Yemen has further split with Aden under the control of southern separatist movements. Fighting broke out after the government ignored a separatist demand for the Prime Minister and his cabinet to be dismissed. Ahmed Obeid bin Daghr was widely blamed for food shortages in the region, and this is also a major blow for Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi, who is already battling Houthi rebels in the north.
Yemen is deeply divided with several groups fighting for control. In 2014, the Houthis took control of the capital Sana’a, and they still control the northwest areas of the country. In fact, most of Yemen’s population lives in these northwest regions, and at least 80% live in areas outside the control of the Saudi-backed government. This renders claims about the government supposedly controlling 85% of Yemen’s territory nearly meaningless.
The internationally recognized government of President Hadi is backed by the airpower of the Saudi-led coalition, and up until this week, it ruled from the port city of Aden. But now, Aden is in the hands of another faction, southern separatists backed by the United Arab Emirates. South Yemen was an independent country until 1990 and a nationalist sentiment there remains strong. Al-Qaeda and other armed groups like DAESH are also active in the region holding pockets of territory in the north and south of the country.
The separatists are loyal to the Southern Transitional Council (STC), and want the restoration of an independent south. The STC was formed in May 2017 by the former Governor of Aden, Aidarus al-Zoubaidi, who was ousted by the Hadi government over accusations of loyalty. Until recently, the government and the STC had been united against a common enemy, namely the Houthis, but the developments in Aden could represent a new split in the already fractured country.
The situation in Aden has been escalating for two years between the presidential forces, back by Saudi Arabia and the STC backed by the United Arab Emirates, who have overlapping control over the area. However, coordination and merging the two factions together have failed. Quite frankly, both sides lack leadership over who controls the area, and there is also a failure on the part of President Hadi to unify Yemen. If Hadi cannot appeal to Yemenis to be unified, he cannot lead them anywhere. President Hadi may have been a man of the south, but he wanted to unify Yemen, and this was diametrically opposed to what the southern separatists wanted.
So far, it seems like Hadi is content with staying in Riyadh, but he presides over a corrupt government. Since Hadi was legitimately elected in a one-man election in 2012, he has brought nothing to the Yemeni people, and has been a disappointment even to his closest supporters and advisors. In addition, the Saudis have not lifted a finger to help President Hadi, and they could agree with the UAE to let the southern separatists start a movement in the south for another Yemeni state led by a puppet government under Zoubaidi.
Because there are no other legitimate forces, and because there is a lack of interest in a viable political solution in Yemen, the situation is even more complicated unless there is a clear plan on how the Yemeni people themselves can elect a new leadership in the war-torn country.
Until this happens, it is more likely that Hadi will remain the President of Yemen. This is similar to what happened in 2011-2012 when the GCC tried to promote the National Dialogue for a clear map towards a transitional plan, and unfortunately, this is not the case due to fighting in the north with the Houthis, and tensions in the south between Presidential forces and separatists. But because of these complications, Hadi will not be removed anytime soon.
The United Arab Emirates has pushed its weight behind the southern separatists by recruiting southern militias who are acting independently of the Saudi backed forces for over a year.
In addition, the UAE does have a lot of distrust with the al-Islah party who is a very influential player in the current dynamics in Yemen, and Abu Dhabi is very close with the Hadi government against the Houthis. The UAE does agree with the Saudis that they should continue their campaign against the Houthis, but they may want a result where al-Islah would be a dominant player in Yemen’s future.
However, the Saudis are trying to find a face-saving way of dumping Hadi, but the leaderships in Riyadh and Abu Dhabi have proven difficult to judge what their real intentions are. The Saudis may not have ground troops in Yemen, but they do have mercenaries from Africa and Pakistan under their control who are not being mobilized to help the presidential forces of Hadi. The strong relationship between Mohammed bin-Salman and Mohammed bin-Zayed shows some doubt that they are working towards different political objectives in Yemen, and the Saudis could possibly support a Southern Yemeni state to press the war towards the North and establish a northern state on its border.
Yemen is a country with constantly shifting allegiances in alliances, but in 1990, the Saudis played a major role in uniting Yemen, and it would be quite a turnaround if the Saudis support the separatists. However, it could be a better option for Riyadh if they want to fight the Houthis in the north. Because of the lack of leadership in Yemen, both the Saudis and the Emiratis do not have a strong influence in Yemeni politics.
In addition to Hadi’s failure to unite Yemen, one has to say that after three years of war, the Saudi leadership has miserably failed to restore Hadi as a legitimate leader for the Yemeni people, given the fact that Riyadh has used foreign mercenaries to advance their objectives, and has been directly responsible for bombing innocent civilian targets with state of the art American and British weapons. Quite frankly, this is all the Saudis have to show for their failed campaign in Yemen. Yemen remains a divided country in chaos with cholera and malnutrition spreading throughout the country, but if this is the leadership role the Gulf is going to take, it will turn out to be an even bigger mess than it already is.
Yemen is home to the world’s worst humanitarian crisis, yet, despite some activity from the global community on a humanitarian level, they still, after three years, have not done enough for the people of Yemen due to the lack for a functioning state. The level of violence in Yemen has hampered aid operations, and a miracle solely by the Saudis and the Emiratis will not help the Yemeni people because this is a global problem.
There is no innocent side in the Yemen conflict. Due to the failures of Hadi’s leadership, along with the Saudi-coalition’s failed military operation in Yemen, the global community’s disinterest in helping the Yemenis has let the Yemeni people down, and as a result, thousands of Yemenis feel abandoned by the world.
Even with American pressure on the Saudis, the U.S could have played some role in ending the conflict by proposing a diplomatic solution, but the Trump Administration has little to no interest in doing so. Hopefully, young Yemenis can become leaders for civil society and spread the word about what is happening in their country. Unfortunately, now is not the time for young Yemenis to take the reins of leadership, but hopefully, their time will come soon.
Author: Vincent Lofaso is a recent graduate of Manhattan College with a Political Science major with a focus in international affairs. Most of his research is related on geopolitical and security issues.