On Tuesday, the Yemeni government of President ‘Abd Rabbo Mansour Hadi and the secessionist Southern Transitional Council (STC) signed an agreement in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, that might provide solutions to deescalate the military tensions in Yemen’s southern governorates. However, the accord is really little more than a power-sharing agreement between Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, through their respective proxies. At the same time, its vagueness means it carries the seeds of more divisions among Yemeni parties and could be a prelude to new conflicts.
The deal is not only the outcome of a month-long negotiation process between Yemeni parties, but also part of broader understanding between Riyadh and Abu Dhabi. It is a result of efforts led by Saudi Deputy Defense Minister Khalid bin Salman, who since last March became the Saudi official in charge of the Yemeni file. Even the major confrontation in Aden last August between southern separatists and Hadi’s government seemed designed to reshape the map of control in the south to pave the way toward the Riyadh agreement. Perhaps that is what explains the UAE’s redeployment plan in the south at the time, in which it adopted a so-called “Peace first strategy.”
After more than four years of conflict, Saudi Arabia and the UAE are more than ever convinced that the costly Yemen war should end. This is especially true after increasing international criticism that the Arab coalition has caused major civilian casualties and following attacks by Ansar Allah, better known as the Houthis, against Saudi targets. This pushed the Arab coalition partners to search for a new approach to organize matters among the factions aligned with them, and in that way create separate zones of influence for both countries.
According to the Riyadh agreement, the UAE-backed STC is to be a part of the legitimate government, while its armed forces will be integrated into the forces of Yemen’s Ministries of Defense and Interior. Through the STC’s participation, the agreement will give the UAE a say in the new government in Aden. On the other side, the Saudis will oversee implementation of the agreement, both politically and on the ground. In this context, the UAE will withdraw its troops from Aden and hand over control to Saudi Arabia. Moreover, the Saudis will be responsible for interpreting the agreement’s articles in case of a misunderstanding.
The agreement contains annexes covering political, economic, military, and security arrangements. Accordingly, all steps in the deal center on dividing authority between the two parties. However, the representation of south and north Yemen used in the agreement is one of its problematic points. That is because most of the political forces in Yemen that claim to represent large geographical areas in fact only do so because they have the means to mobilize and enjoy support from regional powers. None were democratically elected to represent the people or areas that they claim to represent. This applies to the Houthis, the STC, and factions in Hadi’s government, including the Islah Party. In effect, the agreement reduces the aspirations of Yemenis to parties that do not necessarily enjoy significant popular backing in their areas of control.
Another mistake made in the agreement, one that is similar to all the agreements signed following the uprising against the late president ‘Ali Abdullah Saleh in 2011, is that it fails to adopt an inclusive approach. The Riyadh agreement ignores several factions, including southern factions that are not aligned with the STC. Such a pattern of exclusion was visible in the Gulf Cooperation Council initiative of October 2011, the peace and partnership agreement of September 2014, and the Stockholm agreement of December 2018, and such an approach usually ends up in failure, followed by war. Moreover, by ignoring some parties it tends to create endless divisions between those who were involved in the agreement.
On the political front, the agreement deals with the current political elites, who are authorized to run affairs for unknown period of time. Yet these elites have lost legitimacy because many have extended their time in office beyond their prescribed mandates. Indeed, in the last five years since the conflict began most Yemenis have not found themselves represented by political groups in power. There is mounting disinclination among many political and civil activists to get involved in politics, as they are not convinced of the benefits of such engagement. This could lead to a massive public outcry.
The agreement also suffers from keeping Yemen under the trusteeship of regional powers, as it deprives the state of any sovereignty. Several articles emphasize Saudi supervision of the new government that will be formed as a consequence of the Riyadh agreement. In addition, it legitimizes the Saudi-UAE military presence in areas of Yemen, including the easternmost governorate of Mahra that is under Saudi control. This means that Saudi Arabia and the UAE will continue to have the latitude to intervene in internal Yemeni affairs.
While the focus has been on the Riyadh agreement, Houthi representatives in Saudi Arabia and Oman have been negotiating a peace deal with the Saudis without the involvement of the Hadi government. Through the deal, the Houthis would be a recognized as the main political authority in the north, in exchange for which they would cease their attacks against Saudi Arabia. However, nothing in the Riyadh agreement mentions those negotiations, except a reference that the STC will be represented in upcoming peace talks between the new coalition of Hadi and the STC on the one side and the Houthis on the other.
After five years of war in Yemen, the situation in the country is no longer a matter for Yemenis. Instead, it has turned into a proxy conflict for regional powers. What one can conclude from the Riyadh agreement is that when the Arab coalition was unable to reverse the Houthis’ military coup in the north, Saudi Arabia and the UAE sought a fallback position by provoking a political and military crisis in southern Yemen. This allowed them both to transform themselves into sponsors of peace between their proxies, thereby maintaining their influence through the factions on the ground aligned with them.