Two re-emergent states on opposite shores of the Gulf of Aden are attempting to rise above the ashes of genocidal civil wars to establish themselves among the ranks of nations. On the northern coast of the Gulf of Aden are forces that have been fighting for the restoral of the independence of South Yemen. These secessionists recently succeeded in taking over key government posts in the city of Aden from forces loyal to the Saudi puppet government of Yemeni President Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi, who ostensibly rules over Yemen from Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. However, Hadi is a puppet leader without territory. If it were not for Saudi control over Hadi and his exiled regime, the so-called president and government of Yemen would not enjoy its current international recognition by the United Nations and major countries.
Even the most seasoned Middle East expert could be forgiven if the situation in Yemen seems confusing and bewildering. There are almost a dozen competing parties all jockeying for all or part of a post-civil way Yemen.
Houthi rebels currently rule over much of North Yemen, which unified with South Yemen in 1990 in what most South Yemenis later viewed as an uneven shotgun marriage that gave greater powers to the North. A civil war between the North and South broke out in 1994, which resulted in a rather quick victory for the North. The Saudis do not recognize the Houthi-led government that rules from Sana’a, the capital of North Yemen, because they see it as aligned with Iran. It is true that the Houthis’ Zaidi sect of Islam has much in common with the dominant Shi’a sect of Iran. However, a series of Zaidi Imams ruled the Mutawakkilite Kingdom of Yemen from 1911 until 1968, when pro-Egyptian army officers seized power and declared the Yemen Arab Republic. The attempt by certain quarters to describe the Houthi government as an inextricable Iranian proxy belies ignorance about the history of North Yemen.
In 1967, Britain granted full independence to neighboring South Arabia, a collection of British-protected princely states, emirates, and sultanates, which became South Yemen. In 1978, Ali Abdullah Saleh became the president of the Yemen Arab Republic (North Yemen). Relations between North and South Yemen were never close. In fact, fighting broke out between the two countries in 1979. In 1990, the two countries were “re-unified,” but that was an incorrect term because the two countries had never been unified in the first place. President Saleh instituted a policy of cronyism that benefited the north’s Sunni Muslim population at the expense of the minority Zaidis, who still resented the fall of their Imam as the leader of North Yemen, and South Yemenis, who tended to be more secular-minded as a result of independent South Yemen’s Marxist-Leninist policies instituted by the ruling Yemen Socialist Party. Providing the financial largesse for Saleh to pay off, with bribes, tribal chiefs and other actors supporting the regime in Sana’a was Saudi Arabia.
After the failure of South Yemen to reassert its independence in 1994, all political power in Yemen, north and south, was in the hands of Saleh and his rubber stamp political party, the General People’s Congress. In 2004, Hussein Badreddin al-Houthi, the leader of the Zaidis, who had grown tired of Saleh’s heavy-handed and corrupt rule, launched a rebellion against the Sana’s government.
In 2009, Yemen was faced with a coordinated terrorist campaign by Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). However, the Saleh government, aided by the Saudis, put greater effort into attacking the Houthis than in suppressing AQAP. In fact, the Houthis accused Saleh and the Saudis of backing the Al Qaeda forces as a way to prevent the Zaidis from taking control of North Yemen and South Yemeni secessionists from gaining ground in Aden and other regions of South Yemen. Also, in 2009, the United States began a military campaign against Al Qaeda forces in South Yemen using Special Forces, cruise missiles, and armed drones. There is a belief by some South Yemenis that Washington, in striking alleged Al Qaeda forces, was actually attacking southern separatist tribal groups.
In 2011, Saleh was forced from power and he was succeeded by his vice president, Hadi, who was a native South Yemeni. In 2014, Houthi forces took control in Sana’a and forced Hadi to declare a “unity” government that included the Houthis. Infighting between Hadi and Houthi leader Mohammed Ali al-Houthi resulted in Hadi’s ouster from power and the Houthis declaring a Revolutionary Committee in charge of Yemen. The United Nations, the United States, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE refused to recognize the Houthi government but continued to recognize Hadi, who fled to Aden and declared the city to be Yemen’s temporary seat of government.
In 2015, the Islamic State of Syria and the Levant (ISIL) opened a Yemeni franchise. However, continued military attacks by Saudi and United Arab Emirates forces on the Houthis suggested that the Saudi-led Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) was solely interested in attacking the Houthis. South Yemen’s secessionist Southern Transitional Council (STC), while supportive of Hadi and the GCC’s “Operation Decisive Storm” against the Houthis, became wary of future Saudi intentions regarding the cause of South Yemeni independence restoration. The STC found an ally in the UAE, which broke with the Saudi policy of seeking to restore Hadi to the presidency of a unified North and South Yemen.
After seizing control of Aden, the forces of the UAE-backed Security Belt Forces (SBF) cleaned out remaining resistance from Hadi loyalists in the strategic port city, the international airport, and its outskirts. The SBF also captured the presidential palace, a symbolic victory aimed at Hadi, who had previously resided in the palace as the ruler of all of Yemen. Hadi government officials fled to Riyadh. The SBF is seen as the military muscle behind the STC. The Saudis, not wishing to break completely with its erstwhile close UAE ally, appeared resigned to accept South Yemeni control of Aden. The flag of the former independent South Yemen was seen flying from government buildings seized by the SBF.
South Yemen’s secessionist forces are hoping to be extended diplomatic recognition by some of the country’s former allies, including China, Cuba, Pakistan, Syria, and Vietnam.
If the UAE moves to declare itself the de facto ruler of Aden and the South Yemeni island of Socotra, it may face a rebellion from its STC and SBF allies. The UAE has all but taken control of Socotra, with UAE flags flying from government buildings in the island’s capital of Hadibu. A sizable UAE force, in addition to a smaller contingent of Saudis, are reportedly on Socotra to secure the airport and seaport. The presence of Yemeni forces loyal to Hadi, as well as Saudi and UAE forces on Socotra, does not sit well with the presumptive sultan of the former Mahra Sultanate of Qishn and Socotra, abolished in 1967 when South Yemen’s socialist government took over from the departing British. The former sultan and the Mahra General Council, over which he has influence, want a restoral of independence for the Mahra Sultanate. In this, the sultan is relying on old royal bonds to the Sultanate of Oman and the seven emirates that make up the UAE. Other former sultanates also harbor a desire for restoration to their past glory. One is the inland Kathiri State of Seiyun in Hadhramaut. A tribal force loyal to the STC and SBF, the Hadrami Elite Forces, has a number of Kathiri loyalists. Another tribal force, the Shabwa Elite Forces, has sympathies for the former Qu’aiti Sultanate of Shihr and Mukalla. Members of the Qu’aiti royal family have close connections to the governments of Britain and Saudi Arabia.
On the southern coast of the Gulf of Aden, the self-proclaimed Republic of Somaliland, which was briefly independent from June 26 to July 1, 1960, before uniting with the Somali Republic, is faring much better than South Yemen’s push for independence restoration. In 1991, following years of persecution by the Somali Republic’s government in Mogadishu, Somaliland declared independence. Although the United Nations and African Union refused to recognize Somaliland, its perseverance and determination has resulted in de facto relations with Ethiopia and Djibouti. Somaliland has had official diplomatic contacts with the UAE, Philippines, Seychelles, and Timor-Leste. Ethiopia maintains an ambassadorial level consulate in Hargeisa, the capital. In addition, Denmark has a diplomatic office in Hargeisa. In July of this year, Guinea gave a red-carpet welcome to Somaliland’s president. Somaliland may also see an independent South Yemen send one of its first ambassadors to Hargeisa, a show of solidarity between two re-emergent nations shunned by myopic international structures like the UN, African Union, and Arab League.