Saturday,25 May, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1345, (18 - 24 May 2017)
Saturday,25 May, 2019
Issue 1345, (18 - 24 May 2017)

Ahram Weekly

Southern Yemen faces uncertain future

Yemen’s southern leaders have announced a secession bid, bringing new uncertainty to a country still wracked by poverty, war and disease, writes Amira Howeidy

Southern Yemen faces uncertain future
Southern Yemen faces uncertain future

Yemen’s two-year conflict that triggered a civil war, a humanitarian crisis, further impoverished the Arab world’s poorest country, now plagued with a cholera outbreak, has gotten more complicated: its southern region is seeking independence.

Last week, Yemen’s southern tribal, political and military leaders announced the formation of a transitional political council led by former governor of Aden Aidarous Al-Zubaidi, 50, who was sacked by Yemen’s exiled president, Abd Rabo Mansour Hadi.

The council was announced 11 May, a week after thousands in the port city of Aden rallied in support of secession and against Hadi’s decision to replace Al-Zubaidi, who is an ally of the United Arab Emirates (UAE). 

Two years on, the military campaign has failed to reinstate Hadi and his government, while the UAE - which is part of the Saudi-led coalition that launched a military campaign against Yemen's Houthi rebels in March 2015 after they seized power from Hadi- ceased its military operations in 2016 but remains otherwise active in the south.

More than 10,000 Yemenis have been killed in the since, according to the United Nations, while more than three million were displaced. At least 115 documented cases have died from the cholera outbreak.

The president’s decision to fire Al-Zubaidi stemmed from Hadi’s growing discomfort at what he perceives as the UAE’s outsized influence in the south. But by dismissing the governor of Aden, Hadi either miscalculated the strength of Riyadh’s support for his decisions, or underrated both the UAE’s influence in the south and decades old local grievances of southern Yemen, which now seeks to make its voice heard and to be included in future political solutions to the conflict.

The transitional council was rejected by Hadi, his rival Houthis and the Gulf Cooperation Council, of which both Saudi Arabia and the UAE are members. But days after he declared the council, Al-Zubaidi flew to the Saudi capital Riyadh for undisclosed talks.

The port of city Aden, which was retaken from the Houthis in 2015, is crucial to the Saudi-led coalition. It remains its biggest — if not only — military success in two years and it is where Hadi’s government is based. But Riyadh, which opposes secession calls, can only handle Al-Zubaidi’s transitional council — despite its defiance of Hadi — with caution and diplomacy.

Riyadh hasn’t issued an official statement on the council.

The 26-member body includes five southern Yemen governors and two members of Hadi’s government (transportation and communication ministers). In a televised speech where he sat next to the flag of the former southern Yemen republic, Al-Zubaidi said the council will administer and represent the south under his leadership.

Zubaidi and his council say their cooperation with the Saudi-led coalition against the Houthis and terrorist groups will continue.

The south holds most of Yemen’s natural resources, including modest oil and gas reserves, and the strategic port of Aden.

Observes say that while secession has historical roots, the recent conflict has served to exacerbate the south’s grievances. While the civil war is depicted as between two sides of the north’s ruling elite — the Shia-Houthi rebels believed to be backed by Iran and the Saudi-backed Hadi government — the more complex aspects to the conflict are often ignored.

According to Nadwa Al-Dawsari, Yemen expert in the Washington-based Project on Middle East Democracy (POMED), they include the demands of a broad swath of marginalised areas outside of the north since 1994 and the failure of the transition government after 2012 to address southern grievances.

“The council might not be politically mature but it certainly enjoys much support in the south,” she said in an email. “I think we should welcome that southern secessionists are finally organised and decided to have a unified political voice. Now there is a political body that the international can reach out to.”

The move poses questions on the future of the Arab coalition and how Riyadh will proceed with its support of Hadi, who is growing increasingly weak back home as his popularity is being eroded. On the other hand, it’s unclear how the UAE will proceed with its ally, Al-Zubaidi, and future steps his council will take in the future.

The escalated tension between UAE and Hadi might have encouraged the southerners to announce the council now, said Al-Dawsari, but the body is a product of local realities that have been building up for decades not of the tension between UAE and Hadi. “I have concerns that the council will get caught in the power struggle between Hadi and the Emirates. I think the Saudis are also caught in this power struggle and are still trying to figure out what to do.”

Major-general Al-Zubaidi supported southern secession against the Ali Abdullah Saleh government in 1994, which the latter won in the same year. Al-Zubaidi left to Djibouti till 1996 before returning to southern Yemen and forming a southern armed movement that conducted several attacks on the Saleh government.

During this time, a Yemeni court sentenced Al-Zubaidi to death in absentia, which Saleh revoked by pardoning him in 2000. In 2012, after Saleh stepped down following Yemen’s Arab Spring protests, Al-Zubaidi resumed efforts for secession and engaged in military training of youth groups in southern provinces. He was part of the resistance operations against Houthi control of the port of Aden and other southern areas, which boosted his popularity.

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