On September 15, the United Arab Emirates-backed Southern Transitional Council declared a state of emergency across Yemen’s southern governorates. The declaration was made by the STC’s leader, Aidarous al-Zubaidi in a televised speech following days of protests in Aden and other cities in southern Yemen sparked largely by economic grievances, including widespread poverty, increasing food prices, a drop in the value of Yemen’s currency, and electricity shortages. During these protests, at least three people were killed in clashes with security forces, highlighting the rising tensions in Yemen’s South, where ongoing conflict and increasing divisions are exacerbating the economic crisis.
The state of emergency did not prevent citizens in various southern cities, including Taiz, from taking to the streets. The protesters are blaming various parties, including the STC – in the areas that it controls – and the government of President Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi for the poor living conditions. Charles Schmitz, a professor of geography at Towson University and Yemen specialist, indicated that instability in Yemen has led to the decline in investment and production. He noted in an email interview that this dramatically reduced production has resulted in a decrease in domestic salaries, lack of exports to earn foreign exchange to cover imports, reduced income for the United Nations-recognized Yemeni government, and the inflationary printing of currency to cover expenses. He suggested that the STC and Hadi government “are in trouble because they cannot fulfill the basic needs of people. They will continue to lose legitimacy. The Houthis are in the same boat, but their repression is more effective.”
Divisions in the South
The main division in southern Yemen remains between the Hadi government and the secessionist-leaning STC, which currently holds Aden, al-Dhale, Lahj, and parts of Abyan. The 1986 civil war in South Yemen remains relevant and influences the military equation today. Yet there are further divisions among Southerners and groups positioning themselves in opposition to the STC. Recently, both the Southern National Council and the Supreme Council of the Revolutionary Movement for the Liberation and Independence of the South issued statements backing the protests. While both groups oppose the STC, they are divided on other issues.
The Southern National Council supports the Hadi government and opposes proposals for Southern secession. In August 2020, the Southern National Council organized anti-STC protests in the South, which were attended by thousands of Yemenis, many of whom carried pictures of Hadi. The Supreme Council of the Revolutionary Movement for the Liberation and Independence of the South steadfastly supports secession. It believes that the Saudi-led coalition should be expelled from southern areas and the Supreme Council’s leader has called the STC’s backer, the UAE, an occupying power. The Supreme Council opposes the Riyadh Agreement, a power-sharing deal brokered by Saudi Arabia that the STC and Hadi government signed in November 2019. In an August 2020 statement, it expressed its rejection of any agreement that did not include self-rule in the South. Moreover, there are allegations the group has ties to Iran.
The moves by both groups to express solidarity with the protesters are likely driven by their motivation to have a card to use against the STC, to increase their popularity among Southerners, particularly their bases. However, these groups and a multitude of other factions are further dividing Yemenis in the South. There have been various separatist groups speaking about the Southerners’ “main political demands” since the Arab Spring protests, which reached Yemen and ousted President Ali Abdullah Saleh. These groups’ central ideological disagreement surrounds whether the South should seek independence.
In early October, clashes erupted between the STC and an armed splinter group led by Brigadier Imam al-Noubi, killing at least 10 people. According to Hussam Radman, a researcher fellow with the Sana’a Center for Strategic Studies, this armed group is Saudi backed and loyal to both Hadi and the Islamist Islah Party, though there is confusion about Noubi’s political affiliation for a number of reasons. For years he received support from the UAE but was dismissed after committing unspecified violations, though he retained a military presence and influence in Aden’s Crater district. At the same time, his brother, Mukhtar al-Noubi, has been considered one of the most influential military leaders in the STC forces, though he was reportedly dismissed on October 6 from one of his roles – that of the deputy commander of the Security Belt Forces. Last, after the signing of the Riyadh Agreement in 2019, the Saudi forces in Aden governorate tasked Imam al-Noubi with forming a military brigade with the aim of balancing the military influence of the STC, and his forces were positioned in the Crater district.
Radman noted the outbreak of the recent clashes was significant as it came just days after the return of members of the Hadi government to Aden and two days before the visit of the new U.N. special envoy, Hans Grundberg. He said, “These clashes show the extent of influence of the local armed forces, which have become a tool for obstructing peace efforts, whether through the implementation of the Riyadh Agreement or through the efforts of the U.N. envoy. Also, these clashes reveal the structural imbalances in the security and military agencies that were formed after the outbreak of the war; they lack an institutional character and are characterized rather by individualism and clientelism, which makes the restructuring and governance of these agencies a necessary requirement during the coming period.”
Indeed, like in all of Yemen, there is a lack of unity as warring or competing parties have conflicting agendas and interests. No one party represents all Southerners. And as divisions among these parties and the conflict persist, the economy is spiraling, leaving the majority of Yemenis without access to public services and without the means to meet their basic needs.
Economic Grievances and Fuel Shortages
The ongoing war in Yemen has shredded the country’s economy. Since the Saudi-led intervention in 2015, the gross domestic product has declined by 40%. In late September, the Yemeni currency hit a low point of 1,200 rials to $1 in the South and stayed at 600 rials to $1 in the North. The decline in the currency is leading to rapid inflation in both food and fuel prices, increasingly troubling for Yemen, which imports around 90% of its food. With prices escalating, basic commodities are out of reach for much of the Yemeni population, around 80% of whom, already rely upon humanitarian assistance.
According to the International Monetary Fund, the country’s gross domestic product is projected to decrease 2% this year after contracting 8.5% last year. This is likely to continue to have negative implications for the country’s economy.
On September 25, the Aden Electricity Corporation announced that generation stations were beginning to be gradually shut down because of fuel shortages after a Saudi shipment containing 75,000 metric tons of fuel designated for electricity production had been delayed. According to Yemeni journalist Ahmed Maher, the generators in Aden are very old and aren’t sufficient for the city’s needs. In an interview, he noted, “Currently, the state pays private companies huge sums of money to buy the electric power and oil derivatives. The fourth shipment of Saudi fuel has been unloaded. The Yemeni government pays for the fuel that comes from Saudi Arabia, but at a lower price, which is why it is considered a grant. Saudi fuel improves the general situation, but this does not solve the problem.” Maher, who served between 2019 and early 2021 as a media affairs advisor to the Yemeni minister of transportation, added, “The issue of electricity in Aden and Yemen will only be resolved by the creation of huge power stations and supply lines that belong to the state.” Therefore, electricity shortages and outages are likely to continue to be an issue as the conflict persists.
Moreover, the coronavirus pandemic has compounded the crisis for Yemen. The health-care system, which was already overwhelmed by years of war and lacks resources, has been hit with over 9,000 registered cases of the coronavirus contributing to the deaths of over 1,700 Yemenis. Real figures are likely to be much higher due to underreporting and a lack of tests.
There are various factors, historical and geographical, shaping divisions in Yemen’s South. These divisions are perpetuating the conflict, and warring parties are prioritizing their own interests and agendas over collaboration and effective governance. Meanwhile, Yemen’s economy is perilously on the verge of total collapse. Indeed, as long as economic conditions continue to deteriorate, and people’s basic needs are not being met, protests such as those recently in Yemen’s South are likely to become more commonplace and widespread.