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A billboard shows supporters of Yemen’s southern separatists during a rally in September. PHOTO: FAWAZ SALMAN/REUTERS

Can Yemen’s Riyadh Agreement be Rescued? 

Yemen’s separatist Southern Transitional Council’s (STC) July 29 renunciation of its ‘self-rule’ declaration raised hopes that its stalemate with Yemen’s internationally recognized government would finally end. Both sides then pledged to cooperate to forge a unity government and finally implement last November’s Riyadh Agreement over the course of 30 days. However, the announcement on August 25 that the STC has suspended its participation in the consultations on a power sharing deal for the South, with clashes again erupting between both sides, indicates the collapse of the Riyadh Agreement.

Deep-seeded tensions and disagreements have remained between the United Arab Emirates-backed STC and the Saudi Arabia-backed government of Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi over control of South Yemen’s territory and resources. Furthermore, despite initially being anti-Houthi coalition partners, Abu Dhabi and Riyadh are at odds regarding Yemen’s future government, due to their diverging geopolitical ambitions.

Limited Attempts to Revive the Riyadh Agreement

The STC’s Secretary General Ahmed Hamid Lamlas was sworn in by President Hadi as Aden’s governor on August 11. That same week, he continued with negotiations in Riyadh to discuss a cabinet with Yemeni Prime Minister Maeen Abdulmalik Saeed. The U.S. Ambassador to Yemen blessed Lamlas’ appointment, noting the significance of an experienced figure taking a position in the new government. These were all lauded as positive signs that the Riyadh Agreement was finally accelerating.

These moves aimed to salvage over a year’s worth of tensions between the STC and the Hadi government, after the former staged a putsch in Aden — South Yemen’s historic capital and the temporary administrative capital for the Hadi government — and then moved to seize control of southern Yemen in August 2019.

However, Riyadh and Abu Dhabi maintained strong coordination and managed to bring both sides to the negotiating table in the Riyadh Agreement. This agreement aimed to create a power-sharing government in which the STC would take a reduced role, though it still sought to leverage the agreement to later gain independence through non-violent means.

Despite renewed external attempts to salvage the Riyadh Agreement, under-the-surface tensions have inhibited any significant progress in implementing it.  Moreover, both sides continuously clashed in the Abyan governorate throughout August, with Hadi government forces accusing the STC of violating the Riyadh Agreement’s terms.

Tensions Prevent the Agreement’s Implementation

On August 14, a spokesperson for the STC-aligned forces in Abyan, Mohammad Alnaqib, accused what he called “the terrorist Brotherhood militia [i.e. Al Islah party]” of using violence. The STC has often criticized the government for hosting the Islamist Al Islah party and for engaging in alleged government corruption preventing the deal. It has argued Islah militias should withdraw for the deal to be implemented.

Such tensions previously hindered the agreement, as the STC has refused to withdraw its forces and even temporarily pulled out of the Riyadh Agreement last January, citing Islah’s presence in the government. Since then, both sides have repeatedly clashed over the other’s refusal to concede ground, particularly in the oil-rich and strategically located Shabwa and Abyan governorates.

These ongoing differences could also prevent the centralization of all armed forces under government control, one of the Riyadh Agreement’s key stipulations.

Furthermore, the STC announced on July 29 that its end goal is still southern independence, despite its support of the Riyadh Agreement. The faction also sent reinforcements to Abyan on August 29, heightening the risk of further clashes, while indicating it now prioritizes military measures over diplomacy.

Ongoing Saudi-UAE divergence

Saudi Arabia, however, is keen for the deal to succeed and prevent the STC’s secession. Its primary goal with the Riyadh Agreement was to bolster the power of its preferred ruler Hadi over Yemen, thus securing its own influence and preventing the anti-Houthi coalition’s collapse. A breakdown of the deal would hinder Riyadh’s influence in Yemen, as it would marginalize Hadi and allow the Houthis to consolidate control of the north.

The deal’s success also depends on the UAE, which created and empowered the STC. The UAE has long sought control of Yemen’s southern ports, particularly Aden and Mukalla, to establish a sphere of influence over the Red Sea and bolster its maritime trade. If the STC had continued to pursue these ambitions, it might have lead to the collapse of the deal. Furthermore, the UAE shares the STC’s hatred of the Hadi-aligned Islah party and seeks to marginalize it. Hadi also poses an obstacle to UAE rule, as he prevents the UAE from controlling southern Yemen’s ports.

The UAE reportedly decreased its funding for STC-aligned militias, amid suggestions it was scaling back its role in Yemen. It also tactfully reduced its involvement to avoid threatening its alliance with Saudi Arabia. However, the STC’s seizure of the geostrategic island of Socotra in June conveys that Abu Dhabi has not relented on its goals, as the island serves as a vital piece in the jigsaw for the UAE’s regional ambitions. Furthermore, this event indicates that Saudi Arabia’s influence is diminishing, given Riyadh’s acceptance of the STC’s move despite having previously opposed its failed takeover in 2018. Abu Dhabi may exploit a greater split in the Riyadh Agreement, bolster the STC once again and attempt to seize control of South Yemen’s ports.

Adding further risks to South Yemen’s stability, the STC also faces pressure from below. Protests erupted in the Shabwa governorate on August 16, in favor of a unified Yemen while denouncing the STC and opposing the UAE’s recent normalization agreement with Israel. In early August, the Supreme Council of the Revolutionary Movement for the Peaceful Liberation and Independence of the South rejected the Riyadh Agreement, while also criticizing the UAE’s support for the STC. Independent groups like the Southern National Salvation Coalition (SNSC), founded last September in Mahra to counter the UAE-backed faction, have created further opposition for the STC. Should the STC seek to impose itself on the South, more internal southern conflicts could emerge.

A Flawed Agreement

Asides from some words of support from U.S., UK, UN, and EU ministers on the supposed advancement of the Riyadh Agreement, there has been limited international commitment to boost peace efforts. International powers also pay little to no attention to Saudi Arabia and the UAE’s diverging roles in Yemen, which could jeopardize the success of any potential peace deal.

Even if the deal were upheld, these fractures and diverging interests within a unity government could hinder post-war Yemen’s reconstruction, along with its abilities to provide stability and services for impoverished Yemenis, which stands as yet another roadblock in alleviating the country’s intense humanitarian crisis.

In the long term, however, there is a dangerous cocktail for further instability across the South. If the STC pulled out of the agreement and its Emirati backing continued, violence would erupt, and peace efforts would be back to square one. Therefore, international powers should reign in both Saudi Arabia and the UAE, as well as supporting a new framework for a more stable peace initiative which represents a wider range of Yemenis, rather than one that simply serves the interests of Riyadh and Abu Dhabi.


Jonathan Fenton-Harvey is a researcher and journalist focusing on geopolitics and humanitarian issues in the Middle East and North Africa, particularly related to the Gulf. He has worked with Al Sharq Forum, The New Arab, Middle East Eye, Al-Monitor, Carnegie Endowment’s Sada Journal, and many other outlets.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Gulf International Forum.

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Jonathan Fenton-Harvey is a researcher and journalist focusing on geopolitics and humanitarian issues in the Middle East and North Africa, particularly related to the Gulf. He has worked with Al Sharq Forum, The New Arab, Middle East Eye, Al Monitor, Carnegie Endowment’s Sada journal, and many other outlets.

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