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The Viability of a Southern State in Yemen

The sentiment for an independent state is strong and widespread in the south of Yemen. Indeed, it has been so at least since 2007, after a long period of dissatisfaction with the state of the union with the north, brought about by Ali Abdallah Saleh and Ali Salem al-Bidh in 1990. The desire for independence is not however enough in and of itself to carve out a viable state under current circumstances. The Southern Transitional Council (STC), whose forces have now taken control of Aden, will have national, regional, and international obstacles to overcome before a new state in south Yemen can become a reality.

The definition of a state has long been established as a unified people sharing governance institutions within common defensible borders. By this definition, the people of south Yemen despite their strong aspirations are nowhere near having their own state. The desirability of establishing such a state aside, the practicalities on the ground demonstrate that there are many challenges ahead and obstacles to overcome should the STC, which has thus far only claimed autonomy, wish to go that route.

Lack of Unified Southerners Around the Secession

First, the people of the south are not unified, save for a common aspiration to be independent and free from northern domination as viewed and resented by them since 1994. Political and regional schisms were rife even when south Yemen was an independent state between 1967 – 1990. To some extent, these schisms were roughly a reflection of the western part of the south, and specifically the cities of Dalea’, Lahj and Yafea’, along with parts of Aden on one side and the rest of the south – to the east of Aden extending all the way to Mahra and the Omani border. The split was also ideological, between moderate socialists and independents on one side and hardened Marxists on the other. Personality conflicts and rivalries also played a part, specifically between Abdel Fattah Ismail, Ali Nasser Mohammed, and Ali Salem al-Bidh. These schisms led to a vicious internecine war which claimed up to 10,000 lives in just under two weeks of fighting. This war also devastated the Yemeni Socialist Party and weakened the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen (PDRY). Ali Salem al-Bidh, who inherited the leadership of the party, engineered a unification with the north, becoming the first vice president of unified Yemen under the presidency of Ali Abdallah Saleh. When southerners sought in 1994 to break away from the new republic, they failed, and Aden and the entire south were recovered by President Saleh’s armed forces in short order.

Today, the socialist party is no longer a factor but the STC does not have an alternative unifying ideology. What has remained however is the regionalization which still pits a political leadership mainly from Dalea’ and Lahj against sundry militias inside Aden and a population in Shabwa, Abyan and Mahra who largely do not have any allegiance to the STC.

Border Challenges

Any putative border for a southern state is also a complicated issue. The writ of the STC, even with Emirati support, does not dominate outside Aden and Dalea’, and is feeble even in Aden itself. Just north of Dalea’, Houthi forces are poised on the outskirts of Taiz and regularly menace nearby southern forces. Just to the west of Aden, starting with the small town of Shuqra, forces loyal to President Hadi are positioned in Abyan and Shabwa who nearly attacked the STC in Aden had it not been for Emirati opposition and lack of support from Saudi Arabia. Along with Hadi’s forces, al-Islah and al-Qaeda have their own forces also within striking distance of Aden. Nukhba (Elite) forces, established and supported by the UAE, are spread throughout the Hadramawt and have mixed tribal and Emirati loyalties that make them an uncertain factor in any battles the STC undertakes west of Aden. Saudi forces in Mahra are evidently unconcerned with what happens in Aden, but would take a very dim view of the STC trying to extend its influence to the Omani border. (A political map of the south shows the challenging strategic environment in which the STC finds itself).

Military Power of Different Factions Threatens Independence

The military balance of forces in Yemen is not easy to quantify, but professional estimates and the locations of fighters indicates that the war cannot end in total victory for any one side of the conflict. To put the military capacity of the STC in context, the group’s armed wing faces formidable odds if pitted against the array of forces operating in Yemen.

The Houthis (Ansar Allah), with an estimated standing army of 100,000 troops and the ability to mobilize perhaps an equal number of reserves, are undoubtedly the strongest single force on the ground in Yemen. While the unity of this force, not to mention its equipment, training, and technical foreign assistance, give the Houthis unquestionable control of most of northern Yemen, it does not give them the ability to expand further should they attempt once again to take control of the whole country.

The Hadi government, which lacks legitimacy in the south, also accounts for another army of 100,000 troops. Governed remotely from Riyadh, these troops are effectively divided in loyalty between President Hadi, his vice president General Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar, and those who are loyal to the Islah party. A significant portion of Yemen’s former national army, currently under the leadership of the late President Saleh’s nephews and son, is also more attached to the UAE than they are to the Yemeni government. Tareq Saleh, for example, is head of the main opposition force against the Houthis in Hodeida. He has not been a factor in the struggle for power in Aden, but if push came to shove, he would throw in with the UAE rather than with Hadi. Tareq is clearly partial to the Emiratis and fervently holds on to the support he receives from Abu Dhabi.

The Southern Resistance Army (SRA) – Southern Hirak, as the southern separatist movement is known, is now mainly led by the STC and their armed forces who are equipped, trained and supported by the UAE. With an estimated standing army of 30,000. These forces are able to dominate Yemen’s southern capital and fight on other fronts in the south, including the island of Socotra. A relatively small force, the SRA potentially includes the forces known as al-Nukhba (The Elite) based in other southern governorates. An actual alliance between all these forces, however, is not at all a given. The STC’s strength is largely political and its taking over Aden and Socotra virtually guarantee it a role in any future peace talks and will certainly be a force to reckon with when discussing the future of the south.

Al-Qaeda and other extremists: Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) is still alive and well in Yemen, if not an integral part of the international terrorist network it once was. In Yemen, AQAP is still considered by U.S. intelligence to be one of the most dangerous organizations in the world. Currently, the relevance of AQAP is in its control of territory on the ground which though of limited strategic value, grants it a certain autonomy and a buffer to continue to equip, train and insert troops into battlefields of interest to it. AQAP likely does not have more than a core of three thousand fighters. Salafi youths and members of other groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood and the remnants of the Islamic State, however, network and collaborate with AQAP, often blurring the lines between them. All combined, Jihadist fighters under this umbrella could amount to close to thirty thousand fighters, albeit not always acting in unison as a single force.

STC’s Capabilities to Govern

Governance, the third leg of the stool on which any state must stand, is essential for success and durability. Made up of a pyramidal organization and a network of specialized committees and offices governed by laws and regulations, an efficient bureaucracy set out to provide essential services to the people becomes crucial to the sustainability of the state. Security, public health and economic wellbeing are principal among those functions and services – in addition of course to a military capable of protecting the borders of the state.

The STC, formed in 2017, is composed of a 26-member presidential council which includes former governors of southern districts dismissed by President Hadi in 2017. The council has also put together a 300-member assembly, but there are currently no election laws or procedures, nor does the assembly meet on a regular schedule. The STC does not have its own executive departments and its administration over Aden depends on existing ministerial offices to carry out executive orders and policies issued by the presidential council.

In terms of economic viability, the south can be self-sufficient provided the right regions are included under its authority. Oil and gas reserves would of course be of immense value to a southern state, but those resources are currently desired by all concerned and well-armed parties in the country. Aden is a strategic seaport of course, but it is underutilized and in need of redevelopment. Fishing is key, but so is a business enterprise, both of which are found in abundance in the south, provided of course the war ends and peace prevails. Funding would be critical to any economic acceleration in the south and, in this regard, the central bank of Yemen, formerly located in Sanaa, is now located in Aden. The bank, however, is guarded by Saudi National Guardsmen. While STC forces may now surround the premises, it is not clear if they can actually seize and use the bank without the consent of Saudi Arabia.

Meanwhile, the funding of the STC is entirely dependent on UAE assistance at the moment and, with central bank resources out of grasp, financial independence becomes problematic. Additionally, the STC’s administrative infrastructure is nascent while the tasks it faces in managing Aden, let alone the entire south, are enormous. The Arab coalition largesse has been intermittent throughout Yemen, with only a few flashy projects to show for which they can take credit. The challenges on the other hand are immense. What plagues Yemen as a whole manifests itself in the south of the country as well. In 2018, the UN aid coordinator for Yemen, Mark Lowcock, called out the Saudis and Emiratis for not paying but a fraction of the funds they committed to the humanitarian fund. The Arab coalition has since stepped up its assistance to Yemen, mainly as direct remittances to the central bank in Aden. These funds have not necessarily translated into the infrastructure and public health projects desperately needed by the Yemeni people. Historically, Saudi assistance to Yemen has typically involved doling out cash to buy the loyalty of local tribes. Current assistance to the al-Mahra region, for example, is reportedly mostly of that genre, as opposed to long-term development projects.

With or without foreign funds, the STC must demonstrate crisis-management skills, especially in light of the spread of COVID-19. Infrastructure is patently inadequate in the south, as the recent floods in Aden highlighted. Basic services–chiefly potable water, electricity, and sanitation–are of a higher priority to the citizens of the south than mere posturing about independence, especially considering the heavy footprints of Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and multiple local and foreign forces present. The ongoing struggle for Socotra is a prime example of fighting over which flag to raise, when the survival of the tiny island population and its vulnerable ecosystem hang in the balance. In short, the needs and desires of the south may well be possible in peaceful coordination with the rest of Yemen, but southern aspirations seem quite unrealistic in the midst of the prevailing fog of war.


Dr. Nabeel Khoury is a Nonresident Senior Fellow at The Atlantic Council.

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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Dr. Nabeel Khoury is a Non-Resident Senior Fellow at Gulf International Forum and previously was a Non-Resident Senior Fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Hariri Center for the Middle East. His commentaries appear on the Atlantic Council’s MENA Resource, The Hill, The Cairo Review of Global Affairs and on his own blog, Middle East Corner. After 25 years in the Foreign Service, Dr. Khoury retired from the U.S. Department of State in 2013 with the rank of Minister-Counselor. He taught Middle East and US strategy courses at the National Defense University and Northwestern University. In his last overseas posting, Khoury served as deputy chief of mission at the U.S. embassy in Yemen (2004-2007). In 2003, during the Iraq war, he served as Department spokesperson at US Central Command in Doha and in Baghdad. Khoury earned his BA in political science from the American University of Beirut and his MA and PhD in political science from the State University of New York at Albany. Before his Foreign Service career, Khoury was an assistant professor of political science at the College of Saint Rose in Albany, NY, and earlier, an assistant professor of political science at the University of Jordan in Amman. Dr. Khoury has published articles on issues of leadership and development in the Arab world in The Middle East Journal, Journal of South Asian and Middle Eastern Studies, and The International Journal of Middle East Studies. Articles on the regional impact of the Arab uprising and on U.S. policy in Yemen appear in the summer 2013 and summer 2014 issues of Middle East Policy. In 2019 Dr. Khoury published his book “Bunker Diplomacy: An Arab-American in the U.S. Foreign Service: Personal Reflections on 25 Years of U.S. Policy in the Middle East.”

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