The Riyadh Agreement

What is next for Yemen?

by Antonino Occhiuto

On 5 November 2019, Yemen's internationally recognised government led by President Abdu Rabu Mansur Hadi, and the secessionists of the Southern Transitional Council (STC) finalised a power-sharing deal to halt infighting in Southern Yemen. The agreement—signed in Saudi Arabia’s capital Riyadh—was brokered in a joint effort by Saudi Arabia (KSA) and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and, notably, the signing ceremony of the agreement was attended by both Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince, Mohammed bin Salman Al-Saud, (MBS) and his counterpart in Abu Dhabi, Mohammed bin Zayed Al-Nahyan (MBZ). The Yemen Government-STC agreement could be potentially a turning point in Yemen’s civil war—the conflict is now entering its 5th year—and has positive implications for further strengthening the KSA-UAE partnership. 

Ending trouble in the South

Despite the common objective of halting the advance of Iran-backed Houthi rebels towards the South the alliance between Yemen’s Government and the STC has often been an uneasy one. Hadi’s focus in maintaining the unity of Yemen as one state collides with the STC’s long-time aspiration of achieving independence for South Yemen—South Yemen had been a separate state until the unification with the North in 1990. With the Houthis seizing control in North-West Yemen and seeking to expand beyond, the STC leader, Aydaroos Al-Zubaydi, sought the opportunity to pressure a weaker central government into concessions. This resulted in the STC launching a military offensive in August 2019 to take control of the city of Aden—Yemen’s second largest city—where the government had relocated following the Houthi takeover of the country’s capital Sana’a. Fighting between militias affiliated with Yemen’s Government and STC fighters almost plunged South Yemen into a separate internal conflict. This was avoided due to the steady intervention of KSA—the main supporter of the Hadi Administration and the UAE—the state with the closest political and military partnership with the STC—which brokered a ceasefire. However, despite the halt of the fighting on the ground, the pre-conditions that led to the military clash in the South remained unaddressed. As a major issue, while President Hadi and his loyalists retain the representation and the international legitimisation within the government, the military balance tips towards the better equipped and trained STC-affiliated militias. Crucially, the agreement involves a government reshuffle, to include the separatists with equal representation, while STC-affiliated militias would be incorporated into the defence and interior ministries and placed under government control. 

Renewed focus on the Houthis

Recently, hostility and diverging objectives between their allies on the ground had certainly made the Riyadh-Abu Dhabi cooperation in Yemen more difficult. Additionally, this hindered joint efforts to prevent the Houthis and Iran from entrenching in Yemen and threatening navigation in the Bab el-Mandeb strait. Some commentators even speculated that frictions on the ground in Yemen could cause further KSA-UAE disagreements on other regional dossiers. Now the Hadi Administration-STC unification of political and security-military ranks, paves the way for the anti-Houthi camp, led militarily by KSA and the UAE, to focus on the fight against the Iran-backed militia. MBS himself described the deal as ‘a crucial step towards a political solution to end Yemen's civil war’. This is related to the fact that the unification of Yemen’s warring allied factions can strengthen the Arab coalition's hand in battling the Iran-aligned Houthis and, in the medium to long term, force the rebels into a negotiated settlement. The recently signed agreement is already facilitating synergy and coordination between allies on the ground with Saudi Arabia’s military units replacing UAE forces in Aden and other strategic locations in South Yemen to oversee and ensure the implementation of the Riyadh agreement.

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If the agreement holds, it will pay dividends to all the parties that contributed to the deal. Yemen’s Government forces and the Saudi and Emirati-led Arab coalition could soon increase their military pressure on the Houthis on both the Ta'izz and the Hodeidah fronts, the Hadi Administration would successfully maintain Yemen’s unity, and the STC would be in the position to deliver good governance to the people in Yemen’s South.

06 November 2019

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