Yemen: implications of acute political fragmentation in Hadhramaut

Summary: the STC is striving to claim the mantle of the southern secessionist movement but it faces challenges from its rivals in the south while Saudi Arabia and the UAE, with their relations over Yemen fraying, each look for advantage by supporting opposite sides.

We thank our regular contributor Helen Lackner for today’s article. A Yemen expert, Helen works as a freelance rural development consultant and is a visiting fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations. Saqi Books has published the paperback edition with new material of her Yemen In Crisis, now subtitled Devastating Conflict, Fragile Hope. It is a seminal study of the war and what lies behind it. In July 2022 Routledge published her new book Yemen: Poverty and Conflict. Helen’s most recent Arab Digest podcast is available here.

In recent months, there has been little visible progress or change in the dynamic of the direct Saudi-Huthi negotiations, still stuck on a number of basic ‘red lines’ for both sides, though exchanges are continuing, and the risks from such a deal remain (see our posting of 25 January 2023.) UN and other international efforts to bring an end to the war are at a standstill in the context of increasingly aggressive Huthi rhetoric on the one hand and the worsening disunity of the Presidential Leadership Council (PLC) on the other.

Within the Internationally Recognised Government (IRG) controlled areas, following the struggle over Shabwa in late 2021, all attention focused on Hadhramaut governorate where open military conflict between Saudi-supported forces and those of the southern separatists remains a threat. In addition to moves in military leadership and units in the broader Wadi Hadhramaut area, this conflict is noticeable in the PLC itself but also reflects the currently worsening relations between Saudi Arabia and the UAE.

In May the Southern Transitional Council (STC) tried to impose itself nationally and internationally as the sole representative of southern separatism by organizing a ‘Southern Consultative Meeting’ in Aden. Attended by more than 300 people, mostly STC members, but individuals and groups whom the STC had been wooing for some time also participated. It was followed by a show of force in Mukalla, the capital of Hadhramaut where, on the anniversary of the 1994 secession announcement, the STC held the sixth session of its ‘national assembly’ with heavy military protection from forces it brought from south-western governorates.

The sixth session of the National Assembly of the STC, in Hadramout governorate, Yemen [photo credit: STC]
The sixth session of the National Assembly of the STC, in Hadhramaut governorate, Yemen [photo credit: STC]
The ’Southern National Charter’ issued by the May Aden meeting is uncompromising, reiterating the call for a southern state according to the pre-1990 People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen (PDRY) borders, demanding separate negotiations for peace and insisting that this issue must take priority over others in the crisis. Its broad and undifferentiated anti-northern rhetoric fails to describe the Huthi movement as the prime enemy, suggesting that it may consider the IRG with equal hostility.

Overall, for the STC these moves have achieved the formal integration of a few separatist groupings, and the inclusion of some leading southern personalities in its leadership, in particular two members of the PLC. While the involvement of Faraj Bahsani (former governor of Hadhramaut) only caused minimal surprise given his less than principled political positions in recent years, that of Al Mahrami (leader of most of the Amaliqa military brigades) is widely attributed to significant pressure from the UAE authorities and their shared commitment to ‘quietist’ Salafism as well as his family’s residence there. These changes have been praised in the UAE, but many well-known and influential southern figures, separatist and other, have explicitly rejected the STC moves, thus demonstrating the fact that the STC only represents, at best, a significant fraction of the southern separatist movement. It also means that three of the eight members of the PLC are now among the leadership of the STC, an untenable situation.

The Saudis promptly responded to this challenge to its leadership of the coalition. Having initially prevented the STC-UAE supported forces from taking over military positions in the Hadhramaut interior, the Saudi authorities summoned a wide range of important Hadhrami officials and community leaders to Riyadh where they engaged in a month of negotiations to reach a common platform. The new ‘Hadhramaut National Council’ issued a ‘political and human rights’ document signed by hundreds of Hadhrami personalities on 19 June, representing a broader section of positions. Unlike the STC sponsored documents, this one makes no claim to secession, but calls for clear political, economic and social autonomy within a united Yemen.

It was presented to the public at a meeting attended by the Saudi ambassador Mohammed al-Jaber who is widely perceived to play a major role in decision-making within Yemen. Formal endorsement by President Rashad al Alimi was followed by his arrival in Mukalla on 24 June, accompanied by a large team of senior Yemeni officials, where he stated his intention of spending Eid al Adha in the governorate.

Further discussions are taking place to expand the inclusivity of this grouping by reaching out to Mahri and Shabwani politicians and civil society elements. Should these succeed and create a single entity for these three governorates, it would cover one of the regions originally promoted in the  2014 proposal for a federal state.

These developments are clearly part of an ongoing process and have by no means reached their conclusion; many Hadhrami personalities and factions have not committed to either of these groupings. The struggle between STC secessionists and those supporting the IRG in Hadhramaut and the east of the country will continue. Military confrontation is still possible. Should the situation worsen, it would also reflect further deterioration in relations between the Saudis and the Emiratis. While the Emiratis also support non-separatist elements in Yemen, in particular Tareq Saleh’s National Resistance Forces, they are still very active on the southern front, having most recently sent reinforcements of materiel to Shabwa and still remaining in control of Mukalla’s Riyan airport despite demands by the governor that it be put under the control of local authorities. The Saudis have increased their military involvement in recent months through support for the ‘Shield’ forces which are deployed throughout the south and east of the country.

Meanwhile, the economic war is continuing, mostly between the Huthis and the IRG. Here, the lack of financial support from the Saudis and the Emiratis to their allies raises questions about their real concerns and objectives. In the competition for control of Hadhramaut and other parts of the former PDRY, salary payments to the armed forces are a crucial element, particularly as Eid al Adha, with its major demands on household finances is on 28 June. To give an indication of the extent of arrears in salary payments, the Sana’a authorities have just paid the salaries of civil servants for the second half of August 2018, while in early June, the IRG stated that it will run out of funds for salary payments in less than 90 days.

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