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De Facto Partition of Yemen Looms with Riyadh Agreement’s Continued Failure

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The Sana’a Center Editorial

The Riyadh Agreement, signed one year ago, has failed in almost every aspect of its implementation. As its promise to act as a unifying force in Yemen continues to fade into the past, the de facto partition of the country is coming evermore into focus on the horizon.

As the name suggests, the agreement was of Saudi design. Through it, the kingdom had sought to assume ultimate authority over the Yemeni forces confronting the armed Houthi movement – which had seized Yemen’s capital, Sana’a, and much of the country’s north five years earlier – and to mend the oft-violent confrontations among those parties that were undercutting the fight against their common Houthi foe.

The agreement envisioned Saudi Arabia becoming patron to the Southern Transitional Council (STC), taking over from the United Arab Emirates as Abu Dhabi drew down its military involvement in Yemen, and absorbing the STC into the internationally recognized Yemeni government. STC-affiliated fighters had driven the Yemeni government from its interim capital, Aden, in August 2019, and in exchange for relinquishing control of the city and folding their armed forces into the Yemeni government’s military and security bodies, STC figures were to receive cabinet positions, among other political and security posts, and be represented in any future government delegation attending United Nations-backed peace talks to end the wider war.

Implementation of the agreement’s political and military clauses was to begin immediately and be completed within three months – an absurdly ambitious schedule for the sweeping integration of bitter rivals into a unified body. Every implementation deadline was missed. Sporadic Saudi efforts to revive the agreement since, including throughout October, have witnessed much talk and speculation with little outcome.

Various factors have helped stall the agreement’s implementation, including intense animosity among the implementing parties, a lack of technical details regarding implementation, the sluggishness of Saudi decision-making in responding to changing circumstances on the ground, among others. A factor underlying many others, however, is a fundamental disagreement regarding the sequencing of the deal’s political and military aspects: the STC wants its political position secured before relinquishing its military advantage in parts of southern Yemen, while Yemeni President Abdo Rabbu Mansour Hadi wants military and security integration to occur before he surrenders any political authority. The parties have at various times feigned compromise while avoiding concessions that would meaningfully impact their points of leverage against the other.

A similar impasse in 2016 was a primary factor responsible for scuttling UN-backed peace talks between Hadi’s government and the armed Houthi movement as well as a peace initiative then-US Secretary of State John Kerry had pursued. Hadi insisted that the political dimensions of a post-conflict government would not be decided before Houthi forces handed over their heavy weapons and withdrew from areas they had seized, while the Houthis refused to give up their military leverage until their place in a post-conflict government was assured. In the years since, and without a wider political deal, the Houthis’ military clout has allowed them space to entrench themselves and create their own political reality in the territory they control. Today, they are clearly building the contours of a state in their image in northern Yemen, and in so doing, making the path to a reunified country increasingly fraught.

The Riyadh Agreement’s failed implementation has, similarly, created space for the STC to leverage its military control over Aden and surrounding governorates to attempt to create the conditions to fulfill its ambitions for southern Yemen’s secession. These efforts saw the group declare self-rule in southern Yemen in April, following which, and in direct contravention to the Riyadh Agreement, it took meaningful steps toward establishing a financial basis for independence by redirecting state revenues in areas it controls – such as from the Aden port – to its own newly created quasi-state financial institution.

Historic intra-southern animosities and regional identities almost certainly prevent the STC from extending its control in southern Yemen to the governorates east of Aden, and Riyadh was ultimately able to pressure the STC into rolling back assertion of self-rule. Still, the STC remains the de facto authority in south Yemen’s largest city and the nearby governorates of Lahj and Al-Dhalea and, on current trajectories, its continued political entrenchment in these areas seems likely. Meanwhile, the Yemeni government – having been ousted from the country’s capital and its interim capital – is facing increasing pressure from Houthi forces in Marib, its most significant remaining stronghold.

The Yemeni government’s continued retreat from relevance in Yemen in the months and years to come would likely further spur a de facto, patchwork partition of the country, while maintaining a single Yemeni state in legal identity only, a situation similar to Somalia. The Riyadh Agreement, while heavily flawed, likely represents the best, and perhaps even the last, viable option to reverse this course.

This editorial appeared in The Riyadh Agreement’s Fading Promise – The Yemen Review, October 2020.

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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.