Yemen’s Southern Powder Keg: How to Manage Tensions and Rivalries

Written by | Thursday, April 26th, 2018

The three-year protracted Yemeni civil war has brought about major shifts of power after decades of centralized rule by the regime in the capital Sana’a. Emerging patterns are poised to define – or redefine – Yemen’s politics and governance for years to come. Yemen has become a dilapidated state in which the central state has either collapsed or lost control of large parts of the country’s territory and which gave rise to a fragmented political economy.

Civil wars do not only destroy local infrastructure, state institutions and political orders; they also help produce new ones. To understand what the new Yemen could look like, one must try to understand how it is being changed by the civil war. The central challenge is the future of the so-called ‘south’ of Yemen. Since the beginning of the war in 2015, the southern region has become largely autonomous and with the support from the United Arab Emirates (UAE), many southerners believe that independence is in sight. While this question was often put aside in the past, neither Yemeni nor international players can afford to ignore this in the future.

Yemen’s south is a powder keg of tensions and rivalries. The situation is being made worse by the abundance of armed groups and the influx of weapons since the war began. The volatility in the southern region could be exacerbated by a volatile situation in the near term, an outright declaration of secession, an unrestrained internal conflict over the control of Aden or the piecemeal formation of a de facto autonomous region. Therefore, striking a balance between localism and the maintenance of central Yemeni institutions will be the key challenge for policymakers.

Attempts at reconciling these two poles have already begun. Participating parties agreed that nonprofit and international organizations, including the UN, would start working with local actors to achieve some results in the short term. Attempts to implement projects through the government have been unsuccessful due to, arguably, a lack of outright benefit for the government.

From the international perspective, the focus should be on moving the southern issue up on the list of state-level and international priorities while allowing for sufficient time for bilateral and multilateral meetings. International community should also boost engagement across the board at the local level with key southern leaders, nonprofits and civil society organizations including women’s groups. This work is important to develop the capacity of southern civil society. Importantly, none of these goals can be achieved without the participation of the UAE and Saudi Arabia on key issues, particularly armed groups.

The issue of the proliferation of armed groups in the region is pressing and will require work towards the formation of a coordination mechanism that could help establish security institutions. Key coalition players should also form a working group on security and consider how centralization of security can be achieved. Hand in hand with security arrangements is the work to increase capacity of local courts and the police force to deal with legal issues and disputes.

The south is a challenge since it presents a very different set of problems than the rest of Yemen. Failure to recognize the significance of this region for the future of the country would only perpetuate the problem. Without decisive moves towards conflict resolution, policy formation and post-conflict reconstruction, the Yemeni civil war could only fall apart into a series of “small” conflicts, one of them being the war for the control of the south.

‘Yemen’s Southern Powder Keg’ – Research Paper by Peter Salisbury – Chatham House / The Royal Institute of International Affairs.

(The Research Paper can be downloaded here)

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