Why Has Saudi Arabia Sought to Establish «Demographic Entities» in South Yemen?


Sun, 16-07-2023 11:47 AM, Aden Time

It can be said that Saudi Arabia undoubtedly attempts to strengthen the role of Rashad Al-Alimi politically and militarily. 

Farida Ahmed (South24)

The establishment of a new entity in Hadramout in late May has increased the complications of the political scene in South Yemen. Along with the multiplicity of entities representing different political parties that emerged before or after the war, an operation and calls to establish similar entities on a demographic basis are underway in Aden and Shabwa at an accelerated pace. Although Hadramout in particular kept distancing itself from such divisions and projects and no one spoke in its name regionally except for voices with limited influence, the relentless Saudi efforts have pushed towards the establishment of this project and paved the circumstances for producing a Hadrami council. Many opposing Hadrami voices believe that the council was not established in light of disciplined mechanisms and procedures as different Hadrami political and popular active parties have not participated in it. 

Many Hadrami forces said that the new Hadrami council is obviously dominated by the Islamic Islah Party. In a recent television interview, Heidar Abu Bakr Al-Attas, who served as the Prime Minister during the former South Yemen State before the unity, said: “The new council is dominated by the Islah Party. This is very dangerous as it is under the ceiling of the Islah Party not the ceiling of Hadramout”. It seems like a real attempt from the Islah Party to restore a role it lost after the political transition operation in April 2022 which stripped it from the advantages of clout and domination over the decision-making of the former Yemeni presidency. It may find that its comeback through a gate that would establish new demographic identities within South Yemen will put it again in a more influential position on the local map.

The presence of the First Military District (FMD) in the Wadi and Desert of Hadramout, which is similarly dominated by the Islah party, has contributed to the latter's role in the region. This is despite the Hadrami popular movement which opposes the FMD and the Hadramis’s years of calls to drive them out accusing them of hosting and covering up AQAP members. Additionally, most of its members belong to Northern governorates and not Hadrami people. Meanwhile, the Hadramis have asked for letting them run their own districts militarily.

On June 25, the Chairman of the Presidential Leadership Council (PLC), Rashad Al-Alimi, visited Hadramout accompanied by a Saudi delegation. According to the government’s official agency, the visit came to inspect the service and development conditions and launch some projects in the governorate. Nonetheless, speculations and questions remained in place about the real reasons for the visit at this time, especially after the establishment of the new Hadrami council. Given Al-Alimi's statements which pointed to the matter of Hadramout's self-governance and running its financial, administrative, and security affairs, this can be justified from two sides. The first one is his statements about the security administration, not the military one. This means two things; to keep the administration of the FMD in the Wadi and Desert of Hadramout in the hands of the Muslim Brotherhood or to replace it with the Saudi-backed Nation Shield Forces. On the other hand, the Northern parties in the internationally-recognized government apparently support the experience of demographic divisions and self-administrations that can be generalized to the Southern governorates only. However, the Northern forces rule out these discussions in North Yemen although the popular voices in some of its areas such as Tihama call for a special status for them and their cause.

This leads to an understanding that the main purpose of the project of establishing entities on a demographic basis in South Yemen is to pour the Southern stance toward peace inside the Northern template. These entities may represent their areas in the negotiations without carrying the Southern cause or taking into account its special negotiation framework. They replace it with frameworks for localities that focus on economic and security federalism without politics. They deduct from the Southern share (Parity between North and Yemen). Therefore, this contradicts the Southern groups' efforts to gather their ranks through the Southern Transitional Council (STC) sponsored Southern dialogue that extended for more than two years internally and externally. In May, the latter reached an advanced stage of unity in vision and goal to prepare for entering a peaceful process with one Southern political front and a special negotiation framework that represents it. It seems that some local and regional parties which oppose the South project tacitly seek to weaken the Southern front internally by supporting the demographic division projects. On the surface, they pretend to care for the people of the governorates they seek to divide. They benefit from some factors including time, the deteriorating economic situation, and the forces opposing the project of one independent federal state.

Northern stance towards the new Southern entities

Many Southerners generally feel that there is a plot to tear the social fabric in the Southern governorates. This is through creating new entities that adopt confrontational political positions which differ from the stance of the street regarding national identity. During a long popular and political struggle over three decades, an inclusive national identity was formed in all Southern governorates related to restoring the pre-1990 state. Furthermore, it sticks to a federal state within the framework of South Yemen that gives the governorates the right to manage governorates by themselves in security, administration, and economic fields. Meanwhile, the new entities are formed to confront this popular project and try to deduct from its grassroots stock under the pretext of the governorates’ federal right to run their own affairs without a clear national identity for these entities. These emergent entities apparently want to abolish the Southern identity from the popular dictionary and avoid clashes with the public mood by determining a stance toward unity as identity. Their only addition is the repetition of the local demands for federal rights but without a national frame.

This ambiguity can stir chaos between individuals and the main components within each governorate. On the other hand, the Northern positions that support applying the Hadramout experience in other Southern governorates can be noted, especially by both the General People's Congress and the Islah parties. The latter leads the current scene in Hadramout through local partisan leaders who are considered second rank leaders and who have ties with the first class of these central parties that belong to North at a time when the Houthi militias control some of these leaders' areas.

It seems that the political parties, foremost of which is the Islah Party, agree with the phased role carried out by Al-Alimi despite the sensitivity of the relationship

It can be said that Saudi Arabia undoubtedly attempts to strengthen the role of Rashad Al-Alimi politically and militarily. His latest visit to Hadramout is one of these aspects. It seems that the political parties, foremost of which is the Islah Party, agree with the phased role carried out by Al-Alimi despite the sensitive nature of the relationship between the latter and the Muslim Brotherhood that controls a large part of Taiz. For the Muslim Brotherhood, Al-Alimi is a rival who should not be underestimated as he can deduct from their political and military stock. He belongs to the governorate which can serve as a social incubator for him. This threatens their existence as a group that has political, security, and military clout there. Taiz is considered its main starting point and the last bastion in North Yemen. Although the group controls part of Marib, It has a bigger grip on Taiz. Given such domination, they won’t allow any possible threats by Al-Alimi or from less important figures such as Adnan Al-Hamadi.

For Al-Alimi, his political confrontation with the STC is more important currently as the latter is part of the PLC. This confrontation is related to the daily work circle within the presidency domain. The tension in the relationships between the two parties was initially a little one but it has quickly turned to be an undeclared conflict which has been amplified by the anti-STC media outlets. On the other hand, the Southern media platforms have imitated the messages of their foe. This has further worsened the relationship.

Saudi Arabia and STC: between the possible and the impossible 

Saudi Arabia and other regional states have not been yet aware that reaching a comprehensive and sustainable peace in Yemen is related to solving the Southern issue. This will only be attainable by providing factors that secure a more stable environment which is not based on separate demographic divisions. The latter can further complicate the scene and endanger the stability of the neighboring countries including the KSA and Oman. Instead of supporting understandings and intra-Southern dialogue among the Southern political parties, Riyadh has tried to fragment them and establish new entities which are more harmonious and submissive to Saudi decisions. Riyadh apparently believes that the establishment of local councils under its sponsorship would enhance the idea of a unified Yemen including the Houthis and would help the Kingdom to exit the Yemen war more quickly. The latter has become a heavy burden for Saudi Arabia amid international reports which confirms that Yemen is still among the biggest humanitarian crises in the world as 21.6 million people or two-thirds of the population need humanitarian aid. 

Saudi Arabia and other regional states have not been yet aware that reaching a comprehensive and sustainable peace in Yemen is related to solving the South issue.

By all means, the KSA’s exit from the Yemen war will be difficult if the Houthis continue to seize power in North Yemen. Riyadh still considers that the STC’s project clashes with its one in Yemen. Moreover, there is a close alliance between the STC and the UAE. Saudi Arabia still doesn't trust the STC as a local ally. Thus, it believes that its engagement with the Houthis in a peace process that can drastically end the conflict will be only attained by creating entities in harmony with its approaches. The Saudi plan may relatively succeed in Hadramout because the political and military situation has not yet been resolved. This is despite the popular protests like what recently happened in Homeland Day on July 7 which is not the last manifestation of rejection. Many Hadramis in more than 6 big cities confirmed that they support the project of an independent South state. However, the Saudi insistence to clone similar entities in other Southern governorates are apparently in place, especially in the governorates which serve as bastions for the STC, foremost of which is Aden. It is not clear how this scene will end. International observers doubt that the new councils, formed by Saudi Arabia in Hadramout and Aden, would affect the political affiliations in South Yemen, especially since similar efforts by it previously failed.

One should admit that the Saudi role in South Yemen is very dangerous as it adopts a project which tears the local communities into smaller entities. This would result in the multiplicity of regional identities that would ultimately create unpredictable internal conflicts. Given the current data, the Saudi position is clear regarding the political and military influence in Hadramout. For this purpose, Riyadh can support military forces under its direct sponsorship such as the “Nation Shield Forces”. It can also back forces based on interim agreements such as the Muslim Brotherhood forces in the FMD. However, it won’t support other parties which are not in harmony with its new project. The kingdom believes that they threaten it and its phased project. Nonetheless, the presence and strengthening of the STC may make it the most supportive party of Saudi Arabia in the long run. This is based on previous experiences which proved that the political project adopting the South independence was the most militarily decisive in the face of the Houthis and to counter projects that threaten regional security.

One should admit that the Saudi role in South Yemen is very dangerous as it adopts a project which tears the local communities into smaller entities.

On July 9, PLC Vice President and STC President Aidrous Al-Zubaidi held an expansive meeting with the participation of Southern military and security leaders. He said that "the armed forces, the Southern security bodies and the Southern Resistance will make their duty to protect Hadramout from terrorism at the right time". This looks like a veiled statement, especially after the KSA actually threatened to target any Southern forces that try to reach the FMD forces in the valley and the desert of Hadramout according to informed sources.

However, the STC is not willing to collide with the current Saudi project in Yemen. It always prefers to maintain a return point and reduce risks. This is the STC's core dilemma that has allowed Saudi Arabia and other Southern parties to be bolder in their moves. Furthermore, standing behind Saudi Arabia to weaken the STC will be in the interest of the Northern parties in the internationally-recognized government as well as the attempt to strip its powers in Aden. More seriously, the conflict will be depicted as if it is with the STC only, not between North and South. The newly-formed Southern parties with their preconceived position against the STC will be in harmony with this wave.

Undoubtedly, Saudi Arabia seeks to reconfigure the scene according to a vision related to the arrangements for a final political settlement in Yemen. It seems that all current events are linked to the matter of Southern representation in the peace consultations and creating new parties affiliated with Saudi Arabia to pass the most proper deals between it and the Houthis. It won't be likely able to do that without stripping the influence from the STC as the main representative in the consultations about South Yemen. This is because it is among the main entities that hinder any understanding away from the Southern entitlements. The core Saudi theme has sought to deliver a message that no one, in particular, in particular represents South Yemen. This simply means diluting the South issue amid a pile of Saudi-sponsored councils.

Accordingly, the STC's position is still difficult. It may face a big challenge in the next period, especially since its regional ally withdrew from the scene earlier. If the political situations develop along with the economic collapse at such a big pace in other Southern governorates, this can denote an armed military action against the STC with a possible contribution of the Houthis and the forces supported by the KSA.

It is important for Southerners, especially the STC to find out their options amid current developments and put all possibilities politically and militarily. They should attempt to reach compatible formulas between them and other Southern parties in harmony with the vision and goal to guarantee Southern representation before the final solution consultations in Yemen. It should maintain the gains achieved by Southerners during the years of conflict and ensure obtaining their political and military entitlements as any political settlement that doesn't include these elements will certainly fail.

Farida Ahmed 

South24 Center for News and Studies Executive Director

Saudi ArabiaSaudi ambassadorSouth YemenSTCSouthern ForcesPeaceYemenHouthisIslah Party