A Precarious Partnership: Navigating the Saudi-STC Relations Amidst Shifting Dynamics and Complex Challenges

November 5, 2023

Ala Mohsen

Southern Resistance Forces in Aden 2015 - Nabil Alquety


The unexpected Houthi takeover of the capital, Sana’a, in 2014 marked a significant blow to the Saudi policymakers. The Saudis found themselves neighboring an openly hostile and unruly regime, which was readily forging a close alliance with Iran and “the resistance camp.” Despite this disconcerting development, it was only after the succession of leadership in Riyadh and the escalation of events in Yemen that the Saudi-led military intervention commenced in late March 2015, known as the Decisive Storm operation. With this bold measure, the Saudis still lacked a well-defined strategy for achieving their stated goals. Reports indicated that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman displayed excessive confidence in his country’s ability to defeat the Houthis and restore President Hadi and the internationally recognized government (IRG) to power in a matter of few weeks. While the case for intervention was well-justified internationally at the time, it overestimated Hadi's level of internal support within Yemen and disregarded important internal dynamics in the country that pre-existed the intervention.

Aden as a red-line

Prior to launching its campaign, Riyadh emphasized that Aden was a redline. This firm message cautioned the allied Houthi/Saleh forces against advancing into southern governorates, indicating Saudi Arabia's willingness to take action. The Saudis followed through on this warning, rapidly assembling a coalition of Arab states to counter the Houthis and reclaim territories with the assistance of local resistance forces.  During the early stages of the war, it became clear that the Southern Resistance fighters were not merely fighting in support of Hadi and the IRG, rallying around the PDRY flag of the defunct South Yemeni state. Instead, they were defending their homeland against a second Northern-led occupation. This marked a conflict of vision between the IRG-backing Saudis and the pro-independence southern resistance movement, which would later evolve into a political organization named the Southern Transitional Council (STC)

Common enemy, diverging visions 

The Saudis did not show a substantial reaction to the establishment of the STC in May 2017; they appeared rather apathetic. However, as the STC gradually gained strength and established itself organizationally, institutionally, and militarily, its demands for political inclusion grew more pronounced. Aden Historical Declaration asserts the STC has a popular mandate to represent the aspirations of the southern people, whom the IRG has targeted through political exclusion and service warfare.  One month earlier, Hadi dismissed multiple governors and ministers closely associated with the Southern Movement. These moves were perceived as punitive actions to suppress and weaken the movement’s cause. Moreover, the IRG's mishandling of essential services in the South led to dire living conditions that included salary suspensions, electric service cuts, and hyperinflation.

Following a series of confrontations between the STC and the Hadi-led IRG in Aden and surrounding areas, the Saudis became actively engaged as conflict mediators. Their primary concern was to unify the anti-Houthi factions and prevent a collapse similar to the disintegration of the Houthi-Saleh alliance in late 2017. This initiative culminated in the Riyadh agreement and the formation of the Presidential Leadership Council (PLC), which represents the most significant Saudi endeavors to bring together the anti-Houthi camp.

Despite their role as mediators, the Saudis became increasingly drawn towards the IRG's side for three primary reasons. Firstly, the legality of their intervention in Yemen hinges on the willful invitation of Hadi and his government. Riyadh was able to secure two pivotal UNSC resolutions (UNSC 2204 and UNSC 2216) through that relationship. From that Saudi perspective, the IRG, despite its flaws and questionable elements, remains the legitimate government of Yemen. Thus, weakening the Hadi government will jeopardize the legal basis of their presence. Secondly, following the conclusion of the North Yemen civil war between the Republican and Imamate-loyalist factions in the late 1960s, Saudi Arabia established a wide-reaching patronage network encompassing state figures, influential groups, tribal sheikhs, and other societal dignitaries. This patronage network did not extend to southern elites due to the socialist nature of the PDRY regime and the political irrelevance of southern leadership after YSP's defeat in the 1994 civil war. Thirdly, a significant portion of Yemen's population resides in Houthi-controlled areas, which the Saudis recognize. Therefore, expressing support for southern aspirations could potentially isolate them from the north Yemeni population, as they may perceive it as undermining Yemen's unity. The interplay of these three factors has motivated Saudi Arabia to exercise caution in its approach towards the STC and their allies who seek independence for South Yemen.

Troubling developments 

The initial success against the Houthis can be attributed to the close coordination and harmonious relationship between the Saudis and Emiratis in their Yemen campaign. Over the years, differences in vision and policy regarding Yemen and their preferred partners have become increasingly evident. Saudi Arabia was more inclined to collaborate with its traditional sphere of influence, namely northern political elites, tribal leaders, and military factions aligned with the Islah Party. Conversely, the UAE, which is much less sympathetic towards the Muslim Brotherhood, opted to engage and support different allies, including the STC. The Saudi leadership grew particularly concerned about UAE support for southern forces against IRG’s government in Aden, especially in the backdrop of dismal performance by its local allies in the northern territories. Given this reality, the Saudis fear the STC activities could potentially compromise its influence and interests in Yemen, leading to doubts about the STC's reliability as a partner. 

After eight years of fighting the Houthis, Saudi Arabia understood that achieving territorial gains against the Houthis in the northern hinterland was nearly far-fetched to realize. International pressure and significant economic costs of the war expedited Saudi plans for a gradual withdrawal from the Yemen conflict. Additionally, their diplomatic rapprochement with Iran provided an avenue for reconciliation with the Houthis. As the war outcomes have stabilized, the Saudis are shifting their focus towards exerting influence in the liberated southern regions, as opposed to advancing to Houthi-held northern territories. Although it was never expressed by any STC official, Southern activists worry that the Saudis have started to undermine the STC. This fear started to hold more with Saudi sponsorship of regional councils in various southern governorates, including Hadramout, Al-Mahra, Shabwah, and Abyan. For this reason, activists harbor concerns that Saudi Arabia might scapegoat the South in the final settlement of the conflict.

Salvaging the relationship? 

Despite the aforementioned challenges, the Saudi-STC relationship has been a mutually beneficial one. Saudi Arabia needs a potent Yemeni force to counterbalance the Houthis, and the STC-aligned forces have become the most dominant fighting force. The southern forces have also received military and financial support from the Saudi-led coalition. Thus, both parties will lose substantially from severing this relationship. Traditionally, Saudi Arabia has relied on a network of the traditional northern-dominated political elite to wield influence in the south, which included President Saleh, General Ali Mohsen Alahmar, and their legacy parties, the GPC and Islah, respectively. However, their influence has nearly dissipated since the war erupted in 2015. The STC is better positioned to fill that void, leveraging its political weight, security provision, and close relationships with local populations. 

The clash between Saudi Arabia and the STC is far from inevitable. However, constant effort needs to be put into fixing any emerging tensions. Respecting the sensitivities of each other and allowing room for constructive differences will serve the interests of both sides. Weakening the STC will likely strengthen the Houthis, who have indiscriminately targeted Saudi cities and have not displayed any signs of good faith. Also, the STC is not a political party that fights for its share of power, but it rather represents the most important issue in Yemen. Engaging positively with the STC could provide Saudi Arabia with unprecedented leverage in a strategically important part of Yemen. Reducing the STC to being a “UAE proxy” would have detrimental effects, missing opportunities for collaboration and mutual gains. Additionally, considering the Houthis' propensity to renege on agreements, the Saudis should be realistic about what they can achieve through backdoor agreements and talks with this group. Thus, sacrificing a less-than-perfect partner for a guaranteed nemesis would not be a wise thing to do.    

The good news is that the revolutionary fervor that once defined the PDRY regime in Aden is gone for good. The STC and southern activists recognize the significance of collaborating with Saudi Arabia – a respected regional power with commendable international weight and substantial financial resources. While extending efforts to display good intentions to the Saudi leadership may be a sensible policy to pursue, this should not be done in excess. Statements of loyalty to Saudi Arabia may be a sign of subservience and weakness, especially during this critical period where the STC must demonstrate its strength as a political player capable of guiding the southern populace towards statehood while preserving the neighbors’ interests in Yemen. For that, the STC leadership needs to have the courage to prioritize the South’s national interest independent of any regional considerations, including the Saudi-Iran rivalry. Until the Saudis recognize the STC as an indispensable partner rather than an auxiliary actor, they will not be incentivized to change their policy and take southern demands more urgently. 

Concluding thoughts: Lessons and Future Prospects 

The primary challenge facing Saudi policy in Yemen has centered on the absence of a well-defined endgame. More specifically, the Saudi intentions concerning South Yemen have remained unclear, with media campaigns delivering mixed messages and contradictory rhetoric. Hence, Saudi Arabia needs to formulate a coherent vision and a consistent approach as a first step. A pragmatic course of action, forged through consultations with regional allies and local partners,, may not represent the ideal but rather what is feasible given the realities on the ground and popular preferences. For that end, progress requires a willingness to compromise and negotiate. Improved relations between Riyadh and Aden will require open and honest discussions, addressing challenging issues, and promptly dealing with significant mutual concerns.

Finally, Yemen is a deeply fragmented nation, with various political factions vying for control and power. Saudi Arabia's attempt to exploit these divisions is a risky understanding, akin to playing with fire. Given this, it would be in Saudi Arabia's best interest to assume the role of a mediator rather than align with any faction. The issue of Yemen's state structure, including the question of southern independence, should rightfully be left for the Yemenis only to decide. Any interference in these affairs carries the risk of yielding counterproductive outcomes, alienating disillusioned partners, and pushing them toward rival states. The close geographical proximity of Yemen and Saudi Arabia will make the stakes high. Therefore, the Saudi transition towards a more hands-off approach would not only be embraced by the STC but also welcomed by other actors, including the IRG, Islah, and even the Houthis.     

Ala Mohsen is a Ph.D. researcher at the University of Utah specializing in Middle East politics, focusing on Yemen, Gulf states, and Turkey.