On July 29, Saudi Arabia successfully ended a long and difficult second round of negotiations between the internationally recognized Yemeni government that it supports and the United Arab Emirates-supported Southern Transitional Council (STC), which seeks to break southern Yemen away from the rest of the country. The government and the STC signed the second part of the Riyadh Accord after the failure to implement the first part, signed in November 2019. The most important aspect of the second agreement was that implementation of the Riyadh Accord’s political dimensions would precede that of its military dimensions. The STC wasn’t happy with the sequence of the first agreement, which compelled its forces to withdraw from Aden before a new government was formed.
Both accords were concluded under great Saudi pressure, as the negotiating parties didn’t sit at the same table during the two rounds of negotiations. This revealed a serious lack of confidence and willingness to reach an agreement due to contradictory agendas. The Yemeni government cannot exist without a form of unity in a federal Yemen, which it has called for, while the STC seeks separation. These irreconcilable factors are likely to lead to another failure.
On the ground, STC forces control Aden, Socotra, and the western parts of southern Lahaj and Dhale‘ Governorates and a part of Abyan Governorate. Government forces still control most of the eastern areas of the south as well as parts of Abyan, Shabwah, Hadhramawt, and Mahra. Oil-producing areas in Hadhramawt tend to be under government control.
This division is a reflection of the deep historical hostility between Dhale‘ and Lahaj on the one side and Shabwah and Abyan on the other. During the time when there was a South Yemen (1967–1990) there were many conflicts between these regions, mainly during the civil war of 1986. After Yemen’s unification in 1990, the former president ‘Ali ‘Abdullah Saleh captured Aden in the 1994 war, which ended in a victory for the government of San‘a. The current Yemeni president, ‘Abd Rabbo Mansour Hadi, is a southerner from Abyan who led the southern forces that fought alongside Saleh in 1994. The STC is dominated by individuals from Dhale‘ and Lahaj, which only revived the old hostility.
The Riyadh negotiations addressed the formation of a new government that would bring together representatives from the north and south. The STC tried to present itself as the sole representative of the south, a position rejected by Hadi. In response, the STC organized demonstrations of support in Hadhramawt, while Hadi did the same in Abyan. These demonstrations were among several undertaken by the parties to underscore their power and popularity.
Moreover, Hadi encouraged the participation of other southern bodies and organizations, among them a delegation of the Inclusive Hadhramawt Conference, which represents the largest southern governorate of Hadhramawt. This led the STC to step back from its demand of holding all the southern seats in the government. However, the negotiations didn’t deal with the real disputes among the southern parties or the future of southern Yemen in light of the increasing push for separation.
The July 29 agreement was crucial for the Saudis. They want to end their military intervention in Yemen by uniting all those opposed to Ansar Allah, better known as the Houthis, so that they can reach a peace agreement with the Houthis. Also, the agreement is important for the kingdom to prove that its presence and influence in Yemen remain strong, and in order to reinforce Saudi Arabia’s image as a sponsor of political processes in the country. However, when the Saudis previously proposed to mediate in talks among the Yemeni parties this was rejected by the Houthis, who said that as a party to the conflict Saudi Arabia could not play a mediating role.
A number of regional powers have challenged Saudi influence in Yemen, especially in the south, where the UAE enjoys great influence and has a different agenda than Riyadh. The main disagreement between the two sides is their relationship with the Islah Party, the Yemeni Muslim Brotherhood, whose complete exclusion from political life the UAE has demanded. The Saudis, in turn, cannot abandon Islah, their old political and tribal ally, because they are reliant on it in the north. Hadi, too, can’t renounce Islah, which provides him with crucial media support and political backing, especially as his Congress Party has been divided since 2011. Islah, in turn, needs Hadi as president to provide it with political cover and allow it to maintain its influence.
Unlike Saudi Arabia, the UAE has built up political allies in Yemen who are more committed to its policies than Riyadh’s allies are to those of Saudi Arabia. This has given the UAE leverage over the Saudis in spite of the withdrawal of Emirati forces from Yemen, because its allies share its hostility toward the Islah party. The situation is different on the Saudi side, as a large part of Islah is now affiliated with Qatar, while the pro-Saudi faction is less organized. Therefore, relations with Islah will remain a major obstacle as the party forms a vital part of Hadi’s inner circle, even as the STC considers Islah a terrorist group that must be eradicated.
This July 29 agreement reaffirmed Saudi influence in Yemen. However, Saudi Arabia has been hampered by the fact that it lacks the ability to follow through on agreements, as it took six months to revive the negotiations to implement the Riyadh Accord of November 2019. Moreover, Saudi Arabia is now one of many competing regional powers in Yemen. In addition, the old southern rivalries weren’t raised during the negotiations, which explains the recent increase in military tensions in Abyan after the agreement.
This suggests that the latest version of the Riyadh Accord may go the same way as its predecessor. Even if a government is formed it’s difficult to assume that it will be successful, given the complete lack of trust existing between the parties.