South Yemen sees the return of its prodigal sons

South Yemen sees the return of its prodigal sons
6 min read
17 December, 2014
When the two Yemens reunified in 1990, few would expect that a little over two decades later, calls for separation would be back in the political debate.
Southern Yemen seperatist sentiments have sparked riots and demonstrations in Aden [AFP]

After years in exile, South Yemen's tribal leaders are beginning to return to Aden. While Houthi forces harry the north and the authority of a weak central government crumbles further, dreams of separatism in southern Yemen have become an ever closer reality.Carrying the torch of secessionism is the South Yemen Movement, founded in 2007, which unites the many political southern forces behind independence.

Bad timing

However, many Yemenis are also cynical about the timing of the southern tribal leaders return. Yemen's central authority faces unsurmountable obstacles, and instability has ripped apart many parts of the country. 

But there is no denying that the past two months have highlighted just how fragile Yemen is. Activists have camped out in al-Arood Square, central Aden. Protests were also held to mark the recent anniversary of South Yemen's independence from the British. Meanwhile, in the north, the Houthis have consolidated their rule in Sanaa and are expanding their authority into new areas.

Some of the southern tribal leaders who are returning to Aden include those who have been sitting it out in Saudi Arabia. This includes the leadership of the League of the Sons of the Free Arab South.

This secessionist party is led by Abd al-Rahman al-Jafari, with Sheikh Muhsin Bin Farid as secretary general, and Sheikh Abd al-Rabb al-Naqib acting as another leading party member. Naqib is widely perceived as being one of the most influential figures in the south.

Other exiles have based themselves in the southern suburbs of Beirut, where the former leader of the South, Ali Salim al-Beidh's office is based. One of the returnees includes the head of this office, Yahya Ghalib al-Shuaibi who came to Aden in November.

Regional interference

The return of leaders from the two separatist groups is seen by observers as a sign of further meddling by Saudi Arabia and Iran. The League of the Sons of the Free Arab South ["the League"] are believed to have Saudi backing, although members of the party who spoke to al-Araby al-Jadeed have denied this.

They say that the return of their leaders has always been a core principle of the League, showing that they are not abandoning their responsibilities while their countrymen suffer.

The League's return to Yemen can also be viewed as an attempt by the Gulf to counter Iran's growing influence in the country. The Islamic Republic has faced allegations of being behind the Houthis' rapid capture of territory, whether financially or morally.

Riyadh is viewed as the main loser in the Houthis' expansion. The rebel group are Zaydi Muslims, a branch of Shia Islam and the Houthis' rhetoric has mirrored the anti-Western and theocratic style of the Tehran government.

The Houthis control of land adjacent to Saudi Arabia is viewed by many in Riyadh as a threat to the stability of their country, and a sign of further encroachment of Iran in the Gulf.

     The League's return to Yemen can also be viewed as an attempt by the Gulf to counter Iran's growing influence in the country.

Many commentators say that Saudi Arabia is playing all its cards to lessen the Iranian threat, and one of the trump cards has been the influence it has over some southern Yemen movements, and particularly the League.

Splits in the movement

From the first day that members of the League returned to Yemen, they sparked controversy. Flanked by a large crowd of supporters, the movement's leader refused to drape the flag of the southern state over his shoulders during a speech in al-Arood Square.

His refusal angered many protesters and activists, especially those separatists opposed to his party. The critics have been some of the most politically active in Aden since the 1990s, and are viewed by Yemenis as being the first to call for independence of the south following reunification.

These activists fall under the South Yemen Movement [al-Hirak], the secessionist umbrella organisation, while the League began its own project named the State of South Arabia, which does not consider the south to be a part of Yemen. 

The League and others linked to the Gulf states have returned at the same time as parties linked to Iran.

Ahmad al-Damani, a journalist and activist, told al-Araby al-Jadeed: "The south today is not like it was in the past. The influx of leaders to Aden from abroad has come after they felt the southern cause had become a crucial issue among the regional and international community.

"Their return shows the level of competition between them to win support from Yemenis following these developments."

Past leaders return

Damani says that the League has been attempting to win the support of the people, while on a regional level it is looking to set itself up as the Gulf's strongest ally in Aden. Gulf states are said to be looking for friends in case the south secedes from the north.

"The socialist movement, led by Ali Salim al-Beidh, which enjoys wide support in the south, has sent its members from its Beirut office back to Yemen," Damami said. "Rumours are spreading of Beidh's return, and this could be seen as a way of blocking any person or party who might try and set itself up as a representative of the south.

"Beidh considers himself to be the legitimate leader of the secessionist movement."

Another key player in the south is the former president of South Yemen, Ali Nasir Muhammad.

Crisis point

Although supporters of these movements have welcomed the return of their leaders to Aden, politicians have warned of future conflicts in the south.

This is something that would mirror the instability Sanaa has experienced, and can only be avoided if southerners unite and only establish relations with those who serve the interests of the south and its cause.

Political analyst Awad Kashmim says that it is vital that regional powers, primarily Saudi Arabia and Iran, refrain from interfering in Yemen for their own political interests, or impose their own ideologies that are alien to the southern national or Yemeni consensus.

"The most important thing is that southern leaders who have come back must pay attention to the national dimensions and entrench this into all sectors of southern society, regardless of regional and international tensions. [These countries] only care about their own interests," says Kashmim.

Regardless of the rivalries among southern politicians, no party should ally itself with foreign powers, he said. This would set Yemen on course to be another war zone of competing regional interests, bringing further horrors to the country.

Meanwhile, sources say that UN sanctions, security concerns, and a coup attempt against Yemeni President Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi has dampened the enthusiasm of some southern leaders to return to the country.

This threat was brought home when Khaled al-Junaidi, a prominent figure in the Southern Movement, was shot dead by security forces, in what Amnesty International described as "an execution".

There are some positive signs that the situation is improving. The unstable situation in other parts of Yemen has forced southern parties to move closer to each other.

It looks like these parties could join together to set up a political coalition, partly from the pressures of the Yemenis they claim to represent, and also due to memories of past mistakes and plans that have failed.

This article is an edited translation from our Arabic edition.