Popular, political and military activity calling for the secession of southern Yemen intensified this week in Aden and Hadramout. The possibility of southern Yemen becoming its own independent state is now closer than at any time before. While unity and division are two issues that concern everyone in the region, this is of particular concern to Yemen’s northern neighbor, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.
The unification of Yemen was backed by people from both the North and South, but this was not the product of popular demands or activity. Rather, this was the result of a struggle over governance in the South among communist powers. Former President Ali Abdullah Saleh seized the chance to expand his authority when the South’s political leader Ali Salem Al-Beidh—who was on the verge of losing his grip on power—called for unification. Saleh and Beidh signed the unification agreement in 1989 but instead of achieving unity and power-sharing, Saleh dominated the scene. The promises of unification were not fulfilled and this ultimately became a burden on northern Yemen, leading to the neglect and appropriation of southern Yemen. Saleh was thus the sole winner, securing his own personal rule across the country.
Prior to unification, I met with late Saudi Interior Minister Prince Naif Bin Abdulaziz who also represented Riyadh on the joint Saudi-Yemeni committee. I asked him about Ali Abdullah Saleh’s allegations that Saudi Arabia had objected to unity and viewed it as a threat. He summarized the nature of the relationship between Saudi Arabia and Yemen and its historical roots which date back to the the 1950s.
Prince Naif said that a united Yemen is ideal for Saudi Arabia as it would be difficult to deal with two governments—one in Sana’a and the other in Aden—because satisfying one would mean angering the other. This is something that would be even more pronounced when there are tensions between the two governments. Ultimately, this would result in one of these governments allying with Saudi Arabia’s rivals. This is something that happened during the Cold War when rebels in the North allied with the Nasserites while the South later allied with the Soviet Union. It’s easier for Saudi Arabia to manage relations with a unified country that has one government while maintaining good relationships with the different domestic powers who have historical ties with the Kingdom.
Truth be told, Saudi Arabia also suffered politically during the period when Yemen was united; however this suffering was the result of mere disputes. Former President Saleh, whose time in office overlapped with the reign of three successive Saudi monarchs, was well-known for his attempts to promote and glorify himself, even if this came at the expense of Yemen and its people. When former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait, Saleh sided with Baghdad against Saudi Arabia. Saleh then allied with the Qataris during the most recent disagreement with Saudi Arabia. He also allowed former Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi to fund Yemeni tribes against Saudi Arabia. Last but not least, Saleh is responsible for the emergence of the Houthis. It was under his rule that this simple tribal group turned into the dangerous political and sectarian movement that it is today.
The latest developments now raise an important question, not just for Saudi Arabia but also for the people of Yemen—whether in the North or South: Is division really the solution?
I think that the secession of the South will only serve to exacerbate problems for everybody on both sides; there is no domestic power that is strong enough to put an end to this rivalry and secure a conclusive end to the fighting. In addition to this, Yemenis do not have a genuine democratic electoral system which they can rely on. Therefore, division will only foment chaos across the country, whether in the North or South.
Despite all this, secession remains an increasingly possible scenario as a result of the rapid collapse of the ruling institution in northern Yemen and the popular frustration at the failure of the unification agreement. Yemenis are now aware that the unification agreement was merely part of the personal agenda of ousted President Saleh. Northern Yemenis have truly tried to compensate the South for Saleh’s sins towards the people there, displaying a lot of flexibility and concern regarding Yemeni national unity. This can be seen in the fact that the posts of president and prime minister are now occupied by southerners even though the northerners constitute the sweeping majority of the population. Despite this, southern political powers continue to compete with one another and call for secession as they are aware that this is a demand that will win them popular backing. Unity has become a hated idea in the South due to Saleh’s policies which marginalized the region and entrenched poverty.
Due to the weakness of the central government, Yemen’s North is currently facing a political vacuum as the three major powers continue to fight each other. The three parties involved in this confrontation are Saleh’s own party, the Houthis and the state. Saleh’s political party and backers are actively seeking to sabotages the political process by inciting strife and buying loyalties as part of plans to return them to power. While the Houthis, who have ties to Iran, continue to advance, and its militias have seized major state institutes. As for the state and government, it is failing and faltering and has only one card up its sleeve, namely its regional and international legitimacy based on the recognition of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) and UN Security Council respectively.
In the event that the Yemeni government is pronounced dead, or if it collapses within the next few months but no such announcement is made, we will no doubt witness the South announcing its own independent state and the inevitable end of a unified Yemen. Yemen would thus begin a new chapter in its history. However, this history will almost certainly be just as rife with domestic disputes and foreign interference, while the biggest victims will be the Yemeni people who have yet to express an opinion over this putative division.