One year ago, on November 5, 2019, the internationally recognized government of Yemen and the Southern Transitional Council (STC) signed the Riyadh Agreement.
The agreement was intended to do two things at once. First, and most immediately, it was designed to halt the military confrontation between President Abdo Rabbu Mansour Hadi’s forces and STC-aligned troops, which had reignited in August 2019, allowing the STC to take control of Aden as well as parts of Shabwa and Abyan. Second, the Riyadh Agreement was supposed to smooth over differences between Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and their two allies on the ground.
In brokering the deal, Saudi Arabia hoped to end the near-constant conflict within the anti-Houthi alliance, re-establish a strategic relationship with the UAE in southern Yemen, integrate STC forces into a unified Yemeni military, and further the prospect of a federal state in Yemen.
Both local parties — Hadi and the STC — as well as the international community welcomed the Riyadh Agreement when it was signed last November. The agreement focused on three things: forming a national partnership cabinet, changing local authorities and security chiefs in all southern governorates to improve the livelihood situation in liberated governorates, and restructuring military and security forces in the south as a way of bringing all units under the umbrella of either the Ministry of Defense or the Ministry of the Interior.
One year on, none of these steps has been achieved. President Hadi has taken a few small steps, such as appointing Ahmed Lamlas, the STC secretary general, as governor of Aden. But Aden’s new security chief, Ahmed al-Hamidi, has not yet been able to assume his position. Hadi’s government and the STC have also agreed, in principle, to divide ministerial posts, but only a few of these have been named.
In attempting to midwife the process, Saudi Arabia has been faced with the predictable problem of which issue to deal with first: security or politics. The STC insists that a cabinet has to precede any redeployment of forces, while Hadi’s government is equally adamant that the STC must withdraw its forces from Aden and other flashpoint areas before a cabinet is formed. Neither trusts the other — or Saudi Arabia — enough to take the first step, and Saudi appeals that withdrawal and cabinet formation take place in concert have so far fallen on deaf ears.
In mid-2020, after months of tension, the STC and Hadi did sign a “mechanism to expedite the implementation of the Riyadh Agreement.” The mechanism laid out a three phase approach. First, end the clashes in Abyan. Second, move Hadi’s forces into Aden, withdraw STC forces from Aden, and redeploy them in Lahj and al-Dhalea. Third, declare the new cabinet, which will integrate STC forces into the defense and interior ministries. But much like the Riyadh Agreement itself, the “mechanism to expedite” has not achieved its aims.
There are three reasons for this. First, neither Hadi’s government nor the STC has been willing to commit to a timeframe. Both sides distrust the other. Second, the formation of a new “unity” cabinet may solve little. Decision making will continue to be monopolized by Hadi, Vice President Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar, and their inner circle regardless of how many STC officials gain seats. Third, the redeployment of STC forces does not mean that these forces will hand over their weapons or renounce their goal of complete secession. Particularly as STC leaders have consistently stated that they view the Riyadh Agreement as an interim step and not a final deal.
Still, Saudi Arabia retains the power and influence, through its economic and military power on the ground, to at least push the two sides to implement a token deal.
Over the past year, Saudi Arabia succeeded in overcoming a number of political obstacles. It pressured the STC to walk back its declaration of self-rule and convinced Hadi to halt military operations in Abyan in June. Saudi Arabia has demonstrated its influence and power at the regional level, but that has yet to translate into success on the ground, where the kingdom is using a carrot-and-stick approach to keeping its allies in line. Reconstruction projections and infrastructure funds are being held out as an enticement, while Saudi Arabia has said that it would use coalition aircraft to deter future clashes.
One year ago, the Riyadh Agreement represented the best of a series of bad options. In a very narrow sense, it succeeded in halting the military confrontation that began in August 2019. But Saudi Arabia has not been able to transform that cease-fire into lasting peace between Hadi and the STC.
Hussam Radman is a journalist and Sana’a Center research fellow who focuses on southern Yemeni politics and militant Islamist groups. He tweets at @hu_rdman.
This commentary first appeared in The Riyadh Agreement’s Fading Promise – The Yemen Review, October 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.