How Yemen's southern separatists mirror their authoritarian Emirati backers

How Yemen's southern separatists mirror their authoritarian Emirati backers
Comment: UAE-backed Southern Transitional Council bears the markings of an abusive, authoritarian faction, writes Jonathan Fenton-Harvey.
6 min read
27 Aug, 2019
The STC's military wing, known as the Security Belt, receives UAE funding and equipment [Getty]
Four years of devastating conflict culminating in a collapsed central government and what the UN calls the "world's worst humanitarian crisis" has left Yemenis disenchanted with the remnants of the central government, and ignited renewed calls for southern autonomy. 

The figurehead of this government, Yemeni president Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi, has been exiled in Saudi Arabia since 2015, losing authority and further legitimacy across Yemen throughout the conflict.

Southern secessionist desires have existed since the 1990 unification of North and South Yemen. These rival states previously formed after the 1962 coup against the Zaydi Imamate formed the northern Yemen Arab Republic, while Britain's 1967 withdrawal from its southern colony saw a pro-Soviet, Marxist state emerge.

Since unification, years of failed promises and differences over representation and distribution of resources have prompted calls for a return to southern independence. 

The events of the Arab Spring, and the failure of UN-led peace talks from December 2018 to accommodate southern demands, have further fuelled these grievances. 

Yet manipulating southern grievances for its own interests is the UAE-backed Southern Transitional Council, which bears the markings of an abusive, authoritarian faction should it succeed in its aims of an independent south Yemen, while serving the interests of Abu Dhabi.

STC emerged in May 2017 after the group's president Aidarous al-Zubaidi, once a Hadi loyalist, was dismissed from his position, leading to the creation of the 26-member body.

The UAE seeks to create a puppet government to control a breakaway south Yemen

Later that year, the STC had "declared" southern independence. Since then it has mobilised numerous rallies, including on 15 August when it was reported tens of thousands came out in support, to make the case for the STC ruling an independent state. 

Facilitating its ambitions is the STC's military wing, known as the Security Belt - a loose umbrella network of various militias which receive UAE funding and equipment.

Not only do they outnumber the Hadi government, making them the most dominant southern Yemen force, the country is already effectively split. There are two central banks, one in Aden and one in the northern capital Sanaa, showing a fractured central government.

While the STC has addressed legitimate concerns of the UN, it has taken advantage of these concerns to empower itself, while claiming to fight "terrorism" within the Hadi government and elsewhere.

Backed by the UAE, the Security Belt has imposed a huge prison network across southern Yemen, carrying out torture, sexual abuse and other violations, as Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and Associated Press have documented.

While the pretext for these prisons is a counter-terrorism campaign against Al Qaeda in Yemen, HRW have reported dozens of arbitrary arrests and detentions of many Yemeni civilians, usually without trial.

Beyond these barbaric prisons, the STC has been responsible for assassinating various figures, including critical thinkers. The STC, under the watch of Vice President Hani bin Breik, has also targeted many clerics and religious figures, alongside the UAE's crackdown on them.

The STC has been responsible for assassinating various figures, including critical thinkers

Many are linked to the pro-Hadi and soft Islamist al-Islah party, which both the UAE and its Security Belt forces opposes due to its Muslim Brotherhood links. Such actions resemble that of an authoritarian, anti-democratic regime.

The faction utilises the narrative of fighting terrorism to justify its own actions, like Libyan warlord Khalifa Haftar, whose army also receives UAE support while using such pretexts to legitimise his own campaign to occupy the country, disregarding UN-backed peace initiatives. The fact that the STC has voiced support for Haftar's advances on Tripoli indicates similar values. 

The STC does not have full control over southern Yemen, and is currently involved in clashes seeking to impose itself militarily, rather than through diplomacy and democratic means. 

Read more: Yemen in Focus: Will Israel join the deadly conflict?

STC president, Aidaroos al-Zubaidi stated after the Aden coup that, "liberating the remaining regions of the South in Hadramout valley, Beihan, and Mukiras, which still continue to suffer from terrorism", is the faction's ambition. Meanwhile its vice president, bin Breik has called for the overthrow of the Hadi government.

The faction has dangerous elements. Reports indicate that the Security Belt has recruited fighters from Al Qaeda, even though the faction claims to be conducting anti-terrorism campaign. Bin Breik also had ties to the Al Qaeda-linked Ansar al-Sharia in Yemen and other extremist groups.

The STC has also expelled hundreds of northerners, who either work in the south or have sought refuge there from the conflict, indicating a prejudiced nationalist organisation, rather than one that could live harmoniously with the north.

The STC has also expelled hundreds of northerners, who either work in the south or have sought refuge there

After the Aden coup on August 10, the STC pursued a violent strategy in seeking to control the south, especially hitting the oil-rich Shabwa governorate, as well as Abyan. It also looted Aden's Masheeq Palace after having captured it. 

Despite government forces seizing Aden on August 28, triggering a temporary STC withdrawal, southern separatists immediately rebounded the next day, fully recapturing the city.

The STC is clearly trying to impose itself as a dominant faction, so the international community will be forced to negotiate with it.

It has in parallel, pursued a diplomatic and lobbying path to win legitimacy from the international community. It has offices in Washington and Germany, while also seeking to win Russia's support. Despite its blatant abuses, it still aims to present a positive, pro-human rights image.

Ultimately, the STC serves as a tool for the UAE to gain hegemony over south Yemen. While Abu Dhabi intervened in Yemen against the Houthi rebels alongside Saudi Arabia in March 2015, it has since pursued its own geopolitical ambitions in the country.

A senior Emirati official in July described the UAE's supposed military drawdown as a "strategic redeployment". However, the UAE had not halted its support for militias, indicating it was set to continue supporting proxies with the hope of southern secession.

The UAE on August 29 showed its true desires to topple the Hadi government, which restricts its ambitions in Yemen, using airstrikes on government troops, helping the STC to regain control. 

The UAE seeks to create a puppet government to control a breakaway south Yemen, independent only in name. This would not only help the UAE control Aden's key port city, but would give it control over resources such as in the oil-rich province of Shabwa, with similar strategy that sees it lend support to Haftar in Libya.

As the UAE seeks to empower authoritarian, anti-democratic forces elsewhere in the region, the STC is clearly yet another vehicle for it to crush civilians' wishes to secure its own influence. 

It is therefore crucial that other independent voices are given a say in peace talks, to ensure the southerners' legitimate grievances are addressed. Efforts should be made to curtail the UAE's support for the STC and their militias, as well as stopping its aggressive measures in pursuing its geopolitical ambitions.

Pressure can help to curtail abuses, as demonstrated by the dozens of detainees in UAE-backed prisons who were released just days after an AP report highlighted abuses within them.

A lack of proactive efforts will not only lead to worsened violence, it will strip Yemenis - southerners and northerners alike, of their hopes for peace.

Jonathan Fenton-Harvey is a freelance journalist. 

Follow him on Twitter: @jfentonharvey 

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, al-Araby al-Jadeed, its editorial board or staff.