The Riyadh Agreement: Saudi Arabia Takes the Helm in Southern Yemen

By Maged al-Madhaji

The most important aspect of the Riyadh Agreement that was signed in the Saudi capital today between the internationally recognized Yemeni government and the Southern Transitional Council (STC) is that, if fully implemented, it will mean that Saudi Arabia will assume ultimate responsibility for southern Yemen politically, militarily and in terms of security, with the United Arab Emirates relinquishing its authority over its Yemeni proxies there. The STC, the southern separatist group that has to date been funded and supported by the UAE, is to be absorbed into the Yemeni government, which itself will become answerable to a Saudi committee overseeing the implementation of the agreement. 

Meanwhile, UAE-backed proxy forces across south Yemen are to be absorbed into military and security units under the Yemen government’s ministries of defence and interior, respectively, with the new unified chain of command and control also being ultimately responsible to the Saudis. The apparent aim is to create a unified front with which to challenge the armed Houthi movement for control of northern governorates.

What is also apparent from the clauses in the Riyadh Agreement and the implementation timeline is that it aims to secure Aden, politically and militarily, meaningfully establish the Yemeni government and state institutions there, and then use this as a model to expand the Yemeni government’s authority across southern governorates.      

Political Aspects of the Agreement

On the political front, the most important aspect of the Riyadh Agreement is the plan to form a new government including representatives from the STC, which from its inception in May 2017 until now had refused to recognize the Yemeni government’s sovereignty and regularly challenged it for control of southern governorates. The agreement calls for a new cabinet, to be formed within 30 days of signing the agreement, that cuts the number of ministers from more than 30 to a maximum of 24. The agreement also stipulates that the government is to return to Aden and be sworn in there by President Abdo Rabbu Mansour Hadi. This is significant, given that the Yemeni government has been largely unable to operate from Aden, its interim capital in Yemen, since the outbreak of the conflict. Hadi himself, since entering exile in Riyadh in 2015, has more often visited the United States for medical treatment than he has his own country. The Riyadh Agreement mandates that the prime minister will resume working from Aden within a week of its signing and will lead the re-establishment of all government institutions in the city.  

The agreement seems aimed to improve government decision-making and make it more inclusive. It attempts this by mandating that posts at the cabinet table be filled by properly qualified technocrats well known for their integrity. While these ministers will be politically affiliated – with cabinet seats also evenly split between northerners and southerners – the candidates must have previously refrained from engaging in “inflammatory propaganda”. Importantly, these ministers must be agreed to by consultations among the various anti-Houthi political forces. This deviates from recent precedent, which has seen the makeup of the cabinet wholly decided by the president and, for all practical purposes, his allies in the Islah Party. The entire process of implementing these reforms also falls under the supervision of a specially designated Saudi committee. Thus, Saudi Arabia, via the Riyadh Agreement, is trying to present itself as the guarantor of a more functional and collaborative Yemeni government. 

At the governorate level, as well as calling for a new governor of Aden, the agreement also specifies that new governors will be named for Al-Dhalea and Abyan governorates within 30 days of the agreement being signed. The singling out of these two southern governorates is notable; as historic rivals, they are also currently bastions of support for the main parties to the agreement, Al-Dhalea for the STC and, to a lesser extent, Abyan for the Hadi government, given that it is the president’s home governorate. The current governors, Ali Moqbel Saleh in Al-Dhalea and Brigadier-General Abu Bakr Hussein Salam in Abyan, were vocal supporters of STC-aligned and government forces, respectively, during the clashes in August and September. 

In regard to public finances, the agreement stipulates that all state revenues (including oil exports, customs, etc.) shall be deposited in the central bank in Aden – an attempt to end the recent practice of several governorates collecting and keeping these revenues for local spending purposes. The Riyadh Agreement states that transparency will be ensured through having all public spending subject to parliamentary oversight, while the Supreme National Anti-Corruption Commission and the Central Organization for Control and Auditing will be reformed, restaffed with experienced and reputable individuals, and re-empowered to combat graft.

The explicit mention of parliamentary oversight of government would seem to imply that there will be a concerted effort to restore a functioning parliament in Aden. The internationally recognized Yemeni parliament held its last meeting in April in Sayoun, Hadramawt governorate, after STC-government tensions precluded the session from being held in the interim capital. 

The Riyadh Agreement’s mandates for government reforms, reasserting government control over revenues and resources, and the activation of supervisory agencies, would portend a house-cleaning of corruption and ineptitude that have stifled the government. However, the agreement does not include any clauses related to the high-level bureaucracy – such as deputy ministers and institutional managers – which are positions Hadi has stacked with patronage appointments. Thus, any improvement in oversight, transparency and accountability as a result of the Riyadh Agreement is likely to be partial at best. 

In specific regard to the STC, the Riyadh Agreement represents the first official recognition of the group as a political entity by Saudi Arabia. This is more important for the STC than the recognition of the UAE or even Western nations. Similar to other Yemeni parties, the STC leadership knows that most foreign powers’ interest and influence in Yemen is fickle; Saudi Arabia, however, will always be the superpower next door and thus the STC’s long-term viability depends on building pragmatic, neighborly relations. Importantly, the STC also gains a seat at the table, with the Yemeni government, in UN-led peace negotiations.   

Military and Security Aspects of the Agreement

The Riyadh Agreement calls for a widespread overhaul of the structure and composition of military and security forces across southern Yemen, with the apparent aim to unify command and control. Officially, most of the recomposed units will be under the Yemeni government ministries of defense and interior, but ultimately all units – save a presidential guard unit tasked with protecting both the president and STC leaders – will take directions from Riyadh. This reconfiguration is, according to the agreement, slated to be staggered over a 90-day period – an extremely ambitious timeline in an environment as fragmented as southern Yemen. 

The immediate focus of the agreement is to reset the clock on territorial advances made during clashes between STC- and Yemeni government-affiliated forces that began in August this year. The first article regarding the military and security situation calls for all forces in Aden, Abyan and Shabwa governorates to redeploy to their pre-August positions and to turn over security to local forces.  

The Riyadh agreement then focuses on securing Aden. All heavy weapons in the city held by any party – including tanks, armored vehicles, missile launchers and the like – are to be moved to bases under Saudi control within 15 days and cannot be redeployed except under Saudi approval and guidance. Within 30 days, all Yemeni government and STC-affiliated forces are to redeploy outside of Aden and take further action only under Saudi directives. Within 60 days, all of these units are to be incorporated under the Ministry of Defence and distributed according to Saudi plans – a likely reference to being sent to the frontlines to join the battle against Houthi forces in the north.   

The president is mandated to appoint security chiefs in all southern governorates according to merit and reputability, with general security in Aden to be taken up by a police force which is, within 30 days, to be reconstituted through the appointment of credible and professional personnel cherry-picked from both STC and Yemeni government forces. A similar process – of pulling from both STC and Yemeni government cadres – will be used to establish an institutional protection force that is charged specifically with guarding critical government infrastructure and institutions. Both the police and institutional protection force will fall under the Ministry of Interior. This model for reconstituting security forces is then to be applied to all governorates across the south within 60 days, according to the Riyadh Agreement, and within 90 days these forces should all be under the purview of the Interior Ministry.    

The military and security component of the Riyadh Agreement seems clearly intended to project a new reality of Saudi security control in southern Yemen. While the text of the agreement repeatedly makes reference to the “coalition” which began the regional military intervention in Yemen, given the UAE’s continuing withdrawal of forces the only significant power left in the consortium is Saudi Arabia. The Riyadh Agreement thus enshrines a new military dynamic; one where Riyadh assumes full oversight of all anti-Houthi forces in southern Yemen, most importantly supervising the movement of, and weapons supplied to, STC-aligned forces that had previously been beholden to Abu Dhabi. 

Looking Ahead

Despite Saudi Arabia’s many missteps in Yemen, it has throughout the conflict proven relatively less reckless than its erstwhile partner the UAE – which, among other things, propped up militias and other groups that actively undermined the same Yemeni government Abu Dhabi was supposedly in Yemen to support. 

While the Riyadh Agreement should position Saudi Arabia as the uncontested authority in southern Yemen, many factors still stand against the agreement’s success. These include: the intense animosities among parties in southern Yemen that need to be bridged, the sweeping radical reforms the Riyadh Agreement calls for, the highly ambitious timelines for implementation, as well as the tendency for bureaucracy-laden Saudi decision-making to be irresponsive to evolving dynamics on the ground. 

The agreement must also deal with the unwritten technicalities of how it should be implemented. How exactly will the STC and Yemeni government forces be integrated? How will the security forces charged with securing Aden be selected? Who will be the commanders? These are among the questions the Riyadh Agreement leaves unaddressed, and ones that will likely be the most contentious between the STC and the Hadi government. Saudi Arabia has not, at least publicly, laid out a matrix or mechanism by which these might be resolved.   

Maged Al-Madhaji is a co-founder and executive director of the Sana’a Center for Strategic Studies. He tweets at @Malmadhji.


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 and security related developments, aiming to impact policy locally, regionally, and internationally.

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