule and stressed on the unity and sovereignty of Yemen.

The British and American ambassadors spoke in separate statements about the rejection of the Southern Transitional Council's “self-rule” decision. Even Russia, which the Transitional Council believed it would get its support, has emphasized on Yemen's unity and the country's sovereignty.


Expected effects:

• Imposing a de facto authority to restore the regional conflict: The Southern Transitional Council wants to impose itself as a de facto authority in the country as the Houthis did in northern Yemen, or as a self-rule power as in northern and eastern Syria. This requires that the STC imposes its authority in all southern provinces and it is unlikely due to local rejection. So, without acquiring this power, the STC’s authority in Aden, Al-Dhalea and Lahj will remain shaky and the regional conflicts will return again. Nibbling

The ancient sultanates in the south formed a regional influence on the political and military conditions there, but the southerners' struggle against the British colony delayed the regional conflicts eruption. The evidence is that once the southern got independence, internal conflicts broke out, one of them was the bloody events of January 1986, which ended with the exclusion of the faction called “Zumrah” from Abyan by the faction called “Tughmah” from al-Dhalea and Yafe. The two factions were powers within the ruling Socialist Party of the South.[10] The Yemeni President Abd Rabbo Mansour Hadi belongs to Abyan governorate, while most of other leaders of the Southern Transitional Council belong to al-Dhalea and Yafe.

When governorates such as Hadhramaut and Shabwa, which are oil-rich, and al-Mahrah and Socotra, in which Saudi Arabia is present strongly, reject the STC, it is so difficult for the transitional council to rule all southern governorates without war - or maybe wars – in order to control, and this opens the door for dividing Yemen into small states, or the return of Sultanates and Sheikhs era on the same geographical scale as they were decades ago.

Undermining the legitimate government:

Undermining the legitimate government is in the interest of the Emirates and the Houthis, as the two parties want to control part of the Yemeni land. As for the legitimate government, the erosion of its authority, which began in 2017,  did not stop until today and it increases every day. This may lead to the overthrow of the legitimacy in favor of other sectarian, ethnical and regional projects. The government is the only remaining national defender of the comprehensive national identity.

The legitimate government will need to move forward to reach the expected agreement with the Houthis, to extend its strong influence in the liberated provinces, to prevent any regional projects on the Yemeni soil, and to stop interfering in Yemen’s affairs. Otherwise, the future will be for proxy militias that are being run by foreign powers.


Saudi New Quandary:

Since March 2015, Saudi Arabia has been leading a coalition to end the Houthi coup against legitimacy after they took control of the capital, Sana’a, on September 21, 2014. But, after five years, Saudi faces another coup in Yemen, funded by its partner in the coalition, the United Arab Emirates, which has established and supported militias that seized the temporary capital, Aden, by force of arms.

The transitional move to announce a self-rule for southern Yemen revealed the failure of Saudi efforts, led by Saudi Prince, Khalid bin Salman, who is in-charge of the Yemeni file, and indicated the size of the UAE influence in southern Yemen - to the extent that Saudi political circles talk that Abu Dhabi controls the Saudi decision, making the areas under the control of the Transitional Council outside any Saudi influence, similar to the situation in areas controlled by the Houthis.

To get out of this impasse, Saudi Arabia summoned Aidarous al-Zubaidi to Riyadh in May 2020, in an attempt to bridge the rift and implement the Riyadh agreement. To avoid any failure to reach clear and appropriate foundations for the implementation of the Riyadh Agreement, Saudi Arabia may need to establish a new agreement, based on the current situation.

The Southern Transitional Council has repeatedly refused to cancel its "self-rule" declaration and formed the self-rule committee, led by Ahmed bin Brik.

It is difficult for the government to accept to implement an agreement that focuses on the political file and disregards the STC’s armed militias. It is also difficult to accept a new agreement, based on a new reality imposed by the Southern Transitional Council. Thus, Saudi Arabia will face a difficult test.

Saudi Arabia Faces Four Scenarios:

The first scenario: Moving forward with an agreement with the Houthis, and Saudi will be considered as defeated in the Yemen war against one armed militia, affiliated with Iran. This bad reputation will not be good in supporting the crown prince’s accession to the power seat. It is also difficult for the government to go to an agreement with the Houthis with Saudi support in light of the fragmentation in its camps in the southern governorates, unless Riyadh wants to install the Houthi authority in the north and the transitional one in the south. So this scenario is unlikely, at least for the time being.

The second scenario: Supporting the dismantling of Yemen by creating multiple authorities and small states in southern Yemen in exchange for a state for the Houthis in northern Yemen, and stopping the support of the legitimate government. This means that Saudi Arabia will bear the responsibility for breakdown in the country, causing bad repercussions locally and internationally. Saudi will have to support multiple powers instead of one for the whole country. The international blackmail against Saudi, its enemies and allies, will increase. This scenario will not be accepted, unless Riyadh prepares to pay a large price at the expense of its security and interests.

The third scenario: Supporting the Yemeni government and its local allies that it trusts to preserve Yemen as one complete state, and later think about any different goals, and disarming the heavily armed militias in the north and south to protect its borders with support from the Yemeni state. This scenario is still the best for Saudi Arabia and Yemen alike.

It was easy for Saudi to support such scenario since the first year of war, but  Saudi has fears about projects within the Yemeni legitimacy that it believes are not in its favor. Saudi fears have made Riyadh in a great trouble and confusion about the immediate and strategic interests, in addition to the conflict of interests between Yemen and Saudi, on one hand, and between  Saudi and the region on the other. But this scenario remains likely, even it is weak.

The fourth scenario: Saudi Arabia may have to build a new legitimacy, parallel to the current legitimacy, that it is acceptable to the UAE and its allies in the south, and Iran and its allies in the north. The southern transitional will participate in the new legitimacy so that it can preserve Yemen’s unity apparently, while the new authority will be under Saudi influence in reality. The rug will be completely withdrawn from under the current legitimacy, led by President Hadi, and then Saudi will start final negotiations with the Houthis. This scenario is expected somewhat in light of the complexities of the Yemeni situation and the developments that allowed the regional and international new players to enter the Yemeni stadium.



The complicated situation for Yemen makes all the scenarios in front of Saudi Arabia difficult, but it seems that it may not want to adopt a specific scenario to get out of the Yemen war. It has other options, even if they are more restricted and its opportunities are limited, including the mixing of all scenarios, for example, preserving both the transitional and legitimacy, then going to an agreement with the Houthis under the official title of the Republic of Yemen. But this way will not achieve any interest for Saudi Arabia, unless all parties subject to Saudi and the country becomes under a long-term Saudi tutelage. But in the event that one or some of these parties do not subject to Riyadh, achieving any agreements will be difficult and Saudi will have to recognize multiple powers in Yemen, the Houthis in the north, the transitional in the south and the legitimacy in the east.



[1] Text of Aden historical declaration  

[2] A southern political leadership announcement called “the Presidency of the Supreme South Transitional Council”

[3] Semi-official statistics of deaths burial licenses are leaked to the media on a daily basis

[5] The two diplomats and the opponent in Europe talked to a researcher at the Abaad Center for Studies and Researches on condition of anonymity for fears of retaliation by the UAE authorities, as talking about the issue causes problems with the UAE regime.

[6] Major General Bin Brik issues a decision appointing a new director for the Habailine District of Lahj Governorate

[7]Self-management is defined in the management of companies and commercial and service establishments, in political science, as the term "local government with broad powers". But the Transitional Council affirms that what it wants to exercise is full state authority over the eight southern governorates.  

[8] Political Transitions in South Yemen...From the Dream of Unity to the Reality of Fragmentation - A study by the Abaad Center in April 2020

[9] The Yemeni residents of Aden are fed up with the power struggle implemented by the Southern Transitional Council

[10] The Declaration of "Self-rule": The Progressive Nibbling of Power in South Yemen

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