The New Battle for South Yemen

 August 15, 2023

Anthony Chimente & Ali Mahmood

Pro SCT/South Yemen Independence in Wadi Hadramout on 7/7/2023 - Amjed Yaslem Sabieh

The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is attempting to establish alternative political bodies in South Yemen to disrupt and challenge the authority of the Southern Transitional Council (STC). On May 20, a delegation from Hadramout led by Governor Mabkhout bin Madi arrived in Riyadh upon an invitation from the Saudi government for consultations that varied between political, security, social, and economic aspects concerning the future of the governorate.

Hadhrami political, security, and tribal leaders attended the weeks-long meeting that produced a legal and political document and a new political entity: The Hadramout Representative Council (Hadramout National Council) (HNC). According to the group, its purpose "aims to serve as a political platform to express the aspirations and represent the interests of the Hadhrami community in Yemen." Therefore, the main driving force behind the movement is to ensure a Hadhrami voice in political discussions and negotiations involving the future of Yemen. However, the delegation arrived in Riyadh two days following STC President Aidarous Al-Zubaidi's talks with Saudi officials. The HNC is intended to act as a political counterweight to the STC and desires to maintain Yemeni unity with the Presidential Leadership Council (PLC) with the backing of Saudi Arabia.

The ongoing Southern political dynamics are pivotal, especially in light of the recent Hadhrami discussions and the emergence of a new political entity. Significantly, the Hadramout delegation's visit and President AL-Zubaidi's presence occurred shortly after the southern consultative gatherings from May 4-8 in Aden. These meetings brought together the nine AL-Hirak leaders and key tribal figures. One significant development was the appointment of the prominent ex-Hadhrami governor, Major General Faraj Al-Bahsani, as an STC Vice President. Together with Maj-Gen Ahmed Saeed bin Bereik, another former governor of Hadramout and Vice President appointee, they were foundational in the creation of the Hadhrami Elite Forces, backed by the Emiratis. AL-Zubaidi also enlisted Abd al-Rahman Abu Zaraa al-Mahrami, the commander of the Southern Giants Brigade, as a vice president.

These discussions notably bridged the divides stemming from the 2019 Riyadh Agreement. They subsequently ushered in an intention to create an autonomous democratic South Yemen, and led to the STC's restructuring. This solidified the STC's military and political dominion over most of South Yemen, except for Wadi Hadramout and the disputed Al-Mahara region.

Speaking about the HNC's creation and the vision of southern unity, Major General AL-Bahsani expressed concerns, pointing out that such a body might lead to "divergent projects, visions, and a sense of exclusion, further fragmenting us, which is not what we need." The emerging council may find it challenging to secure widespread support, mainly since it consists of remnants from Al-Islah and The General People's Congress (GPC), whom many Southerners perceive as northern interlopers. Nonetheless, a former STC official highlighted the council's limited tribal backing, including some from the AL-Kathiri tribe. It is worth noting, however, that several Al-Kathiri tribal leaders lean pro-STC, with Ali Abdullah Al-Kathiri serving as the official STC spokesperson.                                         

The Reality on the Ground

The HNC is a potential source of influence based on long-standing Hadhrami aspirations for political autonomy. At the same time, the membership is inconsequential based on a lack of military support and given the absence of political power wielded by Al-Islah and the GPC, whom southern Yemenis view as northern occupiers; nor does the council appear to share the same popular support as the STC. This was evident on July 7, Southern Independence Day, where crowds waved the flag of the STC. Residents of Hadramout say that the newly established Saudi-backed council in the oil-rich province merely represents Saudi interests and accommodates individuals who are widely considered as Saudi citizens, including prominent businessmen like Abdullah Buqshan, who hails from Hadramout. "The newly established council does not represent the will of the people in Hadramout, rather it represents the Saudi interests, and we consider it as a Saudi arm to undermine the aspirations of the People of South Yemen in restoring their independent state before 1990" stated Mohammed Saeed, a citizen from the city of AL-Mukalla. "Socially and historically, Hadramout is a part of the South, and we will, as Hadhramis, continue our struggle alongside our brothers in the other Southern governorates until fulfilling our non-negotiable aspirations," he continued. Another resident, Amjed Yaslam, who lives in the Tarim district, speculated that the "vast majority of Hadhrami's do not acknowledge the legitimacy of the council established under Saudi support." The situation on the ground shows that the STC is a formidable force.

According to a former STC official, the peaceful demonstrations that took place in Hadramout on July 7 were a significant event. They successfully thwarted the efforts of Saudi Arabia, the GPC, and AL-Islah to manipulate the people's desires for a future southern independent state.

Concurrently, other local councils have been formed within a desperate Saudi attempt to undermine the struggle led by the Southern Transitional Council to gain independence for South Yemen. In the oil-rich province of Shabwa, Saudi Arabia attempted to support the formation of a new political entity dubbed as Alliance of the Sons and Tribes of Shabwa, announced on July 12 in the district of the lower Markha north of Attaq.

The alliance was formed by Ali Hasan Dawshal, a junior leader in the Al Islah party. The council received funding from KSA through Ali Amer Al Khalifi, a senior leader in the Muslim Brotherhood and former general director of the Attaq district. Al Khalifi has allegiances to the Presidential Leadership Council and supports the Hadramout National Council, which has expressed its support for a unified Yemen, even with the Houthi controlling north Yemen.

According to Sheikh Lahmar bin Laswad, a respected tribal leader in Shabwa, all attempts to create new prepaid entities for regional purposes have been unsuccessful. The people of Shabwa are aware of the underlying motives behind the formation of these proxy entities. This was revealed during an interview with ACSYS.

Sheikh Laswad said, "Shabwa tribes formed an alliance back in 2013 under the leadership of Abdul Aziz Al Jifri, who currently serves as a member of the STC presidential board". He also emphasized that money cannot buy the will of millions of people in South Yemen who have been striving for decades to regain their independence after a failed unification.

The unfolding political landscape in South Yemen is marked by a nexus of competing interests, alliances, and visions for the region's future. At the forefront of these shifts stands the Southern Transitional Council (STC), a formidable entity with a pronounced influence and power base in the region.

A critical highlight of the STC's strategic maneuvering has been its inclusion of pivotal figures from the region, underscoring its commitment to forging powerful alliances. The council's capacity to pull prominent figures, like Major General Faraj Al-Bahsani and Abd al-Rahman Abu Zaraa Al-Mahrami, the commander of the Southern Giants Brigade, into its ranks indicates the STC's adeptness in consolidating its position. Al-Bahsani's and Al-mahrami's inclusion amplifies the STC's military clout and fosters cohesion among significant factions in the southern territories. This move strengthens the STC's dominion over crucial parts of South Yemen and demonstrates its ability to bring together different military, political, and tribal leaders under its banner.

However, while the STC continues to assert its dominance, the formation of the Hadramout Representative Council (HNC) and concerns from figures like Major General AL-Bahsani underscore the complexities of the political landscape. The ebb and flow of alliances and the potential for fragmentation present challenges that even significant players like the STC must navigate with precision.

In light of the evolving landscape of South Yemen, meticulous observation and nuanced diplomacy become paramount. The STC, asserting its dominant position, casts a significant shadow over the region. Meanwhile, entities like the HNC, primarily perceived as an extension of Saudi Arabia's strategy to counterbalance the STC, have yet to demonstrate genuine influence and grassroots power on the ground. The region's future stability and political direction deeply hinge on these interplays and the complex dynamics between the STC and external influences, such as Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Oman. It becomes evident that any vision of a unified and autonomous South Yemen needs to critically assess the STC's entrenched power and the geopolitical maneuvers aiming to challenge it.


[1] The members of the council include, the leader Bader Basalama, the former minister of transportation, who holds close ties with AL-Islah party in Hadramout, Mohsen Basura, deputy of the Yemen Parliament Speaker, and the head of AL-Islah in Hadramout, Abu Baker Assari, greatly influenced by AL-Islah, Sulaiman Kashmeem bin Holabi a leader in the GPC party in Hadramout, Omar bin Shihab GPC leader, Gumaan bin Saad, Secretary General Assistant of AL-Islah in Hadramout, Mohammed Bahabri, deputy of the Ministry of legal Affairs and a leader in the GPC party in Hadramout, Adel Bahamid, a prominent leader in AL-Islah and former governor of Hadramout who is accused of being complicit with AL-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula when AL-Mukalla, the capital of Hadramout, fell in the hands of the terror organization  during his leadership period in 2015, Essam bin Habrish, a prominent leader in AL-Islah, who he served as a deputy governor in Hadramout for the district of Wadi Hadramout and was fired from his position in December 2022 following accusations of corruption and mismanagement, and Abdullah Saleh Al Kathiri, a tribal leader who was a prominent leader in the GPC and later shifted to AL-Islah