Late July saw progress made toward reviving and implementing a Saudi-mediated plan that was reached in November 2019 aiming to quell conflict in South Yemen. The Riyadh Agreement, between the government of Yemen represented by President Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi and the Southern Transitional Council represented by its president, Aidarous al-Zubaidi, staggered in implementation due to rampant mistrust between the signatories and lack of buy-in from supporters of a unified Yemen, who fear that the STC’s agenda is irreconcilable with that goal.
Since it was agreed upon, the Riyadh Agreement has never been successfully implemented. Clashes erupted earlier this year between forces loyal to Hadi’s government and forces allied with the STC in Abyan. Tensions further intensified in April when the STC declared “self-administration” in Southern Yemen, in part to protest the Hadi government’s failure to provide services after a devastating flood struck the city of Aden. The STC escalated by confiscating funds designated for the Central Bank of Yemen’s Aden branch and demanding payment of salaries for its security forces, most of which have been confronting Houthi escalation in the Dhala governorate and other areas in the South.
Although the Riyadh Agreement is not perfect, the Saudi push for the parties to recommit to its principles has helped stimulate some confidence-building measures between both sides. On July 29, the STC rescinded its self-administration decision following assurances from the Saudi deputy defense minister, Khalid bin Salman, that the Hadi government will commit to re-forming the Cabinet with equal representation from the North and the South, incorporating pro-STC members to represent Southern interests. This was a substantial political concession that eased concerns over potential military confrontations and the future of Yemeni unity.
This breakthrough was unexpected, coming after reports of deadlock in negotiations and an increase of divisive rhetoric on the ground. A week prior, tensions escalated as large demonstrations raged in Lahj and Hadramout in support of the STC’s self-administration declaration. Meanwhile, anti-STC protests took place in Abyan and Mahra. The STC used the demonstrations as leverage during negotiations, a strategy that worked out in its favor as the STC succeeded in retaining military forces under its command to protect Southern communities from potential attacks by the Houthis, emboldened after recently claiming large swaths of government-held territory in the North.
Despite the positive environment and renewed commitments to the Riyadh Agreement from both sides, broad compliance with the deal remains uncertain because of the lack of national buy-in, especially from the STC’s political adversaries in the South and Northern communities, who fear that any deal with the STC further empowers the group and brings it “undeserved legitimacy.” In fact, Hadi’s popularity surged among some of his critics in 2019 when his forces confronted the STC militarily and rose again when he resisted engaging in the Saudi-brokered talks in Jeddah with the STC that led up to the Riyadh Agreement. Most Yemenis who support a unified state fear that acknowledging the STC as a legitimate political entity will weaken the unity government, favoring an absolutist approach of dealing with the STC as an armed faction that should be demilitarized and contained.
STC adversaries often reduce the group to a mere proxy of the United Arab Emirates, which continues to fund and support some of its political operations, but this doesn’t address the popular support the STC has in its communities. The Hadi government and loyalists continue to disregard protests in the Southern region in support of the STC and overplay those in support of Hadi. Much of this propaganda affects the prospects of genuine implementation of any agreement. Moreover, discounting the STC does not bode well for Yemen because it deepens political marginalization. In addition, the Hadi government cannot request the demilitarization of STC-allied forces because it is unable to protect the South from Houthi military incursions. Clashes persist with Houthi forces in Dhala and the Houthis have conducted drone strikes against targets in the South. Moreover, the lack of political representation and economic malaise – despite an abundance of resources in the South – is one of the STC’s biggest grievances. Failure to understand the marginalization that engulfed the South after unification with the North in 1990, and subsequent exploitation and repression after the 1994 civil war, widened the gap between communities and has been a chief mobilizer for the Southern cause.
Given the military role that STC-allied forces play in confronting the Houthis, the Saudis opted for a realistic approach toward the Southern crisis by pushing both the Hadi government and the STC to end armed confrontations against each other, introducing minimal conditions of security and political order that would allow both sides to cooperate. The Saudis are also addressing some fundamental issues that the Hadi government cannot realistically tackle in the South. Chief among them is a quick recovery plan for Aden and economic assistance, which indirectly addresses the perception of neglect for Southern communities, especially in comparison to other regions liberated from Houthi control that prospered during the war, like Marib.
Other positive steps toward implementation of the Riyadh Agreement were promptly taken. Hadi appointed STC Secretary-General Ahmed Hamid Lamlas from Shabwa as the new governor of Aden and STC General Ahmed Mohammad Salim al-Hamedi as Aden’s head of security. Both of these measures, along with the directive to form a new Cabinet within a month, give the STC a way to participate in government and a seat at the table during any future negotiations that may ensue on how Yemen is to be governed.
While these measures toward implementing the Riyadh Agreement represent notable progress, it is not yet clear if they will help in mending the rifts between the two sides in the long term or stop parties from both camps from undermining the agreement. A more transparent discussion on the militarization of the South and responsibility to protect it, as well as a rigorous dialogue process that would trickle down to the local level, away from political parties’ agendas and regional ambitions, is needed for the Riyadh Agreement to make a real, lasting difference and prevent the fragmentation of the country.