The consultations that the Saudi-led coalition recently conducted in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, were not aimed at resolving the conflict between the internationally recognized government of President ‘Abd Rabbo Mansour Hadi and the Southern Transitional Council (STC), as announced. Rather, they were designed to pave the way for the formation of a new government that better represents the interests of the coalition members, through the appointment of their proxies.
Yemen today is divided into three areas. One is controlled by the Iranian-backed Ansar Allah, better known as Houthi movement, in the north; a second by the United Arab Emirates-backed STC in the south and the Republican Guards along the western coast, led by the late Yemeni president ‘Ali ‘Abdullah Saleh’s nephew; and a third, in the eastern governorates, by Hadi’s fragmented government. After more than five years of conflict, the government is not only facing the Houthis, who took over San‘a in September 2014, but also the STC, which expelled the government from Aden in April 2020 and announced self-administration there. In addition, the rise of local and hybrid governance in the governorates of Shabwa, Marib, and Hadhramawt has further weakened the Hadi government.
Since last year, the Houthis have advanced on several fronts, in Baida, Marib, and Jawf. The STC has continued its war against government forces in Abyan, and in another development, the STC took control of Socotra Island in late June. Despite the fact that the STC’s actions were fully supported by the UAE, Saudi Arabia also seemed to accept them, and they took place not long after the visit of the head of the STC, Aidarous al-Zubaidi, to Riyadh. Moreover, the Saudis refused to support the local authorities in Socotra and facilitated the advance of STC forces toward Socotra’s capital Hadibo.
Saudi Arabia, which intervened in Yemen to restore the legitimate Hadi government, no longer appears committed to that goal. The government’s frailty has encouraged both its adversaries and allies to take control of the territories under its authority and its institutions. The government is unable even to return to areas nominally under its control, let alone those it lost to the Houthis and the STC.
The disintegration of the Hadi government is a result of two dynamics. First, the feebleness of governmental leadership, as most ministers and officials are in exile, and take no responsibility for what is happening inside Yemen. Rather, the officials are spending much of their time on social media blaming each other.
A second reason is Saudi domination of the government’s decisionmaking process, especially in the last three years. This has pushed many Yemeni officials to publicly speak out against the nature of their relationship with the Saudi-led coalition. In fact, the Saudis decide even routine government matters. For instance, the travel documents of Yemeni officials have to be approved by Saudi Arabia before being issued. Yemeni diplomatic sources have also said privately that a decision was taken recently to link Yemeni embassies directly with Saudi embassies. Once implemented, this will ensure that Yemeni diplomatic decisions are under complete Saudi control.
Riyadh is shifting its strategy. The fact that the Saudis did not prevent the STC’s takeover of Socotra suggests they have decided to go along with the southern separatists, while consolidating their relationship with the UAE. However, Saudi military forces are still deployed on the island to protect Riyadh’s interests.
Following the developments in Socotra, Saudi Arabia began reviving the Riyadh Agreement, which was signed by the Hadi government and the STC in November 2019. The agreement, which was supposed to be implemented within 90 days, never saw the light due to its vagueness and the conflicting agendas of the UAE and the Saudis at the time. A key point of controversy was that the military dimension of the agreement was to be carried out first, followed by the political dimension. The STC was supposed to integrate its forces into the Hadi government’s Defense Ministry, but this never occurred. Today, the Saudis are putting pressure on the government to implement the political side of the agreement and share power with the STC. The Saudi-led coalition’s priority is to form a new government more in line with its thinking. This would allow it to remove individuals who stand against the coalition’s approach, given the growing criticism inside the Hadi government’s institutions.
The impact of the Riyadh Agreement is likely to be a new government fully controlled by Saudi Arabia and the UAE. The UAE will, therefore, guarantee its influence in the south and along Yemen’s western coast without opposition from Hadi. As the new partner of the government, the STC will preserve Emirati stakes. The Saudis, in turn, will be able to use their sway over a new government to pursue their interests in negotiations with the Houthis.
However, introducing southern separatists into the government will only increase its fragmentation. This will lead to more failures and a new round of conflict on the ground. Yemenis in the south and north will find themselves with a government detached from their suffering, whose main priority is to defend the interests of its backers, not the concerns of those whom it is supposed to represent.