The views on the ascent to Masheeq’s presidential palace are as spectacular as they are delusional. The blue of the Gulf of Aden prevents the eye from resting on the destruction and misery of the road that leads there. Also the name is misleading. There is no palace or president in Masheeq. The modest complex serves as the seat of Yemen’s internationally recognized government and houses its prime minister, Maeen Abdelmalik Saeed. But important decisions are not made there, but in Riyadh, the capital of Saudi Arabia.
The shadow of that tutelage is perceived as soon as you land in Aden, the “provisional” capital of Yemen. A message on the cell phone from the Saudi telephone company wishes “a pleasant stay” in the country. Riyadh also vetoes who enters, as it controls Yemeni airspace. In early April, Saudi Arabia forced the disgraced President Abdrabbo Mansur Hadi to resign and replace him with an eight-member Presidential Council headed by Rashad al-Alimi. Since then, the prime minister shares Masheeq with Al Alimi.
Saeed (Taiz, 46), a Cairo-educated engineer, was part of the so-called National Dialogue that tried to ensure a peaceful transition after the protests of the spring Arab. His appointment in 2018, with Saudi support, lacked consensus. “There are Yemenis who see things differently from us,” he told a group of journalists who visited Aden with the Sana’a Center think tank, before the formation of the Presidential Council. “Different” sounds like a euphemism in a country that has been at war for seven years.
It all started when the Huthi rebels (a political-military group that proclaims itself a defender of the Zaydi Shiite minority and close to Iran) took Sanaa and deposed President Hadi in early 2015. He took refuge in Aden and declared it the capital “provisional” from Yemen. But the attempt to keep the state standing was shattered when the rebels in the north (with the support of part of the army loyal to former president Ali Abdullah Saleh) decided to advance and the loyal forces were unable to repel them. Hadi fled to Saudi Arabia, which intervened at the head of a military coalition and managed to expel the Houthis from the south, at the cost of leaving Aden scarred.
From then on the war with the north stalled, but in the south the eviction of the rebels had opened Pandora’s box. The invasion revived the separatist spirit of that part of Yemen, which was independent from the end of the British mandate in 1967 until unification in 1990. Disillusionment, always on the surface of the result of that experience, took to the streets in the form of protests. people of the Hirak (Movement). One of the pro-independence groups, the Southern Transitional Council (STC in the English acronym that everyone uses), capitalized on the unrest and seized power, thanks in large part to the support of the United Arab Emirates, one of the countries members of the Saudi coalition.
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Seven years later, two thirds of the 30 million Yemenis are on the brink of famine and the Huthi rebels have consolidated positions in the northwest of the country, where 70% of the population lives. Control of the rest of the territory is divided between different groups whose support for the government responds more to their enmity with the rebels than to their affinity. Saudi Arabia wants to end a war that has gotten out of hand (the United Arab Emirates pulled out its troops in 2019, although it maintains influence through allied militias). Hence Riyadh’s commitment now to that Presidential Council with which to present a common front to the Huthi, either to negotiate a peace agreement or to combat them more effectively.
The announcement came just days after the Houthis and the coalition agreed to a two-month ceasefire in early April, the first nationwide since 2016, which has given civilians some respite. But hopes are limited. It remains to be seen whether the rebels will extend the truce beyond next June 2.
In addition, although Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates promised aid of 3,000 million dollars (about 2,800 million euros) when forming the Council, no one escapes the fact that behind the smiles of its eight members (four from the north and four from the south ), there are large differences. The main one between the STC and the Islamist Islah party. Even if external pressure forces them to put aside their ideological and personal animosities, it is not clear that they are willing to send their men north to retake Sana’a. In recent years, the fighting has focused on the Mareb region to the east, where hydrocarbons are concentrated.
The south is diverse and in some neighboring provinces the leadership of the STC is questioned. In Aden, however, his dominance is evident throughout the city. The first three controls in access to the Masheeq government headquarters are in the hands of forces from that group, who took over from the Emirati troops. Only the last two are manned by soldiers from the former presidential guard. In all of them, the independence flag is displayed. “We can’t even wave the national flag,” one of Saeed’s advisers mourns.
At street level, the population sees the rulers isolated in their ivory tower, while demanding basic services such as electricity supply, drinking water, education and health. The head of government, the fourth since the Huthi coup, admits his limitations. “We try to maintain the DNA of state institutions so that they can be rebuilt,” he says. Saeed’s own residence suffers a power outage during the journalists’ visit. Without a budget since 2014, the president assures that he is trying to solve the problems. “We do what we can,” he says.
That “what we can” depends on what their foreign bosses decide. In fact, the presence of Saeed in Aden is the result of the agreement that Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates reached in Riyadh at the end of 2019 and that established the participation of the STC in the Government. The importance of the decision is testified by the hole left in the airport by the Huthi attack against the prime minister and his companions when they landed in this city a year later. From its limited scope, the fact that the STC has not moved an inch in its goal of achieving independence.
This is made clear by Fadil al Jadi, the deputy general secretary of the STC, at the other end of the peninsula that constitutes the heart of Aden. “We are part of the coalition led by Saudi Arabia and we support them to kick out the guys who control Sana’a,” he says before specifying that his vision for the south once that purpose is achieved is “an independent state.”
The Riyadh agreement has improved the security of Aden, but it has not ended the rivalry between the now government partners. For his supporters, Saeed is “one of the few Cabinet members who gives hope for the future”, thanks to the fact that he is able to maintain good relations with all powers. To his detractors, however, he is the Saudis’ man and is in office because he “never says no.”
The mistrust between both sides makes it difficult for the State to impose itself on the networks of interests that are progressively taking their place and turning the country into a Taifa kingdom. Without a common front, it will be impossible to reach a settlement with the Huthi who control Sana’a and northern Yemen. But even if the Presidential Council works, the castellation of the rebels makes any agreement elusive. Many Yemenis fear that the partition of the country will be consolidated.
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