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The Riyadh Agreement Dilemma

اقرأ المحتوى باللغة العربية

A key obstacle to nationwide peace negotiations is the formation of a Yemeni government delegation that includes the Southern Transitional Council (STC). This was meant to be a key outcome of the Saudi-brokered Riyadh Agreement the two rival parties acceded to last year. As it stands, however, successful implementation of the Riyadh Agreement requires redeploying forces loyal to Yemeni President Abdo Rabbu Mansour Hadi in Aden, his government’s interim capital, risking renewed bloody confrontations with STC-affiliated forces that would wreck the peace negotiations. This is the dilemma of the Riyadh Agreement.

On November 5, 2019, the Internationally Recognized Government of Yemen (IRG) and the Southern Transitional Council (STC) signed an agreement in Riyadh to end their military confrontations. These had raged in Aden and other southern governorates over the previous months and led to the expulsion of President Hadi’s forces from the city. The agreement – styled in the model of the 2016 Kuwait talks between the IRG and the de facto Houthi authorities of Sana’a – stipulated the return of the government to Aden, a power-sharing arrangement and the integration of STC military and security forces into the government armed forces and Ministry of Interior. Upon achieving that, the STC will be included in the national cabinet and any future government delegation to negotiate a nationwide cessation of hostilities with the armed Houthi movement, also known as Ansar Allah, who hold Sana’a and most of Yemen’s north.

Since then, implementation of the Riyadh Agreement has been frustrated by disagreement on the sequencing of implementation, an issue that is often cited as the reason for scuppering the proposed 2016 Kuwait Agreement. The STC insists on appointing a governor and a chief of police for Aden before it redeploys its forces out of the city; Hadi insists on the opposite. Distrust and demonstrably bad intentions on both sides have poisoned the implementation talks. While the two sides profess compliance, they continue to take military actions that belie their rhetoric. Fighting has continued on and off since November, with the STC escalating its rhetoric against Hadi and his government, claiming that Hadi is merely a pawn for northern terrorists (a reference to Hadi’s governing ally, the Yemeni Congregation for Reform, better known as Islah) and occupiers. Hadi’s side, on the other hand, has continued to build up its forces and move units from Marib and Hadramawt to increase pressure on the STC.

The Saudis, who rammed this agreement down the throat of both sides, seemed to have skipped their history lesson. Instead, they bought into the prevailing narrative that presents this conflict as one between a faction, supposedly dominated by northerners, who wish to preserve Yemeni unity, and southerners who are trying to rid themselves from northern domination and restore their old state. Pundits, meanwhile, note the competition between Saudi Arabia and the UAE. They also point out the declared target of the UAE to eliminate Islah. While valid, none of these characterizations captures the nuances of reality.

To understand the nature of the conflict between the Hadi government and the STC, one has to go back to January 1986. Rival factions within the Yemen Socialist Party that governed South Yemen fought a short but very bloody civil war in Aden that claimed more than 10,000 lives in two weeks. Broadly speaking, the conflict pitted two components of southern society against one another: the pastoralists of eastern Abyan and Shabwa (referred to as the Bedouins); and the farmers and warriors of Lahj and Dhalea (referred to as the Tribesmen). The fighting in 1986 was not a lone confrontation between these two distinct groups – it dates far back into history – but it was the most violent. The conflict ended with the defeat of the Abyan/Shabwa Bedouin faction and the expulsion of tens of thousands of its members – including President Hadi – to North Yemen and beyond.

This type of identity conflict is common in Yemen, and society had developed an elaborate tribal code to cope with such conflicts and mitigate their impact. However, Yemenis were shocked at the viciousness and lack of compromise of the 1986 conflict in Aden. Two factors explain its severity. In 1972, the Yemen Socialist Party (then led by the Abyan faction) adopted the Maoist model of socialism and nationalized private businesses, including small ones. Access to state jobs was the only source of livelihood left. Therefore, losing a power struggle was no longer a setback of earnings potential; it became a matter of survival.

Further exacerbating that situation, the YSP organized peasant uprisings beginning in 1972 against landowners and traditional leaders. Sultans, sheikhs, clerics and businessmen – society’s depository of traditional wisdom, accumulated over thousands of years, of conflict management and mitigation – were killed, imprisoned or chased away. In such a traditional society, where modern legal institutions and structures had not yet evolved, that action was tantamount to the society decapitating itself. So conflict could no longer be mitigated as it used to be, or as it continued to be in North Yemen.

In the aftermath of the 1986 civil war, the Bedouins, then derogatorily referred to as Zumra (liberally translated as “desperate band”), were uprooted and their homes were confiscated and occupied by the victors. They ended up in exile in North Yemen, where many were integrated into the armed forces, forming 15 brigades called the Unity Brigades. Along with president Hadi, most of his inner circle were among the survivors of that conflict.

When North and South Yemen agreed to unify in 1990, the winners of the 1986 conflict, the tribesmen, derogatorily referred to as the Toghma (liberally translated as the “Ruling Clique”), demanded that their Zumra enemies be kicked out of Sana’a. President Saleh complied and former president Ali Nasser Mohammed had to leave Yemen, while his colleagues had to disperse in distant governorates such as Sa’ada. Hadi, then viewed as an insignificant exiled officer in the department of military supplies, was spared exile but had to move to Hajjah for a few weeks.

In 1994, a simmering confrontation over the implementation of the unity agreement between President Ali Abdullah Saleh and Ali Salem al-Beedh, the former president of South Yemen who assumed the vice president’s post in the unified Republic of Yemen, erupted into a brief civil war. The three-month conflict ended with Saleh’s forces marching victoriously into Aden, with the Unity Brigades the spearhead of that army. Saleh made sure to have Southern leadership of the military campaign into southern territories, so he appointed Hadi, the least illustrious southern commander, as Minister of Defense. As expected, upon taking Aden, Saleh allowed his northern tribal allies the opportunity to loot government property, and sent several top businessmen, including Mohammed Adhban and Saleh al-Murshed, to buy back the loot on behalf of the government. Meanwhile, many exiled southern officers of the Unity Brigades went after their former rivals in the south, seizing their private homes and killing many of them. Most of the atrocities that took place in Aden in 1994 were payback for 1986.

Representation of southern Yemen after the conflict was monopolized by Hadi’s group, the Zumra. The Toghma, who represented a majority of the people of the South, were largely marginalized. For years, military and security officers of the Toghma were out of work and often out of livelihoods. Domestic and international pressure forced Saleh to pass decrees to reintegrate them into the national army. Still, Saleh’s behavior from 1986 until he resigned in 2012 indicated his intentions to continually undermine the South.[1] He appointed Hadi as head of a presidential committee charged with reintegrating forcibly discharged southern officers, knowing full well that Hadi would do his utmost to obstruct its implementation to punish his former enemies. In 2001, Saleh tried to tinker with the Zumra monopoly on southern representation by courting some Al-Dhalea figures and firing one of the Zumra’s most powerful figures, then-Minister of Interior General Hussien Arab. In response, the Zumra announced a political coalition, Caucus of the Sons of Southern and Eastern Governorates, that threatened to call for southern independence. The Zumra were no more pro-unity than the Toghma, but rather had used their alliances with northern forces and the central government in an effort to marginalize their southern competitor.

This history should make it clear that the struggle for southern Yemen is not merely a political conflict – it is a conflict of identities. Southerners, especially the Toghma-affiliate STC, are doing themselves a disservice by presenting the conflict as one between the South and the North, as denying the real dynamics of the discord makes its resolution impossible. In turn, attempting to implement the Riyadh Agreement without dealing with the underlying causes of the STC-Hadi government rivalry will only complicate the situation. The defeat of Hadi’s forces and their expulsion from Aden in 2019 served to defuse longstanding tensions in the city. Bringing them back, refilling the powder keg, no matter how clever the redeployment plans are, will risk a much worse bloodshed than happened last year – remember 1986.

Still, successful implementation of the Riyadh Agreement is seen as a prerequisite for progress toward negotiations for a nationwide cessation of hostilities. In reality, the best option to halt the current violence and maintain a fragile peace would be a modified version of the accord. On the security front, it could stipulate that the forces from each side stay in place and apart, with a token police force in Aden. STC-aligned forces could still be integrated onto the payroll of the government, addressing a major grievance of the group related to funding. Meanwhile, to avoid tensions in Aden, the seat of government could be relocated to the more pro-government confines of Sayoun or Mukalla in Hadramawt, or Al-Ghaydah in Al-Mahra.

In this way, the struggle over southern Yemen would be temporarily defused. The underlying cause of the conflict in the South, meanwhile, could then be deferred to the national reconciliation effort that must take place after the war, in a similar manner to what needs to be done in with Houthi authorities in Sana’a at the national level.

Abdulghani Al-Iryani is a senior researcher at the Sana’a Center for Strategic Studies where he focuses on the peace process, conflict analysis and transformations of the Yemeni state. He tweets at @abdulghani1959.

This commentary appeared in Struggle for the South – The Yemen Review, June 2020

The Sana’a Center for Strategic Studies is an independent think-tank that seeks to foster change through knowledge production with a focus on Yemen and the surrounding region. The Center’s publications and programs, offered in both Arabic and English, cover diplomatic, political, social, economic, military, security, humanitarian and human rights related developments, aiming to impact policy locally, regionally, and internationally.


  1. The war of 1994 was an unprecedented opportunity for Saleh to consolidate power and put down opposition under the banner of “defending unity”. For decades after that enormous gain, Saleh made sure to keep the South seething with discontent so as to use it to consolidate power again when needed. When the opposition Joint Meeting Of Parties (JMP) dared to challenge him in 2006 by fielding a presidential candidate, he began to activate the defense of unity plan by committing provocations in the south, including the targeted killing of activists and giving southern landmarks to cronies. He frequently called Southern Movement commanders to dare them to declare armed resistance. In 2007, Saed Shatour, an Abyan native that was serving under Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar’s command in Sa’ada, declared an armed resistance in Al-Mahfad, Abyan. Shatour and loyalists killed a few soldiers and blocked the road a few times, but Southern Movement leaders resisted his attempts to derail their peaceful protests. Many believed that Shatour’s actions were instigated by Saleh and Mohsen.