Local calls for reform, not the Arab Coalition, are fueling the conflict.
This past weekend fighting erupted in the coastal city of Aden between south Yemeni forces and the internationally-recognized government of President Abed Rabu Mansour Hadi. While many have framed the current crisis as a Saudi-Emirati ploy to divide and conquer an already-fractured Yemen, the genesis of this confrontation stems entirely from local issues; specifically, the continuing economic and political marginalization of south Yemen.
The situation imploded last Sunday as the Southern Transitional Council (STC) – a group of elites, activists, former military personnel, and technocrats who support southern autonomy – and the Southern Resistance Forces (SRF) – an STC-aligned and Arab-Coalition-backed militia – demanded the removal of Hadi-appointed Prime Minister Ahmed Obaid Ben Dagher, who they accused of corruption and mismanagement. With the deadline for his removal rapidly approaching, the STC and SRF prepared to hold a rally in Aden to demonstrate their political strength, something they have done annually since 2007 (and which have dramatically escalated in scale since 2011). In response, President Hadi directed the Ministry of Interior to ban any demonstrations in order “to prevent chaos in Aden” and violence soon followed.
Hadi, who is himself a southerner, enjoyed a wave of popular support following his escape from Sana’a to Aden in March 2015. In the past three years, much of this goodwill has eroded. The STC accuses Ben Dagher of cronyism, nepotism, a lack of fiscal transparency, and is angry at the removal of popular southern leaders from the government. Moreover, many STC members are concerned about the growing influence of the Islamist al-Islah party, as well as remnants of former president Saleh’s General People’s Congress (GPC), northern entities which have moved closer, in whole or in part, to the Hadi government as the south is sidelined.
Framing the crisis as an external ploy by the UAE and/or Saudi Arabia is, most southerners believe, an attempt to diminish the legitimacy of their claims. Among south Yemenis, there is a sense that the central government continues to collectively punish the south for its failed 1994 attempt to secede from the country and southerners harbor many political, economic, and cultural grievances that predate the Arab Coalition’s 2015 intervention. Underrepresentation in government, the unequal distribution of services and oil rents (most of Yemen’s oil is in the south), land confiscations, and forced cultural assimilation are all long-standing grievances. In the late 2000s, Al-Hirak al-Janoubi (the Southern Movement), an umbrella organization established by disenfranchised southern army officers, was the primary mechanism for expressing these grievances. And while they gave way to the STC the grievances remain.
Following the 2011 Arab Spring uprising and the fall of Saleh, it was hoped that the National Dialogue Conference would result in southerners receiving a more equitable distribution of oil rents, services, and political power. This never happened. The Hadi government’s sudden and unexpected crackdown against the STC demonstration, which was, itself, called in order to address the continued political and economic marginalization of south Yemen was eerily reminiscent of the type of repression practiced under the Saleh government as were the list of grievances that inspired it.
Long-term, many in the STC are seeking secession but secession was not the impetus for the demand that Ben Dagher be removed, the thwarted demonstration, or the subsequent outbreak of violence. As one STC spokesperson put it, “our demands are for reforms and are reasonable;” specifically, an equitable distribution of political power for southerners.
Nor is it probable that Arab Coalition forces, currently fighting alongside the Hadi government, SRF, and the Southern Belt forces (a thirty-thousand strong Emirati-trained elite unit) in the north, would back a secession play. On the contrary, recent Southern-Coalition gains around Taiz suggest that the tide may be turning against the Houthis in parts of the north. Why would the Arab Coalition risk undermining these gains by fracturing the alliance which has helped secure them? It is interesting to note that Al-Jazeera, controlled by Qatar (which opposes the Arab Coalition and under embargo by Saudi Arabia and the UAE), has pushed the narrative that Saudi-Emirati attempts to fragment Yemen created the Aden conflict. In addition, Al-Jazeera is the only outlet to claim that an Emirati plane directly bombed a military base controlled by Hadi-aligned forces – a claim denied by two well-placed sources in Aden.
On the contrary, both the UAE and Saudi Arabia have repeatedly called for a ceasefire in Aden since hostilities began, albeit with only limited success. This should not be surprising. Despite the fact that the Arab Coalition trains, equips, and pays of many of the units taking part in the Aden conflict, south Yemen’s own narrative of political marginalization, economic exploitation, and cultural erasure runs deep. In this environment, there are limits to what the coalition can do. It is significant that only a few Southern Belt units, which are under direct UAE control, joined the attack and those that participated did so only after fighting between the SRF and Hadi broke out. This suggests that UAE successfully restrained some of the forces under its control.
The Aden violence is not in the interests of south Yemenis, the Hadi government, or the Arab Coalition. It undermines the integrity of the alliance and the war against the illegal Houthi takeover of the state. Defusing the situation may mean that the Hadi government will need to seriously address STC demands. In this, the Emiratis and Saudis may have some leverage. “There are a few things that can still be done to contain the situation in Aden,” said Farea al-Muslimi, head of the Sana’a Center for Strategic Studies in a Twitter post. “Sacking Ben Dagher and his cabinet would be a very good start.” With dozens dead and hundreds more wounded the clock is ticking.