The U.N.-recognized Yemeni government of President Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi and the pro-secession Southern Transitional Council are expected to sign a deal that would end the conflict between both parties in the South. The Saudi-brokered bargain, referred to as the Riyadh Agreement, is a significant breakthrough that, if successful, will prevent the fragmentation of the country and avert a new civil war. However, delays in signing the agreement and reported clashes in Abyan between government and STC-allied forces may cause uncertainty over the fate of the deal.
The Saudi-brokered negotiations began in August in Jeddah following confrontations between the Yemeni government and STC in the South. Clashes were sparked by a Houthi drone strike on the STC leadership and an attack by Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula on the UAE-trained Southern Security Forces, which took the lives of over 40 officers. Fearing that elements of the government conspired against the Southern leadership, STC-allied forces drove government forces out of Aden and expanded operations into government-controlled areas in Shabwa and Abyan. Hostilities ceased when the Saudis called for self-restraint and promised to mediate the conflict.
The deal will allow the government of Yemen to resume its functions in the interim capital of Aden without facing challenges to its legitimacy. It also gives the STC the acknowledgment it desires as an entity representing Southern interests after being vehemently vilified by the state and its supporters. Most surprisingly, however, is that the deal goes the extra mile by ensuring a commitment for better cooperation on the military, economic, and security fronts between the signatories, with the Saudi-led coalition overseeing its progress. The deal will also include STC representatives in official government delegations aiming to resolve the conflict with the Houthis, which has been a critical matter for the STC, since the majority of its affiliated forces, such as the Giants Brigades, have played an instrumental role in the conflict.
Although the Hadi government believes that the deal is going to reinforce its authority over the South, STC supporters think the agreement is bringing them closer to their goal of independence. For now, the Saudis and the Hadi government have made it clear that the STC should abandon its secessionist agenda. But whether the deal will benefit the government or the STC does not only depend on the agreement’s terms, but also on external factors and potential spoilers who might seek to undermine the deal and perpetuate violence.
The general reaction of Yemenis to the Riyadh-agreement has been confusion, skepticism, and even disappointment. This is likely due to both parties promising their followers an uncompromising victory during the brief, violent conflict in August in the South. To prove its position of strength, the government delegation refused to meet with the STC delegates at the start of negotiations, which was a move welcomed by many government supporters who did not want to see a deal struck with what they consider an illegitimate entity and a UAE proxy.
But a failure to come to an agreement would mean that the warring parties would continue to turn their guns against each other instead of fighting the Houthis. The Saudis, who back the Hadi government, were worried that new battles in the South would be a significant diversion that would play right into the Houthis’ hands. Moreover, any further bloodshed in Yemen would exacerbate the humanitarian situation and perpetuate instability.
The most important part of the agreement guarantees security arrangements, such as the disarmament of the STC and the withdrawal of government forces from Aden. Additionally, the deal calls for the formation of a new Cabinet with even representation between the North and South, which should change the dynamics of how these two main actors interact. Other ambitious goals, such as the economic management of extractive resources and better administration of government offices, appear difficult to achieve, given institutional weaknesses. However, they set the right tone about governing the South, assuring citizens that the Yemeni government is taking the required steps to improve their security and economic situation.
With Saudi Arabia’s oversight and role as an arbitrator to oversee disarmament and redeployment, the Hadi government and STC are less likely to revert to violence. Moreover, the designation of an army unit to protect the Hadi government and STC leadership is a significant component of the agreement, given the precarious security environment, which includes assassination attempts: On October 29, the Houthis targeted the minister of defense in Marib.
Despite all guarantees built into the Riyadh document, security threats outside of the parties’ control could jeopardize the agreement. First, the Houthis have demonstrated an uncanny ability to play groups against each other from a distance, creating doubt and divisions by planting the idea that they have informants within the government capable of helping them strike military objectives, as they have done in repeated attacks on military parades in the South. Moreover, AQAP fighters and other extremists have often sold their services to suitable bidders, demonstrating that they are ready to be hired by political actors inside Yemen to destabilize the South. A recent prisoner swap between the Houthis and AQAP put the STC on high alert, fearing this release was meant to activate AQAP to conduct attacks against Southern forces.
Adding to the list of challenges are potential spoilers, including disgruntled government officials who had strong positions against the STC and were affected by the conflict in Aden. Minister of Interior Ahmed al-Maysari spoke strongly against the Riyadh Agreement and threatened violence against the STC and Saudi-led coalition. In addition, the Islah political party (loosely affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood) may not ultimately accept the agreement with the STC. While Islah’s leadership initially expressed support for the deal, the Riyadh Agreement avoided addressing the STC-Islah standoff, despite a history of violence and mistrust between the two. Islah is still one of the most influential parties in Yemen. Hadi’s vice president, Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar, is affiliated with Islah and a critical mass in the Parliament represents its interests, with deep convictions against the fragmentation of the Yemeni state.
The Saudis have engineered this agreement to guarantee a concerted effort against the Houthis. However, it remains to be seen if the signatories themselves understand that the pact’s success will not be measured by short-term gains for their respective political establishments but in the provision of security and stability that will unlock further potential for the South and the whole country.