Southern separatists announced on Friday the process by which they intend to secede from the north.
They issued a statement which activists are calling the 'historical Aden declaration', at a mass rally in the port city on the morning of 5 May. Organisers also named Aydarus Al-Zubaidi as a 'southern leader'. The move risks aggravating existing rivalries between southern Yemeni groups – including those currently fighting against the Houthis in the west – and between their backers the UAE and Saudi Arabia. And for organisations still working there, it will probably make Aden even more dangerous, particularly for national staff from the north.
The declaration late last week was not surprising, as it had been widely trailed in the Yemeni press. And the southern provinces have been effectively self-governing since the Saudi-backed coalition pushed out Houthi forces from Aden in July 2015, while activists have been intensively lobbying for separatism for years. But it seems that the announcement came on Friday because the previous week the president-in-exile Abdrabbo Mansour Hadi issued a decree removing Zubaidi from his position as governor of Aden.
Aden-based separatists claim to have the support of all southerners, but we doubt that this is the case. Activists and politicians from the resource-rich province of Hadramout have repeatedly voiced their opposition to independence declarations of this kind and seem to prefer a political solution in which they can retain autonomous control of their oil resources as part of a united Yemen. There are also deep divisions between different southern separatist movements along ideological and personal lines that make it improbable that they will all get behind this move towards independence.
Adding to these divisions in the south is that President Hadi is himself a southerner from Abyan. Even though he is currently based in Saudi Arabia, he retains strong support from tribal and other militia groups in the the province, which neighbours Aden to the east. Supporters of Hadi have sporadically fought with other armed groups in the south in recent years, including in Aden, and we think that the Aden declaration will increase the risk of armed confrontations of this kind across the south. It will probably also lead to incidents of anti-northern chauvinism. This has previously involved violent and sometimes fatal attacks on non-southerners.
There are also wider implications for Gulf relations. Zubaidi is close to the UAE, and Yemeni observers in the press and social media have described the Aden declaration as being Emirati-backed. Images of the demonstrations circulating online show large posters of both Emirati and Saudi political leaders displayed in Aden, and the activists’ statement is partly addressed to the Saudi-led coalition. But since its intervention in the conflict in March 2015, Saudi Arabia has consistently supported Yemeni unity. This is most clearly demonstrated by Saudi support for Hadi.
The UAE and Saudi Arabia have differed on other issues relating to their intervention in Yemen, including which local militia to back. The Saudis have worked with Islamist groups close to the Muslim Brotherhood, while there are indications that the UAE has prefered to cooperate with hard-line salafists. Both are backing militias, including separatist groups, in ongoing fighting around the western city of Al-Mokha, and international media reports suggest that they intend to make use of such groups in an imminent offensive against Houthis in Hodeidah. Events in Aden last week will almost certainly complicate and probably delay that offensive.