On 25 April 2020, the Southern Transitional Council (STC) declared a state of emergency in the city of Aden and all southern governorates, assuming self-administration rule in place of the local authorities under control of the internationally recognized government of President Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi. This follows a failure to implement the Riyadh agreement signed by the two sides, on 5 November 2019, combined with other factors cited by the STC. The announcement represented an escalating step towards implementing separatist aspirations, and a Saudi-Emirati difference in the perception of the militia’s military role in the region, and perhaps a rivalry between them, which will have repercussions for Yemen’s unity and the future of the internationally recognized government.
After the STC took control over Aden and the governorates of Lahij and Dhale in August 2019, Saudi Arabia managed to bring together the parties to the conflict and reached an agreement known as the Riyadh Agreement. The STC gained governmental and regional recognition as a party, and was granted the right to participate in power, while being stripped it of its military and security formations, which became the nucleus of the army and police of the southern state.
However, considering the conflicting goals of the two parties and the lack of trust between them, the three months given to implement the agreement passed, without actual results. It was clear that the transitional council did not intend to relinquish its authority on the ground. Rather, the prime minister, Maeen Abdulmalik, and some of his government staff, were asked to leave Aden for Riyadh on 22 February 2020; the first formal achievement of the Riyadh agreement going down with them. After that, each party took to strengthening its military capabilities in the areas of contact between the governorates of Abyan and Aden as a government initiative to regain control of Aden, with tacit Saudi tacit backing, was launched on the basis of the STC’s delay in implementing the Riyadh agreement.
The government escalation was evident in the stationing of army units in the Shuqrah area, east of Aden, at about 80 km, and their increased military activity during April 2020. On the other hand, the STC tried to strengthen its defences in Aden and Abyan, and to try to split the ranks of the government forces, as happened on Socotra Island, whereby the commander of the Special Security Forces rejected a decision to replace him, or in the rebellion of two battalions of the 1st Marine Corps, who pledged their allegiance to the STC. It seems clear that the STC’s moves were supported by the UAE, which has its own economic and geo-strategic agenda in southern Yemen and Bab al-Mandab.
In the face of this, Saudi Arabia resorted to preventing Aden’s Director of Security and the head and members of the STC’s negotiating unit from returning to Aden from Amman Airport, on 11 March, 2020, as well as other leaders who were forced to remain outside the country because of their participation in the events of August 2019. Riyadh also attempted to polarise military leaders affiliated with the UAE, such as the Commander of the Second Brigade of the Alamalika (Giants), Hamdi Shukri, and President of the National Assembly, Major General Ahmed bin Breik , who recently came to the fore as a result of the absence of STC President of the Transitional Council, Aidarus al-Zoubaidi, and his deputy Hani bin Breik, currently residing in Abu Dhabi.
At the end of April 2020, direct negotiations, which were sponsored by Saudi Arabia in the city of Aden, between military representatives of the government and the STC were announced, and the matters were further complicated by the exposure of Aden to devastating floods. The government's poor performance was brought up and the two parties began to exchange accusations and a statement by the STC claimed that the government of Maeen Abdul Malik lacks legitimacy. The council announced that the implementation of the Riyadh agreement is subject to the return of the council’s leaders, who are currently being prevented from returning to Aden.
The Content and Justifications of the Declaration
The STC declaration of self-rule in the south included the following measures:
- The declaration of a general emergency in Aden and the rest of the southern governorates, and the assignment of the transitional council forces to implement it as of 25/4/2020.
- Announcing self-rule in the south and erecting the self-management committee to perform related tasks.
- Forming committees to monitor the performance of government institutions and coordinating in that regard with the President of the National Assembly and the heads of the council leaders in the governorates.
- Leadership of the STC economic, legal, military, and security committees in the work of the bodies implementing self-management.
- Adoption of these positions by the governors of the southern governorates and officials in the southern public institutions.
- Inviting the Arab coalition and the international community to support the STC’s self-management.
The council justified these measures with a number of reasons:
- The interruption of salaries and wages of workers in the governmental, military, and security sectors.
- The cessation of care for the families of the martyrs and treatment of the wounded.
- The cessation of support for the battle fronts with the Houthis.
- The stimulation of national rivalry and deterioration of national cohesion.
- The support of terrorism and extremist forces.
- The deterioration of public services, and the consequences of the floods suffered by Aden.
Indeed, the STC declaration was expected, taking further the announcement of the formation of the Presidency of the Transitional Council on 11 May 2017, which included reference to the council’s right to manage and represent the entire south and empowering the President of the Council to issue decisions and implement instructions that allow this. The move also comes in line with the trend of secession prevalent in the STC literature, and the statements of its leaders in various forums. The council's vice president, Hani bin Breik, announced in a speech the STC intention, to establish a Ministry of Defence. In January 2020, the Speaker of the STC National Assembly, Major General Ahmed bin Breik, announced that the Council had a project ready to administer what he called “the state of the south,” vowing to implement it.
Local authorities in the governorates answering to the government affirmed their rejection of the STC declaration of self-rule in the south, and re-iterated their loyalty to the government. The declaration was also rejected in statements by the Arab Coalition, the UN envoy to Yemen, Martin Griffiths, and a number of ambassadors, in line with the references to resolving the Yemeni crisis, which stress the preservation of Yemen's unity and sovereignty, including the Gulf initiative and its executive mechanism for 2011, the outcomes of the 2014 National Dialogue Conference, and various Security Council Resolutions on Yemen. However, the reality of the situation since the establishment of the STC in 2017, which seized control of Aden in August 2019, confirms that there is an Emirati impetus to enable the separatists to gradually take over the south, and that the fourth step of the STC may represent the imposition of this as an inevitable reality.
The Repercussions for the Political and Military Reality
The repercussions of the STC announcement relate to the extent of the council's ability to adhere to this decision, and to continue its implementation, its ability to bear its burdens, and its consequences. This is also related to the actual position that the Saudi-Emirati coalition could take, and the position of the government, which considers the move a rebellion and coup following the August 2019 coup.
Politically, the STC’s declaration in the south represents a major blow to President Hadi’s government, as it removed three southern governorates from its grip, namely: Aden, Lahij, and Dhale, and has limited the government's influence in the remaining four southern governorates: Shabwa, Abyan, Hadramawt, and Al-Mahra as well as Socotra Island. The government also faces challenges in maintaining its influence in parts of five northern governorates: Marib, Taiz, Al-Hudaydah, Al-Bayda and Al-Jawf. The move also represents a violation of the principle of power sharing in the southern governorates, according to the Riyadh Agreement, taking the step of full acquisition by force.
Regarding the future of the federal state, the declared self-administration is an impediment to the six regions approved by the outcomes of the National Dialogue Conference, and imposes two regions: northern and southern, despite the control of the STC being limited to Aden, Lahij and Dhale, and parts of Abyan.
Militarily, tension increased in the south significantly after the STC announcement, with the imposition of a state of emergency, the council forces encircling the central bank in Aden, and the formation of popular committees, which are in fact militias masquerading under the title of “police friends.” This has prompted the government to mobilizing more forces in the Shuqrah region, and confirming its intention to storm the city of Zinjibar, the centre of the Abyan governorate, located on the road to Aden.
The option of sending government forces to advance towards Aden remains a possibility, especially if Saudi political efforts fail to restore the situation.
The potential infighting between the government and the STC will only serve Houthi agendas, especially if the confrontation is prolonged, and one of the results of this may be placing Marib city within reach of the Houthi circle.
On the other hand, fears are increasing that the Emirates may interfere in favour of the Transitional Council, by aviation or other means, as happened in August 2019, and that the resistance forces stationed in the west coast, led by Tareq Saleh, will strengthen the STC forces and the establishment of a brigade stationed between the two governorates of Shabwa and Hadramout, clashing with the government forces in Shabwa, weakening their ability to support government forces that may decide to storm Aden.
The STC announcement of self-rule in the South and the acquisition of power by force is the next political step following the August 2019 coup in the process of secession of the South. The indicators of the council’s success are still unclear, dependent upon direct Emirati support for the step of secession and the declaration of independence, and Saudi Arabia turning a blind eye to President Hadi’s government confronting the Southern attempt to secede. In any case, the government position continues to deteriorate, caught between the Iranian-backed Houthi rebellion in the north and the Emirati-backed transitional council in the south.
 “Text of the Riyadh Agreement between the Yemeni government and the Southern Transitional Council,” Anadolu Agency, 5/11/2019, accessed on 4/28/2020, at: https://bit.ly/2VNfnju.
 Aziz Al-Ahmadi, “To implement the Riyadh Agreement in southern Yemen: Will Saudi Arabia resort to force?” (Analysis), Anadolu Agency, 3/24/2020, accessed on 4/28/2020, at: https://bit.ly/3bP9urw.
 “Yemen: Military battalions in Socotra declare rebellion against the government and join the Emirates” (video), Al-Jazeera Live, 4/24/2020, accessed on 4/28/2020, at: https://bit.ly/2Yikv0G.
 Vice President of the Transitional Council, Hani bin Breik, and the commander of the STC’s Counter-Terrorism Unit, Yusran al-Maqtari, were denied entry to country for their active participation in the August 2019 events.
 Majid Al-Madhhaji, “The Declaration of Self-Rule in South Yemen: Has the Relationship of the Transitional Council and Saudi Arabia Reached the Point of No Return?”, The Sana'a Center for Strategic Studies, 04/28/2020, accessed on 28/4/2020, at: https://bit.ly/2xnBrrG.
 “The Southern Transitional Council issues an important statement.” The Southern Transitional Council, 23/4/2020, accessed on 29/4/2019 at: https://bit.ly/2Yipa2v.
 “Southern Transitional Council Presidency holds an emergency meeting and issues an important statement.” Southern Transitional Council, 26/4/2020, accessed on 28/04/2020, at: https://bit.ly/2zEo1rS.
 “Declaration of a southern political leadership titled ‘the Presidency of the Supreme South Transitional Council’,” the Southern Transitional Council, 11/5/2019, accessed on 28/4/2020, at: https://bit.ly/3fbRMRk.
 See: “Without Restrictions” with Hani bin Breik, Vice President of the SouthernTransitional Council in Yemen, BBC Arabic, YouTube, 11/4/2018, accessed on 28/4/2020, at: https://bit.ly/3d2jpdD.
 “Major General bin Breik on the Gate of Dawn: Egyptians Ready for Southern Administration in case the Riyadh Agreement is not Implemented,” Southern Transitional Council, 24/1/2020, accessed on 27/4/2020, at: https://bit.ly/3f5XZ1c.
 Some of this was mentioned in: Muhammad al-Ghubari and Muhammad Makhshaf, “The Transitional Council Declares Self-Rule for Southern Yemen and Complicates Peace Efforts.” Reuters, 26/4/2020, accessed on 29/4/2020, at: https://bit.ly/2VKAbbq.
 “International and Arab calls for the Yemeni "transitional council" to withdraw its unilateral actions,” Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper, 29/4/2020, accessed on 29/4/2020, at: https://bit.ly/3f3x320.
 Al-Ghubari and Makhshaf.
 Brigadier Tareq Saleh's position remains vague, but there is an increased possibility that units of his forces will intervene, in an undisclosed manner, to support the transitional council, at the request of the UAE, which provides their respective forces with weapons and salaries.