On 1 August, the Houthi movement based in the Yemeni capital of Sanaa launched a complex ballistic missile and drone attack on a military parade in the southern port city of Aden, killing at least 40 people, including UAE-backed commander Brigadier General Monier Al-Yafie. The offensive represented the first significant attack on Yemeni forces aligned with the Saudi-led coalition in the south since the Houthis were expelled from Aden in 2015.
This attack led to widespread anger in the south of Yemen, in particular within the separatist Southern Transitional Council (STC), which levelled partial blame on the Islamist Islah Party as being complicit in seeking to gain a stronger position in the strategically important city. However, both groups are part of a larger alliance seeking to push back the Houthis from the north and the occupied capital.
Adding to the distrust of the government is the fact that the current Vice President, Ali Mohsen Al-Ahmar, has ties to Islah and is also believed to have played a key role under the previous Ali Abdullah Saleh regime in facilitating the settling of Al-Qaeda fighters in the south in an attempt to keep the region destabilised and politically weak, thus hampering any potential secessionist aspirations.
However, on 10 August, frustrated by the incompetence and corruption of the Saudi-backed government of President Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi, the UAE-supported STC forces seized control of Aden, which until then had served as the interim seat of power for the Yemeni government in exile. Naturally, this has caused an internal rift between the two Gulf patrons who have since both increased their military presence in the country.
In the eyes of many southern Yemenis who have been campaigning peacefully since at least 2007 for secession under the Hirak umbrella movement, this development signifies a big step in the path towards the revival of a South Yemen state. The People's Democratic Republic of Yemen existed from 1967 to 1990, when it was reunited with the north and was the only communist Arab country in the world.
The political landscape has changed drastically since the days of Soviet patronage but assisting me in understanding the current, fluid situation was the UK spokesperson for the STC, Saleh Al-Noud, who spoke to MEMO over the weekend at a pro-UAE demonstration in London.
"It's changing," Al-Noud told me, in reference to unfolding events. "One day morale is very high, the next it's apprehensive." He added that the movement has come a long way in seeking its objectives. Widely understood to mean political separation, "These days, in reality, it's just towards having some form of stability and autonomy away from the so-called legitimate government," he explained.
Saudi versus the UAE?
However, these ambitions are at odds with the pro-unity stance of coalition leader Saudi Arabia and the Yemeni government, which called on the UAE to cease its air strikes, whilst the Saudis have warned that any attempts to destabilise Yemen equate to a threat on the Kingdom; that there is "no alternative" to Hadi. On the other hand, the UAE defends its position by claiming that it is targeting "terrorist militias".
When asked about these tensions, the STC spokesperson acknowledged that "To a degree, I think there is a slight difference." The UAE, he said, is clear in what it wants to achieve in Yemen in terms of creating stability and fighting against terrorism. "Evidence has shown that there is some relation with the legitimate government… it's a card that it has played in the past," he insisted, in reference to the Islah links and Al-Qaeda affiliations.
Proof of ongoing collaboration, Al-Noud suggested, is a "massive army in the city of Marib" which is an Islah stronghold situated in a northern province of the same name. "They should be fighting with the coalition against the Houthis," but when tensions arose in the south, the Islah militia headed in that direction, despite being "ready, able to fight and fully equipped" to tackle the Houthis.
A few days prior to this, a fatwa — religious edict — was circulated on social media. It is believed to have been issued by the Board of Yemeni Ulema (religious scholars), condemning the UAE for its aggression and calling for the elimination of the STC "insurgency". It is plausible that this may have had some relation to the Islah moving south.
"It's a repeat of the language used in 1994," said Saleh Al-Noud, alluding to the armed struggle for separation during the Yemen Civil War following unification four years earlier. The Islah Party was used back then to mobilise the north against the south, which was a force to be reckoned with.
The circumstances, though, are different now, he added. Not only are the southern separatists stronger compared with then, but these "Ulema" are widely seen to be "politically motivated and not held in such high esteem as they were."
The Saudis were not exclusive in their support of the Muslim Brotherhood-aligned Islah Party in this current conflict. "Initially, even the Emiratis backed it," explained Al-Noud, but once it became clear that they had their own agenda, such support ended.
Indeed there is speculation that with both countries deploying more troops in the south, such actions may raise the prospects for clashes and escalation of the conflict from mere disagreements to something more serious between the Gulf neighbours.
"I don't think they will come to that," said Al-Noud dismissively. He believes that the Saudis have bigger concerns in supporting the so-called legitimate government. "It's what gives the Saudis and the coalition the mandate to be involved." Hence it is in Saudi interests to keep it going. The reality is, though, that it is a fragile government which presents the Saudis with a serious problem in terms of maintaining some legitimacy and involvement."
Concerning the contested city of Aden, its British-based spokesperson says that the STC is open to dialogue with the Yemeni government and has "no problem with a government," but it needs to be "restructured and re-evaluated." He went as far as to say that the STC is open to Hadi remaining in authority over the south, on the condition that it is a "transitional period and in that period, we run the south," including its own security.
It would be a regional government, with no military presence in the south, so that it can focus more on the north to show that it has some legitimacy. Al-Noud argued that the Saudis must have "some effort towards the north", otherwise, he asked, what is the point in their continual support of the Yemeni government?
The UAE, of course, has courted controversy itself throughout the conflict, not least over allegations of abuse and torture in its secretly-run prisons. It has also faced opposition from the local inhabitants of the Yemeni island of Socotra, who perceive the UAE presence as an occupation, especially due to the establishment of a military base and the deployment of foreign mercenaries.
Al-Noud is adamant, however, that the island will remain part of Yemen's sovereign territory despite what "Islah and the government" have insinuated about the UAE trying to exert control there. Some speculate that it is for expanding trade routes in the Indian Ocean.
He defended the UAE presence in Socotra in light of its work in improving the infrastructure and development, which he sees as a positive thing. He is not worried about the future status of the island.
Regarding the Houthis from the north, who have thus far shown no indication of losing their grip on the capital Sanaa or being pushed back to their stronghold of Saada, it was reasonable to ask Al-Noud what threat they will pose to a possible future state of South Yemen.
The Houthis will remain in the north for the foreseeable future, he contended, adding that the Saudis and UAE are themselves aware of this fact. That is why keeping the south clear is the priority and a "partial victory" for the coalition.
Taking a pragmatic stance, Al-Noud does not believe that there will be an outright victory against the Houthis, especially militarily. He agrees that recent reports of the US reaching out to the Houthis in an attempt to resolve the conflict illustrates the failures of the Saudi-led coalition in fighting against the militia "rebels".
A key difference in Yemen's northern provinces is that the coalition lacks the popular support it enjoys in the south to be rid of the Houthis. Furthermore, there is a cultural and societal difference in the north and "an acceptance of the Houthis, as there is a Zaydi presence there." The Zaydiyya are a Shia sect to which the Houthi movement adheres, accounting for approximately 30 per cent of the Yemeni population.
Should an independent or semi-autonomous South Yemen emerge, it would be interesting to see what political ideology it would ascribe to, based on its past.
Saleh Al-Noud recognises that the times have changed, and that although Communism brought about positive changes including "rule of law and good governance" it was also autocratic and the role of Islam in society was phased out. For southern Yemenis, "Islam is the heart of life" so a secular country simply would not last in his view, although he added that it would be "the right form of Islam, where Islam is in the heart of the people" distinguishing it from political parties using religion to get to power.
Summarising what the people of south Yemen want, he confirmed the following: "Electricity, water, schools, healthcare and a decent standard of living." He quipped that they don't want democracy. "We just want pride… when your pride has been absolutely decimated, you think to yourself, I just want a bit of pride."
He remains both realistic and optimistic. "It is a broken society that needs healing, but we are a resilient people and it wouldn't take too long for us to reorganise ourselves." Revival, not revolution, should be on the agenda for southern Yemen.