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‘Our people will fight anyone who harms their independence’

Salem Thabet Al-Awlaki, spokesman for the Southern Transitional Council

Khalil Dewan interviews Salem Thabet Al-Awlaki, spokesman for the Southern Transitional Council and member of the Presidential Council for General Aidarous Al- Zubaidi. The STC has been backed by the United Arab Emirates since its military inception in 2015.

As the Southern Transitional Council (STC) expands beyond Aden to neighbouring governorates to realise its political aspiration for independence, it’s time to unravel to what extent the UAE is supporting political shifts in southern Yemen: “[T]he blood of the Emiratis and the Southerners has mixed honour and heroism on the battlefield,” Thabet Al-Awlaki tells me.

In 2015 internationally recognised Yemeni President Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi invited the Saudi-led coalition to support a united Yemen and neutralise threats from the Iranian-backed Houthi group. The UAE, a prominent member of the coalition, intervened in March the same year but has taken a shift in its foreign policy in Yemen by supporting the southerners to secede from northern Yemen, a departure from the original goals of the Saudi-led coalition.

“We are partners of the Arab coalition in defeating the coup [Houthis] and combating terrorism. We will remain partners to the region and the world in everything that will achieve security and stability in the region,” Thabet Al-Awlaki says. When asked what support the UAE are providing the south with, Thabet Al-Awlaki answers: “the support and relief provided by the UAE to our people at this sensitive stage is appreciated and we hope to further strengthen our ties to serve the common strategic interests.”

Read more: 50,000 Yemeni children will die by end of the year, says Save the Children

UAE’s foreign policy

As the complex dynamic in Yemen changes amid turbulent tribal politics, particularly in the southern governorates, it is difficult to understand what “common strategic interests” can be defined as. Thabet Al-Awlaki did, however, reveal to me that “the United Arab Emirates presented a distinguished model and example,” without going into deeper detail.

“It is a part of the Arab coalition, and its military mission ends with the end of the Arab coalition’s plan on the ground, the establishment of peace, elimination of terrorism, and reining in the Iranian expansion in the region,” he adds.

Saudi Arabia has remained silent over the UAE’s support for the STC, or its military prominence in southern Yemen, but the STC believes Saudi Arabia doesn’t have a problem with the political shift in south Yemen. “Saudi Arabia, which is leading the Arab coalition, supports any measure that contributes to any enhancement on the ground. The STC is a part of the solution, not a part of the problem, and therefore there has been no negative attitude announced by the Saudi leadership, which was timely in its intervention,” Thabet Al-Awlaki tells me, adding: “With support from Saudi Arabia and the coalition, we were able to liberate Aden, Hadramout, and other southern areas from the grips of the coup forces and its allies.”

In May this year President Hadi said that the UAE is “behaving like an occupier” not a “liberator”. The accusation was aimed at Mohammed Bin Zayed, the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and deputy supreme commander of the Emirati armed forces. In a bid to strengthen a unified Yemen, seven parties announced that they will be forming a national alliance including the General People’s Congress, Yemen’s Islah Party, the Yemeni Socialist Party, the Nasserist Unionist People’s Organisation, the Justice and Construction Party, and Al-Nahda for a Political Change Movement. President Hadi is evidently taking steps to counter the UAE-supported political shift in the south.

Conflict mediation

It appears the STC are reliant upon UAE support for their political goals and do not have a clear vision on mediation. When asked what an effective political dialogue would look like, Thabet Al-Awlaki says: “the developments achieved on the ground reflect logically on the mechanisms and participation in political dialogue and negotiations”. Thabet Al-Awlaki’s comments do not correspond to any political developments which bear the merits of a successfully mediation. The only effective route could potentially be Kuwait and Oman, countries which may be deemed as most impartial to all parties.

Read more: Report: Dozens of detainees moved from secret UAE prisons in Yemen

“On our part, the south, which has been on the margins of the negotiations tables, will not be on the margins anymore, as the balances of power on the ground have shifted after 2015,” he adds.

Al-Qaeda, the Iranian threat

The STC believe that Al-Qaeda, the Houthis and other groups pose a severe threat to the southern council, because they seek a perpetual conflict and a pre-2015 dynamic. The groups “do not wish well for the south and according to their agendas, they want the south to remain a battlefield,” he says, adding: “we are aware of the danger and threat they pose. Our people will confront and fight anyone who wants to harm their independence, stability and future.”

The STC are headstrong in defending their political aspiration for independence, and will seek to finalise goals alongside the Saudi-led coalition: “We will remain partners of the Arab coalition in thwarting the Iranian expansion, combatting terrorism, and establishing security and stability in this vital area,” Thabet Al-Awlaki says.

Solving the conflict: a divided Yemen

On resolving the Yemen civil war, Thabet Al-Awlaki stresses the importance of peace and dialogue as a driver for resolution. He reiterates the need to end “the coup” by the Houthi group and restore the “legitimate authority”. This is to be conducted by the “United Nations, the Arab League and the Gulf Cooperation Council”. There is a need for “an immediate ceasefire” he continues, adding that “handing over weapons” should be a means to that – a notion the Houthi armed group told me in a previous interview would never be an option unless all sides of the conflict are doing the same.

Read more: ‘When the aggression stops, so will we’, say the Houthis

Thabet Al-Awlaki calls on all parties to respect the “will of the south” to be independent. To resolve the southern secession issue, phase one should be “the withdrawal of any northern forces” to create a stable political position. Once this occurs, the second phase should be dialogue between “the STC and the representatives of the north,” under the authority of “the United Nations, the Arab League [and] the Gulf Cooperation Council,” says Thabet Al-Awlaki, with the European Union as mediator.

There are several individuals currently detained in Sana’a prisons which the STC would like to see released including the “Minister of Defence, Major General Mahmoud Al-Subaihi, Major General Nasser Mansour, Major General Faisal Rajab, the guard of Al-Ayam newspaper foundation, Ahmad Al-Abadi Al-Marqashi,” he confirms.

Yemen’s complex conflict dynamic has slipped further into quandary as one of nine factions of the southern movement disagrees with the UAE’s activities in south Yemen, calling it an “occupation”.

As trade ports reopen after a brief closure by the Saudi-led coalition off the back of a Houthi-led missile strike on Riyadh, it’s time to seek routes for dialogue to move forward and out of the current stalemate.

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