Yemen Separatists Declare Self-Rule in Blow to Saudi Arabia

(Bloomberg) -- Yemen separatists have declared self-rule in the country’s south, dealing a major blow to Saudi Arabia’s efforts to end a devastating civil war it fueled in the neighboring nation.

A November power-sharing deal between the Saudi-backed administration of President Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi and the secessionist Southern Transitional Council supported by the United Arab Emirates had been meant to reconcile onetime allies fighting Iran-backed Houthi rebels who control much of the country.

But implementation faltered with hostilities flaring again in January, and the declaration of self-rule has the potential to prolong the broader, five-year civil war with the Houthis. Yemen is strategically significant because it lies on a waterway linking the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden that is a conduit for much of the world’s oil.

Saudi Arabia’s intervention in March 2015 was meant to swiftly restore Hadi’s administration after it was ousted by the rebels from the capital, Sana’a. But the fighting has dragged on, creating the world’s worst humanitarian crisis with tens of thousands killed and millions left hungry and displaced.

“The STC’s announcement is a significant setback for Saudi Arabia’s efforts to broker a reconciliation between the secessionists and the internationally recognized government and to de-escalate the conflict with the Houthis,” said Graham Griffiths, associate director at the Control Risks Group Ltd. consulting firm in Dubai.

“Preventing the STC’s announcement from causing the agreement’s complete collapse will require even greater levels of commitment from the kingdom at the exact time that it is trying to reduce its involvement in Yemen,” Griffiths said. “The re-emergence of these fissures in the south will also hurt efforts to organize talks with the Houthis.”

Five of Yemen’s seven southern provinces rejected the council’s move, but that didn’t significantly undercut it. The Hadi government wouldn’t be able to return to its interim seat in Aden without the consent of the council, which dislodged it in August and now controls the port city.

The government condemned the secessionists’ declaration as a “coup against the legitimate government,” and the United Nations special envoy for Yemen, Martin Griffiths, called on all political actors to “refrain from taking escalatory actions, and put the interests of Yemenis first.”

The U.A.E. said frustration over the delayed implementation of the power-sharing agreement didn’t warrant such unilateral measures.

“Our confidence in our Saudi brothers’ commitment to implementing the Riyadh agreement is absolute,” Anwar Gargash, the U.A.E.’s minister of state for foreign affairs, said on Twitter.

Saudi-Led Coalition Extends Yemen Cease-fire for a Month

In a statement late Saturday, the STC accused the Hadi government of refusing to pay the salaries of its forces for several months, and blamed it for the deterioration of basic services.

The secessionists turned their guns on the government in 2018. The November agreement was designed to halt the war within a war, and to give the government greater credibility in negotiations with the rebels.

Last week, Saudi Arabia extended for a month a cease-fire it declared in Yemen in early April, to allow for diplomacy to progress and help contain the spread of the coronavirus in Yemen, which is extremely ill-equipped to fight the disease.

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

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