Political violence in south Yemen escalated sharply during May, with a small but unconfirmed number of fatalities, hundreds arrested, and several newspapers shuttered. Protestors first took to the streets two years ago, when retired officers from the disbanded southern army demanded higher pension payments. The southern movement has gathered momentum in recent months, partly due to the regime’s heavy-handed response, and built an untested coalition based around perceptions of southern marginalization. Protestors are now openly calling for independence.

The secessionist language deployed by protestors suggests they are seeking to reverse the creation of the modern republic in 1990, which united the Marxist People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen (PDRY, South Yemen) with the Yemen Arab Republic (North Yemen) at the end of the Cold War. Secessionists complain that President Ali Abdullah Saleh failed to implement the terms of the 1990 power-sharing agreement between the two countries and to honor the terms of the ceasefire after a brief civil war in 1994.

Southern secessionists perceive the president’s Sanhan clan, based in the northern mountain capital, Sana’a, to be running the country in its own interests. Grievances include land seizures, the forced retirement of southern security officials, the exclusion of southerners from northern patronage networks, corruption, and economic mismanagement. Tension in the south has risen further since parliamentary elections, scheduled for April 2009, were postponed for two years.
The southern movement is driven by popular frustration with the northern elite, but its leadership is still seeking to unite around a coherent agenda. The current coalition of tribal sheikhs, civic leaders, and prematurely retired military officers is allied to former leftist politicians living in exile. Former southern president Ali Salem al-Baidh, speaking in Germany in May, promised to “lead a peaceful struggle” to reclaim “the occupied south.” Al-Baidh denied he was seeking to revive the politics of the Cold War era: “I’m not in a party, and will not join any party, but after liberation I may like to be an advisor.”

The new complexion of twenty-first century southern separatism was confirmed in April, when veteran Afghan mujahid and presidential ally Tariq al-Fadhli declared his support for the secessionist struggle. Al-Fadhli belongs to a leading family in the southern governorate of Abyan who lost their land during the PDRY nationalisation program. Al-Fadhli returned to Yemen after the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan and played a key role in the post-Cold War settlement in Yemen. He helped President Saleh defeat the Socialists in Yemen’s 1994 civil war and set about reclaiming his family land in Abyan. He remained a paid adviser to the Ministry of Interior.
Al-Fadhli’s defection suggests that Yemen’s extensive patronage system is under strain and the logic underpinning the modern republic is now in flux. Since unification in 1990, President Saleh has relied on patronage to bind his proxies to the center and bypass the painstaking process of state building. Patronage structures created the inequalities and resentments now articulated throughout the south, yet provided President Saleh with a framework to minimize dissent when the money was available.
Yemen’s oil sector provides 90 percent of export earnings and 75 percent of government revenue. But Yemen’s oil production has passed its peak and daily output has declined from 460,000 barrels per day in 2002 to 268,000 barrels per day forecast for 2010. Total crude oil exports generated $7.6 billion in 2008, reflecting the spike in global oil prices, but forecasts suggest revenue will drop to $2.8 billion during 2009. The World Bank predicts that state revenues from oil sales will fall to zero in 2017.
Poor security conditions, unpromising geology, and questions about Yemen’s socio-economic trajectory prevent extensive exploration for new fields by international oil companies. Anticipated income from a new liquid natural gas plant, which is due to start exports from the south coast later this year, will not replace returns from diminishing oil exports over the long-term. These economic pressures are already generating acute political tension. Presidential proxies (such as Tarik al-Fadhli) and opposition figures are looking ahead and considering their options.
Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia recently named Yemen as its number one threat to internal security, following the merger earlier this year of al-Qaeda in Yemen and al-Qaeda in Saudi Arabia. In an Internet statement released in May, al-Qaeda commander Nasser al-Wuhayshi pledged his support for the southern separatists. “Ali Abdullah Saleh is an infidel and an agent,” he said. “The time for the rule of Islam has come so that you could bask in the justice and tolerance it brings.”
President Saleh is calling for national dialogue and promising constitutional reform, decentralization, and economic diversification. Displays of military hardware during May’s Unity Day parades celebrating the nineteenth anniversary of unification, however, showed that the regime is not prepared to take the chance that talks might fail. Negotiations will place pressure on both the northern elite and the leaders of the southern independence movement to overcome their internal differences and compromise with each other. The speed with which talks proceed will determine whether the southern protest movement is diffused, protestors continue to engage in sporadic clashes with the security services, or the confrontation escalates.Against this backdrop, the economic situation looks set to deteriorate.
Ginny Hill is a freelance journalist and author of ‘Yemen: Fear of Failure’, a Chatham House briefing paper.