The unhappy war-torn state of Yemen is now split four ways. Not only are rival governments – one backed by a Saudi-UAE (United Arab Emirates) coalition, the other by the Iranian-supported Houthis – fighting for control of the country as a whole, but South Yemen has seceded from the north and declared self-rule.
To further complicate the situation, the south Yemen separatists are supported by the UAE. Which is odd, because the UAE is also battling the Houthis on behalf of Yemen’s government led by President Abdrabbu Mansur Hadi, which has condemned the separatist move as “catastrophic and dangerous”.
South Yemen’s unilateral declaration of independence does not come out of the blue. For more than 20 years South Yemen (or the People’s Republic of Southern Yemen), was an independent Marxist–Leninist one-party state, supported by the Soviet Union. It was the only communist state to be established in the Arab world.
Relations between the two Yemens deteriorated, and in 1972 they took up arms against each other. A ceasefire, brokered by the Arab League, included the aspiration of unification in due course. It took a further 18 years of military and political in-fighting before that aspiration was realized, but in 1990, with the collapse of the Soviet Union imminent, South Yemen united with the north to form the Unified Republic of Yemen. Ali Abdallah Saleh, who had been president of North Yemen since 1978, was proclaimed president of the newly united state.
It was an uneasy marriage. After only four years, the south tried to break away again. A short civil war ended with the south being overrun by northern troops.
Saleh became a victim of the so-called Arab Spring of 2011. He gave up the keys of office to Hadi with a very bad grace, and was quite prepared to ally himself with his erstwhile enemies, the Houthis, in an attempt to maneuver his way back to power. The Yemeni military, including its air force, had remained largely loyal to Saleh. As a result, and supported with military hardware from Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, the Houthis overran large tracts of the country, including the capital city, Sana’a.
The subsequent turn of events seems depressingly familiar in the context of Yemen’s long history. Saudi Arabia, determined to prevent Iran from extending its footprint into the Arabian peninsula, intervened in March 2015 to beat back the Houthis. Saudi’s Crown Prince, Mohammed bin Salman, assembled a coalition of Arab states, obtained the diplomatic backing of the US, UK, Turkey and Pakistan, and launched a series of air strikes against the rebels.
The unconventional Saleh-Houthi partnership came to an abrupt end on December 2, 2017, when Saleh went on television to declare that he was splitting from the Houthis and was ready to enter into dialogue with the Saudi-led coalition. This volte-face was to end in tragedy. On December 4, Saleh’s house in Sana’a was besieged by Houthi fighters. Attempting to escape, he was killed.
Once ignited, the yearning for self-determination is not easily extinguished. South Yemen’s aspirations for a return to autonomy remained strong. In 2017-18 south Yemen leaders tried again. Hadi had re-located his internationally recognized government to Aden, the focal point of south Yemen. It chanced that Aden’s governor was a strong supporter of the southern separatists. In due course Hadi sacked him, and he promptly joined the rebels and helped set up the Southern Transitional Council (STC), a body designed to administer Yemen’s southern provinces.
Clashes in January 2018 resulted in the death of 38 people. Another outbreak of violence in August 2019 caused 40 dead. The UAE could not continue to run with the fox while hunting with the hounds – supposedly supporting Hadi in re-establishing the national government of Yemen, while at the same time supported the STC in seeking to establish South Yemen as a separate state.
What followed was bizarre. In September 2019, following substantial military gains by the southern separatists with UAE support, Saudi Arabia put its foot down. Saudi demanded that the UAE return captured military and civilian facilities to the Hadi administration, warning that otherwise their UAE allies would be “dealt with firmly”. Insisting that there is “no alternative to the legitimate government”, Saudi called for dialogue.
The two sides held indirect negotiations under Saudi mediation. On October 14, in a bid to defuse tensions between separatists and the government, the UAE handed over to Saudi forces key positions in Aden, including an airbase and the international airport,
On October 25, the two sides announced a power-sharing agreement, which was signed in Riyadh on November 5. The details are unclear, but it was reported that, as part of the arrangement, the STC had been accorded a number of government ministries.
The deal quickly unraveled. The attempt to construct a cabinet with fair southern representation foundered, and efforts to reorganize military forces were abortive. When it was clear that the agreement was dead in the water, on April 26, 2020, the STC declared self-rule for the south. “A self-governing committee,” it announced, “will start its work in line with a list of tasks assigned by the council’s presidency,”
The glue binding the two geographical areas of Yemens has come unstuck. Meanwhile the two administrations – one based in Sana’a, the other in Aden – are nowhere near an understanding. Now the situation in that unhappy country is further complicated by the coronavirus pandemic.
As yet unaware of the impending southern breakaway, UN special envoy Martin Griffiths said on April 16: “Yemen cannot face two fronts at the same time – a war and a pandemic. And the new battle that Yemen faces in confronting the virus will be all-consuming. We can do no less than stop this war and turn all our attention to this new threat.”
His peacekeeping task now has not one, but two added complications.