The Southern Transitional Council (STC) announced a major reorganization on May 8, recruiting several key members of the internationally recognized government. Southern leaders then convened for the Southern Consultative Meeting in Aden, the largest such regional gathering since 1990. Nearly 300 representatives attended the four-day event, although several influential southern factions, including the Hadramawt Inclusive Conference and the National Conference for the People of the South, boycotted the proceedings. On the last day of the meeting, Presidential Leadership Council (PLC) member and STC chief Aiderous al-Zubaidi appointed three deputies, including fellow PLC members Faraj al-Bahsani and Abdelrahman al-Mahrami, and established an advisory council that included over 400 members.
Though the ostensible aim of the conference was to build consensus on the Saudi-Houthi talks, the STC’s immediate objective appears to be to establish itself as the sole representative body of the southern cause. To that end, it has wooed Fadi Baoum of the Supreme Council of the Revolutionary Movement for the Liberation and Independence of the South, a branch of the Southern Movement (Hirak) that has moved closer to the STC; Ali Haitham al-Gharib, a founder of the Hirak; and Abdelrauf Zayn al-Saqqaf and Aiderous al-Yahri, who both head their own small factions. All four were brought on as members of the STC, along with Amr al-Beidh, the son of former South Yemen president and post-unification vice president Ali Salem al-Beidh.
More surprising was the recruitment of PLC members Al-Bahsani, former governor of Hadramawt, and Al-Mahrami, also known as Abu Zaraa, a Salafi from the Yafea region of Abyan and graduate of the Dar al-Hadith school in Sa’ada who leads the UAE-backed Giants Brigades. Al-Mahrami was likely pressured to join by the UAE, which wants to bolster the STC’s position as Saudi-Houthi talks progress. He has good personal relations with Al-Zubaidi, and it is possible that his inclusion could mean that the Giants Brigades will soon operate in closer coordination with STC-aligned armed groups. Al-Bahsani was previously seen as closer to the Saudi camp, but after his removal as governor of Hadramawt in late 2022 he appears to have switched sides.
Institutionally, Al-Zubaidi is now in a much stronger position. The removal from the presidium of Nasser al-Khubaji, head of the STC negotiating team, and the appointment of figures such as Al-Zubaidi’s former bodyguard, Mu’min Hasan Ali al-Saqqaf, show him not only embracing influential factions in southern politics but replacing personal rivals with allies and friends. Among the informal reactions to the STC’s conference and charter, Abdulkhaleq Abdulla – former advisor to UAE President Mohammed bin Zayed – welcomed them as laying the practical foundations for a “southern Arab state.”
The conference’s resultant declaration, the ‘Southern National Charter,’ was surprising for its strong language, demanding the southern issue be handled separately in peace talks and given “priority in the resolution.” It also stated that northern parties should have no role in the formation of the southern negotiating body, that talks should take place in a foreign country, and that international actors should act as witnesses to a final agreement. ‘Northerners’ likely refers to the former ruling party, the General People’s Congress, and Islah. Opening statements at the conference were notable for hostile rhetoric about ‘northerners’ more broadly but did not single out the Houthi movement.
Notable absences from the conference highlight the political problems the group faces in the eastern governorates of Hadramawt and Al-Mahra. The Hadramawt Inclusive Conference refused to attend, as did Oman-backed groups in Al-Mahra, and there were few major political figures from Abyan, Shabwa, Islah, or the GPC. During a meeting at the STC-controlled Journalists’ Syndicate in Aden ahead of the gathering, officials requested that television reporters refrain from referring to it as an STC event, and instead present it as a meeting of southern factions, casting themselves as a facilitator of southern consensus. To make up for the gaps in political representation, organizers expanded attendance to student, union, regional, and civil society groups.
Other political groups predictably condemned the new charter. Commentators in Islah media attacked Al-Zubaidi for making the PLC an adjunct to the STC, which has become a “state above a state.” Aِbdelmalek al-Houthi attacked the document in a television appearance on May 7, and Houthi negotiating team member Abdelmalek al-Ejri tweeted on May 9 that it was an “escalatory move” and a “complete coup against the Yemeni republic as an entity.” On May 12, he tweeted that unity and the republic were the “most important gains in modern Yemen,” that the Saudi-led coalition wanted to divide the country into “cantons, sultanates, and sheikhdoms,” and that southern problems stemmed from the nature of unification, not the principle. He also obliquely acknowledged the STC’s preeminent position in the south: “Since your negotiating position is better than before, this will help you realize justice through unity.”
Significantly, all the major UAE-backed southern leaders are now under the STC umbrella. Nominally, the UAE still supports the PLC, and it continues to bankroll PLC member Tareq Saleh, scion of the family of former president Ali Abdullah Saleh, whose National Resistance forces now have their own UAE-funded airport on the Red Sea coast in Al-Makha. His forces have launched recruitment drives in Taiz, Marib, and Al-Bayda for new brigades.
Competition in Hadramawt
Cognizant of its limited appeal, the STC has moved repeatedly to extend its influence in Hadramawt and the east, and sought to build on its newfound momentum with a renewed push. On May 21, the group convened the sixth session of its National Assembly in the governorate capital of Mukalla, coinciding with the 29th anniversary of the southern call to split from the Republic of Yemen, which sparked the 1994 civil war. STC leaders highlighted the recent southern dialogue and charter, and their recruitment of PLC member and former governor of Hadramawt Faraj al-Bahsani. Al-Bahsani has been boycotting PLC meetings, ostensibly due to the marginalization of Hadramawt, and delivered a speech emphasizing the importance of the assembly being held in the governorate, calling it a “defining historical moment.”
The two-day assembly ended with a statement affirming the importance of Hadramawt to the STC’s southern cause and the group continuing its ongoing recruitment drive. On May 23, Sultan Ghalib Bin Saleh al-Quaiti, the last of Al-Quaiti sultans of Hadramawt, declared his support for the STC after his son, Saleh al-Quaiti, was made special adviser to STC chief Aiderous al-Zubaidi and his representative for foreign affairs. While former defense minister Mahmoud al- Subaihi, recently freed in the Houthi-government prisoner exchange, has resisted STC overtures, the group would like to net other southern players, such as current defense minister Mohsen al-Daeri, from the Al-Shuayb area in Al-Dhalea, an STC stronghold. The secessionist group also reportedly intends to form new brigades, including one or two in Hadramawt, which could also be affiliated with its Aden-based Storm Brigades.
The moves fly in the face of Saudi efforts to co-opt Hadrami groups and roll back UAE influence in the governorate. At a May 22 meeting in Riyadh with the PLC, Saudi Defense Minister Khaled bin Salman criticized Al-Zubaidi for the gatherings and harangued him specifically over STC actions in Hadramawt, which he said were targeting the PLC’s authority, according to senior government officials aware of points discussed during the meeting. Al-Zubaidi reportedly countered that the STC was “filling a void.” The Saudi government tried to respond to the assembly in Mukalla by organizing a Hadramawt meeting in Riyadh, composed of local government officials, the Hadramawt Inclusive Conference, and other groups opposed to the STC’s agenda. Convening the meeting, Governor Mabkhout bin Madi spoke of Hadramawt as a political entity in its own right, telling the group the aim was local control of its resources and “partnership, not subjugation.”
Having put its foot down to stop STC mobilization against the 1st Military Region in the Wadi Hadramawt region, which borders Saudi territory, Saudi Arabia plans to extend its influence to the coastal region, where the UAE still holds most of the cards. On May 8, the office of Governor Bin Madi issued a statement claiming to have taken control of Al-Rayyan airport from UAE-led coalition forces. The question now is whether Emirati and US forces will agree to leave the military section of the airport.
PLC chief Rashad al-Alimi’s strategy has been to try to make nice with southerners. To that end, he made a conciliatory speech from Riyadh on May 21, on the eve of the anniversary of the 1990 unification of north and south Yemen, but was widely attacked online for ceding too much ground. Advertising the PLC’s recent decision to begin the process of reinstating and compensating some 52,000 civil servants sacked after the 1994 war, Al-Alimi said southerners “are right to rally around their just cause after the unification project veered from its path and was emptied of its participatory substance and value following the war in the summer of 1994.” Al-Alimi was part of the state apparatus seen in some quarters as oppressing southerners after 1994, serving as interior minister in the government of Ali Abdullah Saleh from 2001 to 2008, when the Southern Movement first emerged, demanding respect for southerners’ rights. The reparations, which include the rehiring and promotion of some employees and retirement benefits for others, are likely an attempt by Al-Alimi to broaden his appeal among southerners as Al-Zubaidi actively seeks to consolidate control. It is unclear how or when the outstanding wages will be paid, given the inability of the Aden-based government to cover the salaries of existing state workers.
The deadlock in Saudi-Houthi talks continues, with the now-familiar question of salaries returning to the fore. Houthi negotiators want them to be paid out of government oil and gas revenues, but Saudi Arabia, with the support of the government and STC, has refused. The talks in Muscat also remain stuck on the issue of Saudi Arabia’s role as a belligerent to the conflict, as the Houthi side sees it, or mediator, as Riyadh insists. Saudi ambassador to Yemen Mohammed al-Jaber has expressed concerns about the extent of Houthi demands in recent meetings. Abdelmalek al-Houthi voiced frustration in a speech on May 23, in which he threatened a return to war. “Though we’ve given space to our brothers in Oman, we cannot continue forever while the other side thinks they’re gaining time to implement their conspiracies,” he said, adding Saudi Arabia can only achieve the stability needed for its economic ambitions through peace. The prospect of renewed war was evidently on the mind of an EU delegation to Aden, which met with Minister of Defense Mohsen al-Daeri and reportedly asked how cohesive government forces would be in the event of hostilities resuming.
There are indications of growing doubt inside the Houthi camp about the wisdom of their negotiating stance. A figure close to Houthi leader Abdelmalek al-Houthi reportedly reached out to non-Houthi figures for help in setting up a secret backchannel, without foreign involvement. The Houthi figure confided that the resumption of wholesale military operations would be difficult for the Houthi authorities at this stage, as improved Iranian and Omani relations with Saudi Arabia mean it is unlikely to find support for a major escalation of hostilities. The Houthi source also acknowledged that certain Houthi policies, such as privileging Hashemites, were problematic for other parties. Al-Jaber and chief Houthi negotiator Mohammed Abdelsalam have both indicated privately that their schedules are free in July and August – suggesting some kind of summer time-out is to be expected, allowing each side time to reflect.
However, public indications are that both parties still expect the talks to reach a positive conclusion. The UN special envoy’s office is working with the government and Houthis on plans to monitor frontlines, and has received approval from Riyadh to map scenarios for how the peace process would play out. The UN has also reached out to both the government and Houthi negotiating teams over a roadmap that would follow a permanent ceasefire. The UN seems to be following the Saudi proposal, which would involve six months for implementing salary issues, followed by a period of consultations with the different Yemeni parties ahead of the final transitional period.
Following its success in brokering the Saudi-Iran detente, China has ventured into the Yemen peace talks arena, sending a delegation to meet the Houthi team in Muscat. They reportedly hope to get the Houthis to accept the Saudi bid to recast the kingdom as mediator. The delegation told Houthi negotiators that China’s neutrality vis-a-vis US-led anti-Houthi positions at the Security Council could change in future, as could its role in helping Sana’a obtain drones via Iran. But alongside these threats, they also said China is ready to participate in Yemen’s economic recovery, including developing the oil sector – Chinese firms are reportedly angling to enter the northern governorate of Al-Jawf, where oil exploration could begin once a Saudi-Houthi deal is in place. As if on cue, official Houthi media reported on May 20 that Hong Kong-listed Chinese firm Anton Oil had signed a memorandum of understanding on exploration, but after objections by the internationally recognized government, the firm issued a statement saying it had canceled the arrangement. A politically active China could radically alter regional dynamics, particularly in the Gulf, which lies adjacent to waterways that form part of China’s Belt and Road initiative and enable its investments in Africa.
Other Developments in Brief:
Hackers Target NGOs
Cybersecurity firm Recorded Future published a report revealing cyber attacks by the hacking group OilAlpha targeting humanitarian groups, media outlets, and non-profits working in Yemen. The hackers, whose identities have not been determined but appear to have a pro-Houthi agenda, use mobile phone apps like Whatsapp to disseminate espionage software that can track call logs, SMS data, network information, and GPS data, among other information.
Yemenis Evacuated from Sudan
On May 29, the government announced it had completed the evacuation of Yemeni nationals from Sudan, repatriating nearly 2,900 adults and their children. The announcement followed an agreement with Yemenia Airways, through which multiple flights were chartered to bring people home.