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Nikolay Surkov

PhD in political science, Associate Professor, Oriental Studies Department, MGIMO of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Russian Federation, RIAC expert

In August 2019, the Yemen crises entered a new phase, essentially turning into a tripartite conflict. The forces of the Southern Transitional Council (STC) moved against the government of President Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi in an effort to restore the independence of South Yemen. By August 10, the STC’s units had captured Aden, having essentially forced representatives of the internationally recognized government out of the city. Later, on August 15, the STC announced its plans to establish an independent federative state in the south of Yemen. This was accompanied by pogroms and persecutions of northerners in Aden. Such developments are fraught not only with the spiraling of the Yemen crisis, but also with a possible clash between the principal parties of the anti-Houthi coalition: Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. Riyadh is counting on Hadi as the leader of a united country, while Abu Dhabi uses its STC proxies to create the conditions for splitting up the country, thus weakening the position of the pro-Saudi President.

The Yemen crisis is entering a new phase. There are three competing scenarios for the future of the country: a Houthi “Islamic republic”; splitting Yemen into North and South, and a federative state headed by a reshuffled government. The latter appears to be in the best interests of the Yemeni people, as it offers hope for a relatively quick settlement of the conflict and the preservation of a unified state. If Riyadh agrees to a constructive dialogue with the STC and Houthis, then federalization may have a chance. Thus far, however, the Saudi leadership has taken a tough stance and refuses to make significant concessions to either the Houthis in Ansar Allah or the southerners represented by the STC. If the current trend persists, the civil war should be expected to continue on several fronts at once, and Yemen will likely collapse slowly.


In August 2019, the Yemen crises entered a new phase, essentially turning into a tripartite conflict. The forces of the Southern Transitional Council (STC) moved against the government of President Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi in an effort to restore the independence of South Yemen. By August 10, the STC’s units had captured Aden, having essentially forced representatives of the internationally recognized government out of the city. Later, on August 15, the STC announced its plans to establish an independent federative state in the south of Yemen. This was accompanied by pogroms and persecutions of northerners in Aden. Such developments are fraught not only with the spiralling of the Yemen crisis, but also with a possible clash between the principal parties of the anti-Houthi coalition: Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. Riyadh is counting on Hadi as the leader of a united country, while Abu Dhabi uses its STC proxies to create the conditions for splitting up the country, thus weakening the position of the pro-Saudi President.

The events that took place in the south of Yemen this past August can be viewed as a local civil war. Having captured the capital, the STC attempted to take control of Abyan and Shabwah, the governorates adjacent to Aden. The STC succeeded in rapidly taking over the military bases in Abyan. In Shabwah, however, they encountered resistance from forces loyal to Hadi. On August 22–25, the separatists were routed by the 21st Mechanized Infantry Brigade and began to retreat. By late August, the government forces had advanced on Aden but failed to capture the city largely due to the interference of the United Arab Emirates, whose air forces bombed troops loyal to Hadi in the Aden and Abyan governorates on August 29. Relative calm on the new front has followed ever since.

The Virtual Split of the Arab Coalition

Regional observers believe that, after the failure of the advance toward Al Hudaydah in 2018, the United Arab Emirates abandoned its plans to defeat the Houthis and instead turned its attention to establishing control of the coast in southern Yemen. At the same time, the United Arab Emirates is counting on the local separatists, with the Salaphites being a prominent group among them. The Salaphites are relatively well organized and have extensive ties with southern tribes. Additionally, they share a common enemy with the United Arab Emirates: the al-Islah Islamic party on which Saudi Arabia relies.

In the summer of 2019, the United Arab Emirates began to pointedly reduce its military presence in Yemen. The south was transferred to the control of the pro-UAE STC. This allowed the United Arab Emirates to solve several problems with one move: first, it reduced tensions in the country’s relations with Iran, which finances the Houthis; and second, it relieved the United Arab Emirates of its responsibility for the civilian casualties inflicted by the coalition’s airstrikes. The leadership of the United Arab Emirates try to present these actions as part of a long-term strategic plan. They insist that their policies in Yemen have from the outset been intended to establish local structures capable of resisting the Houthis. The STC is considered to be such a structure, which means that Hadi’s recognized government now needs to negotiate with the South. The STC itself claims it pursues following goals: to unite the south of Yemen and establishing a secular democratic state there; to prevent radical forces from becoming more active; and removing various armed units from cities and stabilizing the situation.

The problem is that in stepping up its activities, the STC delivered a serious blow to Saudi Arabia’s interests in Yemen. On the one hand, the weakness of the anti-Houthi coalition became even more obvious, as a civil war in its own right is going on behind the coalition’s battle lines. On the other hand, during any future talks, the Houthis will demand the same concessions that the STC will obtain from the Hadi government (if any). Thus far, representatives of the Hadi government are expected to declare that secession of the South is impermissible and suggest talks on federalizing Yemen.

Riyadh is in no hurry to make any concessions to the United Arab Emirates’ proxies and is busy flexing its muscles. For instance, against the background of clashes in Aden in the first half of August, Saudi Arabia succeeded in ensuring the inviolability of the Central Bank of Yemen and in preventing the national currency from crashing. Saudi’s military and armored vehicles took the building of the bank under their protection and kept the STC’s forces out. Riyadh also provided the Hadi government with 285 million Saudi riyals in financial aid, which are required primarily to import fuel.

The coalition partners are attempting to coordinate their activities, but discontent is growing. During an urgent meeting in Mecca on August 12 attended by King Salman and Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman on the Saudi side, and Crown Prince Sheik Mohammed bin Zayed on the UAE side, the attendees called upon Hadi and the STC to engage in dialogue. The Saudi monarch, however, did not squander the opportunity to demonstrate his “extreme irritation” with the actions of the allies, which regional observers took to be a very bad sign.

Southern Passions Running High

The strengthening of the STC began in 2017 when it gradually took control of Aden, Yemen’s provisional capital. For a short time in January 2018, STC forces managed to take control of government agencies and even placed members of the government under house arrest. But the situation changed when Saudi Arabia got involved. Nevertheless, the course for secession had become obvious, especially since southerners had started to search actively for international support.

The STC was unable to achieve a quick triumph in August 2019 because the south of Yemen is, in fact, far from united. The differences go back to the times when that part of the country was independent and socialist. Back in 1980, the elites of the Lahij and Abyan governorates competed for control of the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen. That confrontation resulted in the short-lived South Yemen Civil War in 1986 and the massacre of Aden, where natives of the Abyan Governorate were defeated. Some of them fled North, to the city of Sanaa.

Currently, the STC relies on the natives of the Dhale and Lahij governorates, while the Abyan and Shabwah governorates support the Hadi government. The current president hails from Abyan, and the loyalty of the local tribes is unquestionable. Shabwah is not interested in the secession of the South, since its economy is oriented towards the “northern” Marib Governorate, as it hopes to receive dividends from the transit of oil and gas.

The Hadhramaut and Al Mahrah governorates are taking a “wait-and-see” attitude; however, the local elites are reportedly displeased with the claims of the United Arab Emirates and its proxies to dominance. Al Mahrah has rather strong pro-Saudi leanings, and in August, it openly called for the prevention of an invasion by STC forces.

The military capabilities of the STC are thus limited, and following the failure of the August blitzkrieg, the Council will most likely have to enter into talks with the Hadists. Saudi Arabia is already trying to set up a dialogue between the Hadi government and the STC. Media reports said that the first indirect contacts took place on September 4 in Jeddah.

The “Zero-Sum Game” is Over

While the Arab coalition is facing internal problems in the South, its Ansar Allah opponents (Houthis) have taken the opportunity to put additional pressure on their main adversary, Saudi Arabia. On September 14, with the help of drones and missiles, they delivered a strike against two large oil processing facilities in Saudi Arabia, which forced Riyadh to cut oil production by more than half – 5.7 million barrels per day fewer than the usual 9.8 million barrels.

Despite the wave of accusations against Iran following the strikes, there is reason to believe that the Houthis are capable of organizing such an attack all on their own since they had previously shown cruise missiles with the necessary range to the public. However, in all fairness, we should note that experts identified them as radically simplified knock-offs of Iranian cruise missiles. Debates about the military capabilities of the Houthis are likely to continue, but some conclusions can be drawn. The war in Yemen costs Saudi Arabia dearly, both economically and in terms of its public image. Saudi Arabia is also clearly vulnerable to new attacks, despite enormous military spending and assistance from the United States. The media has added fuel to the fire by suggesting that it will take Riyadh between several months and a year to bring oil production to its previous levels.

Consequently, while Saudi Arabia could previously afford to ignore the occasional missile and drone from Yemen and continue bombing the adversary using its own aviation, now, instead of a zero-sum game, it has an asymmetric conflict on its hands with very unpleasant consequences. However, there is a way out of this predicament. A week after the strike against the oil refinery, Houthis proposed a ceasefire of sorts to Riyadh: they would cease missile strikes in exchange for the Saudi’s stopping their air raids.

A New Scenario for the Yemeni Drama

There are three possible courses of action from the point of view of the general development of the Yemeni crisis. The first scenario involves acknowledging that a military solution is impossible and launching talks with Houthis. The second is to stop counting on Hadi and his ineffective government, which does not enjoy broad support in Yemen, and find a new force that can defeat the Houthis and the Islamists and unite Yemen. Finally, the third option is controlled chaos, that is, the continuation of the war against Ansar Allah while at the same time ensuring that the instability is contained to Yemen.

From 2015 until now, the coalition has been pursuing the third course, that of controlled chaos. However, with the separatist movement stepping up its activities in the South (and the United Arab Emirates’ de facto withdrawal from the war) and the coalition’s increasingly obvious inability win a military victory over the Houthis may make other scenarios relevant as well.

As we have shown above, a compromise with Ansar Allah is the most apparent solution. In this case, further developments of the situation in Yemen will depend primarily on whether the dialogue between the Houthis and Saudi Arabia is productive. The Houthis have long been trying to get Riyadh to enter into direct talks with them, and they have been pressuring Saudi Arabia into doing so by regularly attacking cities and infrastructure facilities in the country. Riyadh, however, is standing its ground and is not going agree to anything except the actual surrender of its opponents, which it believes to be puppets of Iran. If the Saudi leadership, as a matter of principle, decides to continue armed hostilities, then it may follow the course of forming another government to replace that of Hadi. However, it will then run into inevitable difficulties finding alternative leaders and ensuring their international recognition. This process will take a lot of time, which means that the war will go on.

The Yemen crisis is entering a new phase. There are three competing scenarios for the future of the country: a Houthi “Islamic republic”; splitting Yemen into North and South; and a federative state headed by a reshuffled government. The latter appears to be in the best interests of the Yemeni people, as it offers hope for a relatively quick settlement of the conflict and the preservation of a unified state. If Riyadh agrees to a constructive dialogue with the STC and Houthis, then federalization may have a chance. Thus far, however, the Saudi leadership has taken a tough stance and refuses to make significant concessions to either the Houthis in Ansar Allah or the southerners represented by the STC. If the current trend persists, the civil war should be expected to continue on several fronts at once, and Yemen will likely collapse slowly.

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