This year is surely going to be remembered for its series of independents referendums. First Iraqi Kurdistan, then Catalonia and now we have rumours of further referendums being planned across Europe but a more significant independence push could be on the horizon in the troubled nation of Yemen.
Yemen is a country which is currently known for its brutal civil war which began back in 2015. The war has raged for over two years earning Yemen the status as the world’s largest humanitarian crisis and one of the top 20 most dangerous countries in the world, according to the British Foreign Office. This is hardly surprising given that Yemen, the poorest Arab country in the Persian Gulf, has suffered from three civil wars over the past 25 years, with the current war escalating incessantly for over two years bringing the country to near apocalyptic-style breakdown.
Yemen was, at one time, a country which appeared to be one of the very few success stories to come out of the Arab Spring of 2011 as the country’s long-time ruler, Ali Abdullah Saleh, was forced to relinquish his power over to his colleague, Mansour Hadi, following a massive protest movement across Yemen – all this was achieved with minimal bloodshed. Sadly, however, that trend was not to last.
The legacy of the Arab Spring is not democracy or Arabs political ‘awakening’, but failed states. Yemen is the embodiment of everything that went wrong with the 2011 Arab uprisings: a fragile new government which failed to consolidate power over all areas of the country, a failure at fulfilling reforms, and a failure to removing corruption from the political and military arena – instead, in Yemen, we have no government, no state institutions and warring militia factions holding blobs of territory across a once united country.
A rebel former governor of Aden, now leader of the Southern Transitional Council (STC), Aidarus al-Zubaidi, is leading a revived movement in the occupied south with the objective of achieving independence for southern Yemen. On the 14th October al-Zubaidi declared to an enthusiastic crowd of separatist supporters that an independence referendum would be announced soon and a parliamentary body set up to administer the southern territories. This push, clearly inspired by recent Iraqi Kurdish attempts at independence, is seen as the best chance for the marginalized Yemeni separatist movement to grab power while the rest of the country falls further into disarray. The man who is supposedly in charge in the south (the exile Mansour Hadi) is rarely ever even in the country, spending most of his time relaxing in Saudi’s flash hotels. Saudi Arabia’s coalition, which has tried to return Hadi to power, has made petty gains against the north but has succeeded in ousting northern fighters from the south and with millions of Yemenis desperate for a way out of this seemingly endless total war scenario, the separatists have returned to the forefront of political action in the south, offering salvation in the form of southern independence.
Yemen has a long history of division between the north and south. The country we know today (or what is left of it) was once two separate entities, a North & South Yemen, which at different stages in the 1900’s, fought against one another in lengthy bloody conflicts. The 1960’s, 70’s and 80’s were periods of on and off horrific conflict for Yemen as the socialist south (backed by Nasser’s socialist Egypt) fought against the royalist north (back by the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia). If we fast forward to 1990, the country finally reached a position in which the two nations were ready for unification, and so the north & south became just Yemen and the proud exhausted Yemenites looked towards a future of nationwide peace but, alas, it wasn’t to be and soon after a new war broke out.
In 1994, just 4 years after unification, a southern separatist movement in Aden declared independence and fought the first civil war since the 1990 unification. The southern separatist rebels were eventually defeated by the government and their leaders fled into exile but the separatist movement never completely died due to significant support among southern residents and tribal leaders who felt their needs had been neglected by the historically more politically powerful north. The southern secession movement did become insignificant for several years after its defeat as the President of the time, Ali Sales, succeeded in gaining the loyalties of rival southern Islamist and tribal factions to support the war against the separatist militias.
More rebellions were to follow but this time from the north, as in 2004 the Zaidi Houthi tribesmen (often referred to as ‘Shia Houthis’ but in reality, the Houthis are tribes of Zaidi & some minority Sunni and Shia Muslims) also felt the government marginalized their needs, leading them to take up arms. The Houthis also lost that war and agreed to terms with the government but small armed clashes would continue to be seen between government forces and Houthi tribesmen in the years to follow, eventually mounting up to the Houthi march on the capital Sana’a in 2014 beginning what would become the current conflict as the Saudi Arabian-led coalition of Arab states intervened in Yemen to oust the new Houthi unity government and reinstall the exiled pro-Saudi Hadi government in 2015.
Perhaps wisely, the STC members have since downplayed the referendum announcement made by al-Zubaidi and focused on the formation of a southern National Assembly. Once formed, the STC will begin overseeing local governance and work alongside United Arab Emirates-backed security forces on the ground, creating in effect an autonomous regional government, similar to what the Kurds have now in Iraq. The creation of another ‘state-within-a-state’ with ambitions of international recognition as an independent state. This is a move backed by the UAE which could lead to new devastating problems for Yemen all based on the greed of wealthier Persian Gulf nations.
Given the history of Yemen, its long list of wars and the deep divisions between north and south it is easy for an onlooker to think that maybe partitioning Yemen is a good idea. That same cliché partitioning narrative which for years has been promoted for Iraq and Syria could easily be applied to Yemen as well but, as is the case with Iraq and Syria, the partitioning idea may seem like an easy quick fix to all of Yemen’s problems but southern secession would bring deeper rooted divisions to the surface leading to an even further breakdown of society in Yemen, particularly in the Middle and Southern districts. A further breakdown would create an even greater habitat for Al-Qaeda and Da’esh to flourish further in Yemen – the mid & south of Yemen have been plagued by Salafi terrorism for years and the threat of a complete Salafi Islamist takeover remains very real.
The rivalry between the north and south is not the only Yemenite rivalry that exists. Yemen is divided into 21 districts that make up the state of Yemen as we know it but Yemeni society is also deeply tribal. The country is dominated by both the government and by several powerful tribal confederations, each confederation includes tribes, clans and extended families who hold key positions in local administrations as well as significant power over their local districts. These tribes have a historically brutal rivalry which can create major problems if the tribal leaders are not provided with a platform to promote mediation. Saudi’s coalition has achieved nothing except the breakdown of Yemeni society, creating a scenario of “every man (tribe) for themselves”.
The south has long been associated with having ties or pro-Salafi Islamist sympathies due to the prominent presence of Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) in southern districts but this is far from the truth on the ground as many southern tribes have chosen in the past to remained staunchly neutral with both AQAP and the government due to fears of reprisals from either side and the risk of their local areas being transformed into a war zone – as was the case in Abyan in 2011 during an Al-Qaeda insurgency against the government and the later 2012 operation to oust AQAP, a fight which did involve tribal fighters backing the government forces.
In April 2014, when the Yemeni government (led by Hadi) launched an offensive against AQAP in the governorates of Abyan and Shabwa in South Yemen, several tribal meetings took place in the targeted areas to announce their position vis-a-vis military operations. The statements published by the biggest tribes of al-Awaleq, al-Kazemi, and al-Nu’man reflected major concerns that the governments offensive will further destabilize their areas. The tribes clearly stated that “they will not support any party to the [government-insurgent] conflict or those who are involved with them,” and that they “reject that their land becomes a war zone for any conflict.” Not only were the tribes reluctant to show any support for the military operation, but they also stated that they didn’t want any military presence, be it checkpoints or supply units in their areas. This distrust of Hadi’s government created the breathing space for rogue groups, such as AQAP, Daesh and Southern separatists, to later flourish.
Another issue lurking in the background of secessionist ambitions is the definition of what “South Yemen” would be. The term “south” can be befuddling as separatists use the word to describe the southern and easternmost governorates – Lahj, Al Dhale, Aden, Abyan, Shabwah, Hadramout and Mahra – that made up the pre-unification of the once socialist southern state. If the south were to secede and form its own government, what will the map of the south look like? Will it include the central Hadhramaut region? Or perhaps they will also want their own country. Then you have historically strong enmity between the Dhalae and Abyan provinces, who will rule in the south if they cannot find common ground in a new southern government? Will more wars for independence be needed, further chopping up the south into even smaller pieces? Already you can see the problems that can easily arise if the matter of southern separation were to succeed – all with potentially bloody consequences – let us not forget Yugoslavia.
The separatist movement is just one of numerous factions active in the south but the difference is the powerful friends senior separatist leaders, such as al-Zubaidi, have backed their cause. Al-Zubaidi is considered by many to be the UAE’s go-to-guy in southern Yemeni politics. Al-Zubaidi worked under Hadi as Aden’s governor but was sacked by Hadi because of his harsh criticism of Hadi’s government. As a result, al-Zubaidi has grown to become a key rival figure to Hadi’s authority in the south. Hadi is Saudi’s man, so if the UAE is keen to promote al-Zubaidi and the separatist movement this could be seen as a challenge to Saudi supremacy; challenging Saudi can end up leaving you heavily sanctioned, as was the case for Qatar, yet, we know Saudi has expressed a desire to abandon the costly conflict in Yemen but Saudi can’t abandon the fight empty handed – the UAE’s new plan could offer the Saudi’s a way out, at the expense of their support for the washed-up former-president in exile, Hadi.
Hadi has already noticed the threat to his status from the UAE and tensions further grew as the former-president openly criticized Abu Dhabi for offering patronage to southern Yemeni politicians campaigning for secession.
The UAE has been flexing its muscles in Yemen of late, expressing a clear desire to stay on in Yemen for the long term to ensure its interests in Yemen are fulfilled, the UAE will likely still have a military presence in the south even after the civil war comes to an end. We know that the UAE has started using the island of Socotra, located off Yemen’s southern coast, as a military base equipped with communication systems to monitor Yemen and acting as a discreet HQ for UAE forces, training fighters and first aid medics to send to Aden and elsewhere in Yemen. Rumors have suggested that the island was handed over to the UAE for a period of 99 years by Hadi before he fled to Saudi Arabia and with this context we can begin to understand that the Yemeni separatist movement is less about the rights of Yemenis and more to do with the continuing greed of wealthier Persian Gulf states tussling for power over the ungoverned and currently occupied south. The war is not even over and already the UAE & Saudi are looking at the spoils of war. Yemen needs a new future but carving her up will not solve anything long term.