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Could an independent South Yemen be good for Saudi Arabia?

July 20, 2015 at 10:05 am

The sudden fall of the Houthis in Aden last Wednesday was a cause for celebration for much of Yemen. The Hirak resistance forces have recently dominated the battleground, with the assistance of military aid and training from the Saudi-led coalition. The Houthis retreated rapidly; despite having stolen some of the weapons that were sent to Hirak, they were unable to sustain the battle. This moved quickly to the launch of “Operation Golden Arrow” to recapture all of Aden, which exiled President Hadi is now leading personally from Riyadh.

The Houthis reacted by attempting to pin the blame for the defeat on ISIS and AQAP rather than accepting that it was at the hands of the Hirak forces. When that excuse wore thin, they used Saba, Yemen’s state news agency which has fallen under Houthi control, to say that the defeat was a result of a neo-imperialist conspiracy orchestrated by Saudi Arabia, America and Israel.

Between the celebrations, cries and conspiracy theories, many are looking at what was once the gem of Arabia and wondering what’s coming next.

Although separatist sentiments have always been present in Yemen and increased after the 2012 ousting of Ali Abdullah Saleh, the latest celebrations have almost all used the old South Yemen flag, making many believe that another division of the country is almost inevitable. Attempts on social media to undermine Hirak’s victory have been made by photoshopping the South Yemen flag for the official Yemeni version in celebratory marches, including those flown on tanks. This not only creates a perception that separatist sentiments in Aden aren’t as strong as they currently are, but also that the South Yemen flag represents the southern independence struggle, rather than fighting to reinstate Hadi in Sana’a.

As the prospects for an independent South Yemen increase, questions arise on how the newly-founded state would be governed. Being a military faction, Hirak’s efforts have thus far been successful in liberating Aden, but autonomy would need governance. Without a central government able to unite the whole of the South in a manner that is representative enough to keep the most important tribes content, inter-tribal conflict would take over a new South Yemen shortly after its creation.

Hirak was formed as a military faction in 2007, led by the ex-general secretary of South Yemen’s Socialist Party, Ali Salem Al-Beidh. The aim of Hirak at that point was for southern Yemeni soldiers forced into retirement following the 1994 civil war to have a pension equal to that of their northern counterparts. From there, separatism re-emerged with south Yemeni political rivals such as Al-Beidh and Ali Nasser Mohammed, who were effectively at war in the 1986 South Yemen civil war. Activists campaigning for social justice for southern Yemenis who were marginalised under Ali Abdullah Saleh’s rule took Hirak to be a viable platform to expand; it then developed into the military faction with the aim of justice for southern Yemenis.

Southern Yemen shows little desire for political unification beyond wanting to escape the dominance of Sana’a. The socialist sentiments that once united the south have dissolved and the angst is based on the lack of representation for southern Yemenis. Senior Hirak figures like Al-Beidh and Mohammed simply do not have the political skill to sustain the re-emergence of South Yemen, especially because their state was heavily reliant on the aid and protection that the old Soviet Union offered. This has not, however, undermined the separatist voices that were heightened during and immediately after the Arab Spring.

To overcome this, in December 2013 President Hadi began a federalism project in which an agreement was signed by all of the main political factions in Yemen. The aim was to find a middle road solution between unity and separatism, with southern Yemen splitting into two federal regions, Aden and an expanded Hadhramout. The latter would have taken Shawaba, Mahra and Socotra Island into its federation whereas Lahaj and Abyan would have fallen under Aden.

The conflicted context surrounding the plan proved it to be too ambitious to be implemented and with Hirak’s victory separatist morale has been boosted. This means that the political shortcomings and potential fallout of southern tribal leaders is not currently being anticipated on a political level.

One of the only ways that a recreated South Yemen state could survive is with outside forces guiding Hirak politically towards governance. Currently, the only willing party to support Hirak is Saudi Arabia, but this is only being done strategically to drive out the Houthis and achieve the ultimate aim of reinstating Hadi as president in Sana’a. With Hadi losing all forms of legitimacy in the north and only having scattered pockets of support in the south, mainly in Abyan due to tribal loyalties, if another split was to occur, he would no longer be a viable option for Riyadh’s security.

It is important to note that the official objective of Operation Decisive Storm was to constrict the Houthis to deter Iranian influence on Saudi’s borders, through re-installing Hadi. This does not automatically mean that Saudi will be reluctant to accept a re-emergence of South Yemen if it will ensure less violence and security from Iranian influence. If Hirak continues to accept Saudi support, which it will need as its aims surface, a divided Yemen could actually have a positive impact on Saudi security if diplomatic cards in Riyadh are played well. In fact, Saudi Arabia could, potentially, form a strategic “stability for security” alliance with the Hirak forces, whereby Riyadh would help Aden govern the newly-founded country in return for its security.

Currently, the largest threat posed to Saudi Arabia by Iran in this conflict is at sea. The Saudi naval blockade of Yemen’s ports was constructed for the purpose of preventing Iran from sending weapons to the Houthis, who by the beginning of April had seized the army base at Bab El-Mandab. Iran’s attempts to ship arms through the Gulf of Aden has left Saudi feeling very insecure and this will continue as long as Riyadh has no real control over the vital waterway.

A strategic partnership with a prospective South Yemen could thus include an agreement that would include Saudi naval bases to help deter any Iranian threats and could turn

South Yemen into a buffer zone that Saudi would need. Throwing in standing ground facilities would be a further luxury for Saudi deterrence, which would also double up as protection from any northern insurgencies.

At this stage it is hard to tell what the prospects for Yemen could be. It has been on a rollercoaster of a ride and the regional stakeholders in the war should be prepared to adapt to anything. If separatist sentiments do materialise substantially, Riyadh must take a political approach to ensure its security and let Yemenis sort out their own affairs rather than throw itself behind another civil war.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.