Riyadh and Aden.. The Risk Calculations


Wed, 20-10-2021 06:41 PM, Aden

South24 Center

Prior to the return of the internationally recognized Hadi government to Aden, the conditions in the capital city looked almost stable, as it was probably among the most stable periods on the security level since the war apart from the economic and living conditions. However, since the beginning of October, the city has witnessed a series of tragic security events, top of which were the armed clashes in Crater, and the attempt to assassinate Aden Governor Ahmed Hamed Lamlas. 

These bloody incidents which rattled the capital Aden stirred a lot of questions as they proceeded the time scheduled for the return of the consensus government, and the visit of the new UN Envoy. Several sources revealed that there are close connections between prominent Saudi officials within the Arab Coalition commanders and the armed groups, led by Imam Alsalawi (Alnoubi) which sparked the latest confrontations against the STC Forces in Crater. The sources claimed that such a connection has been in the form of continuous financial and military support since 2015.  

Since the liberation of Aden from the “Houthi Militias”, the Saudi handling of the “Southern file” has been mingled with a lot of caution, doubtness and contradiction as it provided safe havens for all voices who strongly opposing the parties that control Aden and the Southern areas.  Moreover, the Saudi media outlet’s coverage of the incidents in these areas has been mostly hostile. 

Yemen as a backstage security garden 

Since its establishment, the Saudi modern state’s presence and intervention in the Yemeni affair was notable and rooted, sometimes by direct war, and others by purchasing the loyalty of influential traditional elites. It is not a surprise that the KSA has retained a long-term impact in the Yemeni affairs over the last century and the beginning of the current one, which reached its climax in the 1970s and 1980s as well as after 2015. Although Yemen is no longer a regional rival to Riyadh at the political and economic levels, the kingdom always looks at this country  as a security dilemma as it shares with it the biggest area (About 1470 km2, mostly in the southern governorates of Hadhramaut and Mahra.  

For a royal regime such as Saudi Arabia- in which keeping the hegemony and the sway of the Royal Family is among the core priorities of its perceptions, policies and apprehensions- the pattern of the “political republic regime”, affected by the Arabism national tendencies, or a mix of nationalism and socialism, which prevailed in North and South Yemen prior to the unity is being considered as a crushing danger for its national security.  

In light of that, it is widely believed among a large sector of Southerners that the Saudi support, delivered to them during the 1994-Summer War didn’t intend to win the war and the return of South Yemen as an independent state again with a unique social regime pattern in the region while the The hardline Wahhabi ideology dominated the kingdom at the time, but it just aimed at overthrowing President Ali Abdullah Saleh as a punishment for his support to the Saddam Hussein Regime during the latter’s invasion of Kuwait. Because of this position, Yemen paid a heavy price at the economical level as some million Yemeni workers were expelled from the KSA (in his memoir, Sheikh Abdullah Bin Hussein Alahmar said that King Fahd gave them the green light to move ahead to South and to quickly resolve the battle.) (1) With all the political chaos after 1990, the close relationship between Riyadh and its traditional allies has been quickly normalized after the 1994 War, including tribal and religious leaders in North Yemen, as it continued to shower them with financial support to secure their loyalty, to the extent that it paid a huge monthly salary to over 2500 tribal leaders and sheikhs through the so-called “the Saudi Special Committee” (2) including allocations for political parties such as “the Yemeni Islah party, ideologically affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood. 

The Hirak era 

After the emergence of the Southern Movement (Hirak)’s revolution in South Yemen in 2007, the KSA neither  showed any sympathy towards the Southerners nor supported their  demands  for restoring an independent Southern state in spite of the endless reprisal and killing activities by Saleh regime against them, On the contrary, a number of prominent Southern activists, residing in the KSA, were detained between 2008 - 2010 (3) after being accused of affiliation and providing support to the Southern “Hirak” and some of them were extradited to the  Saleh Regime. At the same time, it was weird that the kingdom allowed traditional Southern opponents, such as “the League Party leader” who resided in the KSA, to practice their political activities. The interests and security connections between Riyadh and Sana’a have been accelerated during that period as the latter deemed the voluntary activities of the Southern independent youth as existential threat to the “Yemeni Republic”. 

The eruption of the 2011 youth protests in a number of Arab states inspired the Southerners and gave them a great hope that the opportunity to solve their case is still possible and imminent especially in light of the big international sponsorship for the Yemeni file. However, the "Gulf Initiative" signed in Riyadh in the same year, which acted as a cornerstone in the power transition arrangements  in Yemen and  for defusing the explosive political crisis, completely ignored the Southern case.  However, after heavy criticisms by Southern activists, this had been corrected in the draft of the Initiative’s “executive mechanism” by adding only one signal to the Southern case provided that its solution should preserve the Yemeni unity,(it is remarkable that the percentage of the Southern elite signatures didn’t exceed 10%). 

This was the first and the biggest slap for a lot of Southerners who relied too much upon the post-young uprising for producing a new complete stage, especially after years of peaceful hard struggle during which they lost hundreds of their elements. Accordingly, the outcome of the National Dialogue Conference (2013-2014) was not much different in the eyes of many Southerners, as it failed to achieve the minimum demands and was carefully tailored to serve the interests and the agenda of the Yemeni influential political parties.  

The Saudi moves during that period tried to give the traditional forces “a warrior's rest” for creating a suitable environment to enable them to rearrange their ranks amid bumpy circumstances. However, this ultimately led to a lot of confusion, tension and stampede resulting in disastrous results, top of which is creating a favorable environment for the Houthis to control the capital city of Sanaa in September 2014. Subsequently, this pushed the KSA to quickly form a wide military alliance to save what can be saved. 

The Southerners - who were fighting under the flag of South Yemen before the Unity - staunchly defended their territories against the Houthi incursion. Over a short period of time, they managed to drive them out. However, the KSA, through intervening in the latest war, continued following its old strategy, by allying with the traditional forces. In spite of the big changes in its policies and attitudes during the last years, the KSA didn’t change anything related to its handling with the Yemeni file, and left it in the hands of the “Special Committee” that has managed this file for about half a century. Meanwhile, the two Coalition’s leaders, the KSA and the UAE, adopted different positions as the first tried to gather the anti-Houthi political and military forces under the flag of the Yemeni Republic while the UAE didn’t find any embarrassment in dealing with the Southern fighters carrying the flag of their previous state although Abu Dhabi’s official positions support the Yemeni Unity. The early Emirati realization of the sensitivity of the southern street may be the reason behind welcoming it, and simultaneously justifying the fierce media campaign launched by other parties in the legitimacy.

It seems that the main goal behind the Saudi direct interference in the 2015 Yemeni war is to defend itself against Iranian blockade, after receiving threats from the Houthis who have a strategic relationship with Tehran, from which they receive military and financial support. Obviously, there is a Saudi desire to show a new role in the region by adopting a different foreign policy based upon attack and initiative instead of their previous cautious defensive approach prior to King Salman’s ascension to power. This attitude aimed at breaking the established   stereotype picture about it, in addition to the desire to prove its pivotal and active role in the region after its young brothers began disobeying it and practicing big totally independent roles such as Qatar. This pushed Riyadh to exclude Qatar from the military Coalition in Yemen in 2017 due to Doha’s connections with “Coup Militias”, which contradicts the Coalition’s goals, especially fighting terrorism according to the statement. (4) However, this didn’t prevent restoring the Saudi relationships with Qatar again after the Alula Summit in January 2021, while Abu Dhabi preferred waiting and the resumption just the commercial and travel relationships. 

Dubious positions 

The Saudi position in the August 2019 events was probably the most prominent one in drawing the political and military map in Yemen. After the STC’s control of Aden, it headed toward Abyan districts on its way to the governorate of Shabwa. Meanwhile, Riyadh gave the Islah Party the green light to make advance for controlling Shabwa by supporting it with big military reinforcements from Marib, the home of the most Arab Coalition’s military bases including the units of “the National Army” controlled by Vice President Ali Mohsen Alahmar who is close to the Muslim Brotherhood. Many critic of the Saudi policy believe that this measure was one main reason behind the downfall of many Marib districts into the Houthi hands, due to the concentration of most military power in Shabwa while emptying the other areas from sufficient forces to protect them,  as well as the big debility in the ranks of the army affiliated with the internationally-recognized Hadi government during the Houthi confrontation. This accelerated the Houthi progress and their seizure of new areas since the beginning of 2020, (5) including large parts of Al Jawf governorate. Accordingly, these strategic fatal repeated mistakes made Riyadh pay a heavy price, and forced it to bear a multiplying huge bill, although it was possible to rely on the Shabwani Elite to protect Shabwa and establish security as it was before without constituting any threat on the Yemeni situation arrangements and before the UAE withdraw part of its military forces from Yemen in mid 2019. 

On the other hand, the KSA sponsored the “Riyadh Agreement” to defuse increasing tensions among the disputing ant-Houthi parties under the Coalition’s leadership represented in the Hadi government and the STC. Nevertheless, the articles of the agreement, signed in November 2019, have not been applied after an incomprehensible deadlock that lasted for 14 months. These forces the STC to declare “autonomy” in April 2020. Directly after the declaration, a mechanism for accelerating the implementation of the agreement was announced with pressure from Riyadh that guarantees a continuous cease-fire, de-escalating the tension between the two parties, and the STC’s giving up self-management. Although a small part of its political aspects has been implemented, observers believe that if the latest attempt to assassinate Lamlas succeeded, this would have destroyed the whole Riyadh Agreement as the appointment of new governor and security chief in Aden was the only article of the agreement which was implemented. The pivotal question that has to be raised in that regard is: Why didn’t Riyadh make a serious and influential pressure for implementing the other clauses of the agreement in the same way she had done for signing it?

It was clear that the Saudi approach towards South Yemen, especially in areas controlled by the STC, showed big differences in the level of support compared with the areas controlled by Islah. At all levels, the KSA has not ever tried to adopt a balanced position that enables it to manage mediation efforts among the disputing parties. One prominent example for this happened in May 2020 when a battle in Abyan erupted between the STC Forces and Islah-affiliated Forces.  Senior military sources said that Mujahed Alotaibi, the then Commander of the Arab Coalition in Aden was present among the Islah Forces in the Abyan front,  and that he was the one who gave them the military orders. It was scheduled that these forces will make a decisive victory against the STC in two days to control Aden. However, according to observers, after realizing an imminent defeat, the Saudi calculations returned playing the mediator role through pressuring the STC for not to go ahead towards other fronts in Abyan. 

In light of all these positions and policies, the dramatic deterioration of the living and humanitarian conditions in the areas under the STC’s control over the last months was not a surprise, especially in Aden where the Arab Coalition Forces are based. Due to the worsening inconceivable degraded living conditions, and the government's desire to stay outside Aden in spite of the STC apealings, the KSA appeared as if it has been a partner in imposing collective sanctions against the STC’s areas.  

Risk calculations 

It is necessary to understand the context of the Saudi contradictory positions toward South Yemen. These positions may make the Southerners lose the harvest they have gained over many years by their forces’ victories on ground if they fail to handle them properly by evaluating risks and threats. Leaving matters related to Riyadh pending and open in that way would exacerbate risks that threaten the southern vital security and would likely lead to dangerous security, military and existential setbacks not only because of the Houthi progress if the Forces belonging to Islah continue handing over areas to them as shown recently in the  Bayhan-Shabwa front, when the Saudi-led Coalition Forces didn’t move to prevent them, but also due to the return of the “terrorist” organizations’ activities after a phase of retreat in the wake of operations carried by the Security Belts and the Hadhrami and Shabwani Elites to fight them with the Coalition support, especially the UAE in 2018. 

It can be said that correcting and treating the pending complicated matters between Riyadh and Aden which is being run by the STC became a strategic necessity through which they can agree upon the broad lines that converge the two parties. Even the priorities of Riyadh differ from those of the Southerners, there are meeting points which could reduce the brunt and cost of the looming danger. 

South24 Center for News and Studies 

(1) In his memoir, Sheikh Abdullah Bin Hussein Alahmar said: “When we bid farewell to King Fahd, and after Prince Sultan and Dr. Eryani left, the Saudi King held my hand saying: “If you are able to enter Aden and resolve the situation, so do this quickly, to relieve us of embarrassment, and to put everyone in front of the fait accompli as well as preventing any intervention”. (Sheikh Abdullah bin Hussein al-Ahmar Diary issues and positions, Afaq Publishing House, Sanaa 2008, Second Edition, Page 284).

(2) Alsharae Newspaper 2012, albaath-as-party.org

(3) Activists:  Saudi authorities arrest the Southern Hirak leader Mohammed Askar.. Aden Alghad 2012 adengad.net

(4) The Arab Coalition announced the end of the Qatari participation in Yemen, Sputnik 2017  arabic.sputniknews.com

(5) Berrayals toppled the Gawf Belts. Saudi Alwatan, March 3rd 2020 alwatan.com.sa 

South YemenKSASTCMBSIndependenceArab CoalitionHouthiMaribAdenShabwaHadramout