Yemen’s Problems Mount Following ‘Self-Rule’ Declaration by the STC

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

Views from the Region


Last week’s announcement by the Southern Transitional Council (STC) that they would no longer cooperate with the Yemeni government and would govern on their own the territories under their control has caught many by surprise. The ‘self-rule’ declaration couldn’t have come at a worse time for the country, which is struggling under the weight of the COVID-19 pandemic as well as years of violence and extreme poverty and hunger. The STC joined forces with the government under a November 2019 agreement which was aimed at putting in-fighting in Southern Yemen to an end and wresting control from the Iranian-backed Houthis. It appears that less than a year later the divisions between the two camps have become irreconcilable.

Leaders around the region have called for the STC to return to the negotiating table and withdraw their self-rule declaration, since as Arab News’s Saeed Al-Batati points out the STC is unlikely to, among other things, provide for the needs of Yemenis in their territory: “Diplomats and Islamic leaders on Monday urged Yemen’s separatist Southern Transitional Council (STC) to ditch its controversial self-rule declaration and avoid plunging the war-torn country into a further spiral of violence. The move drew regional and international condemnation with analysts warning that the council would be unable to govern provinces alone…. Aden news reports suggested that STC leaders would be unable to live up to their claims that they could govern the southern provinces alone and fix basic services using revenues from local government bodies.”

But as this Yemen Online report indicates, the STC decision has only made clearer the real nature of the challenge for Yemen and the region, i.e., the deal struck in Riyadh last November only delayed the inevitable path toward the (re)division of Yemen: “The move by the Southern Transitional Council (STC) risks renewed fighting between nominal allies in a Saudi-led coalition that has been battling the Houthi group aligned to Iran for the past five years…. But Yemen’s problems are so complex that even a decisive outcome in the conflict-within-a-conflict between the STC and the Saudi-backed government might not help end the wider war. North and south Yemen united into a single state in 1990, but southern separatists tried to secede from the north in 1994.”

However, The National insists that there is no denying that the task of the central government to wrest back control of Yemeni territory from the Houthis has now only become harder: “The STC’s move complicates the ongoing fight by the coalition and the internationally recognized government against Houthi rebels who control much of the north…. The Riyadh pact on power-sharing for the south had been hailed as averting the complete break-up of the country, but with a lack of implementation, observers have said it is effectively defunct. Cracks emerged soon after it was signed, with complaints over food shortages in the south, a sharp depreciation of the currency and a lack of funds to pay public sector employees…. The STC has been a crucial ally in the long war against the Houthis, providing a large number of fighters and brigades on the front lines but the secessionists believe the south should be an independent state – as it was before unification in 1990.”

Given Iran’s backing of the Houthis and its opposition to the Saudi-led intervention in Yemen to prop up the internationally recognized government, it is not surprising that this Press TV article attempts to trace the disagreements between the STC and the Yemeni government back to the Saudi-UAE ‘divisions’: “In August 2019, heavy fighting erupted between pro-Hadi elements and the southern separatists when the latter took Aden, the temporary seat of Hadi’s regime. The Aden clashes came weeks after the UAE announced a surprise plan to withdraw part of its troops from Yemen in a major blow to its coalition allies. The fighting stopped in November 2019, when the two sides signed a Saudi-brokered agreement to end their power struggle in southern Yemen. The infighting highlighted deepening divisions between Saudi Arabia and the UAE, whose ties soured over a number of issues, including what the Yemenis view as Abu Dhabi’s intention to occupy Socotra Island and gain dominance over major waterways in the region.”

The Turkish Daily Sabah’s Yusuf Selman İnanç takes a similar approach by shining a light on the different positions that Saudi and UAE officials have taken with regards to the political allies of Yemeni president Abd Rabbuh Mansur al-Hadi “One of the main differences between the government, led by Abd Rabbuh Mansur al-Hadi, and the separatists is that the former is allied with the Islah Party, which is affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood. Although the Islah Party declared in December that it had severed ties with the Muslim Brotherhood, the UAE was in strong opposition to allying with the party since the UAE considers the Muslim Brotherhood a national security threat and a terrorist organization. Saudi Arabia’s position on the group is no different, yet Riyadh has been acting more pragmatically and is aware that the Islah Party is effective in Aden.”

There is also Al Jazeera’s Ali Younes, who suggests, without providing much in terms of hard evidence, that, despite protestations to the contrary, both “Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates would benefit from two weak states kept in perpetual conflict…. On the surface, Saudi Arabia and the UAE share the strategic objective of preventing their archenemy Iran from securing a foothold in their back yard on the Arabian Peninsula through their Houthi allies. Both, however, have different visions of Yemen’s future…. The UAE shares Saudi Arabia’s fear of a long-term Iranian presence on their borders through Tehran’s Houthi allies. The UAE’s sub-strategy, however, appears to be to eventually recreate a south Yemen state by pumping money and weapons, along with providing military training and political support, to its southern separatist allies.”

Disagreements about the future of Yemen aside, it is evident to all that, as this Khaleej Times editorial notes, it is urgent that the government and the STC find a way to come together, especially given Yemen’s ongoing health pandemic and the chronic malnourishment of its population due to years of violence and instability: “The spirit of the Riyadh Agreement signed between the Yemeni government and the Southern Transitional Council last year reiterates unity in times of strife. These are times of strife, of a different kind. An unseen enemy in the form of a new coronavirus lurks in the shadows and cannot be tamed with guns, mortars, or rocket attacks. Yemen cannot afford more conflict particularly in the time of the coronavirus that is sweeping the world…. A unity government is what Yemen needs…. The Council must step back from their aggressive moves and learn to share power in these times of crisis…. The Council must heed the voice of reason, and desist from taking unilateral decisions that call for self-rule. Escalation at this critical juncture will only add to Yemen’s woes and break the spirit of unity.”

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

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