It is a gamble that has not paid off for secessionists in Catalonia or Iraqi Kurdistan. Yet Southern Yemeni separatists have announced plans for a referendum on independence, in the apparent hope that the regional political atmosphere is on their side – and that without a functioning central Yemeni state or security services they can succeed where others have struggled in the push toward independence.
Speaking at a separatist rally in the southern Yemeni port city of Aden on October 14, Aidarous al-Zubaidi, the president of the Southern Transitional Council (STC), a would-be government in waiting and the latest in a series of attempts by Yemeni secessionists to develop a coherent political structure, announced the formation of a new 303-member “National Assembly.” At the same time, he unveiled plans for a referendum on the quarter-century-old merger with Yemen’s North.
Perhaps wisely, given events in Spain and Iraq, STC members have since downplayed the referendum announcement and focused on the formation of the National Assembly. Once formed, STC members say, the assembly will oversee local governance, review the decisions of the council, and work alongside United Arab Emirates-backed security forces on the ground, acting in effect as an autonomous regional government. Overall, a Yemeni observer said, the two announcements mark another step toward the “Erbilization” – the creation of an autonomous state-within-a-state with ambitions of international recognition – of Southern Yemen.
The STC was formed in May, with the stated aim of representing Southern interests on the ground and in national and international discussions on the future of Yemen. It is the latest in a series of similar forums, but so-called “Hirakis” – followers of Al Hirak al-Janoubi, or the Southern movement – believe that it is their best chance yet of achieving independence.
Southern Yemenis have long complained that the 1990 merger between the northern Yemen Arab Republic and southern socialist People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen (PDRY) left them marginalized. (The term “south” can be confusing as separatists use the word to describe the southern and easternmost governorates – Lahj, Al Dhale, Aden, Abyan, Shabwa, Hadramout, and Mahra – that made up the pre-unification socialist state). After a 1994 North-South civil war that then-President Ali Abdullah Saleh won with the support of tribal and Islamist allies, Southern military leaders were forcibly retired, land was distributed to Sanaa elites, and revenue from key southern oil fields went directly to Sanaa, and were not recycled into the local economy. Since 2007, when Hirak was formed as an umbrella movement for disaffected southern groups, these grievances have evolved into secessionist sentiment, with pro-independence protest marches widespread across the South since 2009.
The Arab Spring uprisings of 2011 inspired anti-government activists in the north but the regime infighting that ultimately led to Saleh being deposed was seen as a northern elite power struggle by many southerners. Most secessionists refused to take part in the U.N.-led political process that followed Saleh’s ouster, demanding instead that they be allowed to hold their own dialogue in the south.
Such a dialogue might have helped, since Hirak is an amorphous movement made up of dozens of different groups that share one common goal – independence – but little else. The movement has been beset by infighting, and the STC is not the first attempt at a Southern parliamentary body. In 2012 and 2013, Southern leaders mooted the formation of a national assembly similar to the one announced by Zubaidi. Little came of it then, in no small part because of infighting between different Southern factions over key appointments, leading many younger Southerners to reject their aging leadership, many of them relics of the socialist era and the British empire.
By 2014, secessionist rhetoric had taken an increasingly militant tone, despite the promise of a federal structure of government. Young Hirakis, tired of talk, inaction, and international disinterest in the secessionist cause, talked of forming a new “Southern Resistance” and began to threaten to seize control of the streets by force, as they looked for leaders focused on action rather than rhetoric.
It is hard to know what course events might have taken had the Houthis not decided to march toward Aden in March 2015 in pursuit of the fleeing President Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi. But a series of events has done much to advance the secessionist cause: the collapse of the national army, the brutality of the subsequent battle for Aden, the intervention by a Saudi-led coalition that included (importantly for the south) the UAE, and the vacuum in leadership once the Houthis had been ousted from Aden and other southern governorates.
In fact, it was support from the UAE, which sent special forces operatives into Aden to work alongside local fighters, that helped turn the tide against the Houthi-Saleh alliance in the south, and by July 2015 the alliance had been pushed out of most southern governorates. Since then, the UAE has played an important role in organizing, training, and directing the many militias and more formalized military units that have been sent out to secure territory from Houthi-Saleh incursion and from Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). Recently, there have been strong indications that the UAE intends to maintain its military presence in the South well into the future, ostensibly in a counterterrorism role.
AQAP controlled the southern city of Mukalla for a year before being pushed out by Emirati-backed “Hadrami Elite Forces” in April 2016. With the Hadi government reluctant to move from Riyadh to Aden, local governance was increasingly delegated to UAE-backed southerners with ties to local militias. Zubaidi, for example, was named governor of Aden in late 2015 in no small part because he was able to bring militias from his home governorate of Al Dhale to secure the city, which was partially controlled by AQAP at the time.
Zubaidi is in many ways symbolic of the change the south has undergone since the war began. Born as Southern Yemen declared independence from the British empire, he trained in the PDRY air force in the 1980s. Having fought in the 1994 civil war, he was not particularly well known outside of secessionist circles when the current war began. Since 2015 he has risen in stature and popularity, garnering a reputation as a doer, and as the UAE’s man in the south.
Zubaidi has also entered into open rivalry with Hadi, who removed him from the Aden governorship in April as a response to his increasingly blunt criticism of the president and as part of broader tensions between Hadi and the UAE. Emirati leaders have been deeply critical of Hadi’s failure to take control of the south after the Houthi-Saleh alliance was pushed out, and of his relationships with members of Islah, a Sunni Islamist political party with ties to the Muslim Brotherhood. The announcement of the formation of the STC, which positions itself as an alternative to the Hadi government, was widely seen as a UAE-backed broadside to Hadi. After briefly adopting a conciliatory tone toward the president, Zubaidi and other STC members now say they will not work with the Hadi government, which they describe as corrupt and in league with Islah. Zubaidi has vowed “escalation” against Hadi government officials in the coming weeks.
Many southerners see the announcement of the assembly and referendum as coming with the tacit endorsement of the Emiratis, and as a sign that the UAE will back Southern secession when the time is right. Others, however, suggest that Zubaidi, who is by no means universally popular in the south, needed to give the impression of momentum to the STC, which is yet to notch up any concrete achievements. The referendum plan may well have been aimed at shoring up domestic support for the council.
The STC is also making a clear play for regional approval. By adopting increasingly strident anti-Islah rhetoric, and drawing focus to southern militias’ efforts to push back AQAP, the council is positioning itself as a partner to the UAE, which reviles the Muslim Brotherhood. It is also looking to appeal to policymakers in Washington, who see AQAP and the local wing of the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant as priority issues in Yemen. Zubaidi has also publicly attacked Iran – which allegedly backed him in the past – and Qatar, the UAE’s main regional rivals.
Before moving ahead, Zubaidi and his fellow secessionists would do well to look to their Kurdish counterparts for a cautionary tale. The semiautonomous Kurdistan Regional Government is a U.S. counterterrorism partner, and has played an important part in the fight against ISIL. In both respects, the KRG has supported the regional goals of the United States, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE while acting as a thorn in the side of Turkey and Iran, with whom the two Gulf states have difficult relationships. Yet when push came to shove, Washington, Riyadh, and Abu Dhabi all rejected the recent Kurdish referendum on independence, and looked on as Iraqi troops seized Kirkuk from Kurdish militias in mid-October (Iraqi forces have since retreated from some Kurdish towns). Some southerners are skeptical of the UAE, which they see as pursuing its own interests in southern Yemen, using secession as a carrot without the intention of actually backing Southern independence.
The Southern cause is further complicated in that Saudi and UAE involvement in Yemen is, technically at least, due to their support for Hadi, upon whose U.N.-endorsed legitimacy the war effort largely hangs. If Hadi’s government were to be ousted from Aden by the STC before the wider war with the Houthi-Saleh alliance was over, it is unclear how Riyadh in particular would respond. For now, the best Zubaidi and company can do is work to make the National Assembly a success. A referendum will probably have to wait.