In April, Yemen's embattled President Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi fired the governor of Aden, the city Hadi has designated as the country's temporary capital. His aim was apparently a show of strength in the face of claims that he has lost control of Aden. If that was the intention, it backfired badly.
The governor, Aiderous al-Zubaidi, refused to step down and instead announced the formation of a new council whose stated aim is to usher in the secession of Yemen's south. This triggered large public demonstrations in support of Zubaidi’s proposal. The man Hadi chose to replace Zubaidi, Abdulaziz al-Muflahi, meanwhile, has since spent most of his time in Riyadh owing to the tensions in the city.
This was just the latest example of mounting tensions in the south of Yemen. Since Aden’s liberation from the coalition of Houthis and backers of Ali Abdullah Saleh in July 2015, the mix of anti-Houthi forces (Islamists, separatists and supporters of Hadi) have increasingly turned on each other, resulting in sustained unrest in Aden. Rhetoric notwithstanding, Hadi and the largely Riyadh-based internationally recognised government have little sway over the city (as is the case for much of the ground they nominally control), and they are being increasingly challenged by former allies.
Simultaneously, the increasing strength of secessionist forces has threatened to tear Yemen apart. Such separatist sentiment, it is worth stressing, is far from new, stemming from the Saleh government’s centralization of power after the country’s 1994 civil war and exacerbated by bloody crackdowns on the Southern Movement after its formation in 2007.
But support for secession hit a new high after the Houthis’ and their allies’ scorched-earth invasion of Aden in 2015, which deepened longstanding north-south divisions. Owing in part to the support of the United Arab Emirates, key figures with secessionist leanings—most notably Zubaidi—have increased their strength on the ground in Aden. Lately they have come into conflict with both pro-Hadi forces and those aligned with the Islah party, which incorporates the bulk of the Yemeni Muslim Brotherhood. The fallout, though partially contained through Gulf mediation, has led to continuing tensions.
But while the massive street demonstrations in favour of secession—and their protection by local security forces—have underlined the strength of those calling for a return to autonomy, events on the ground in Aden continue to underline the deep instability in much of south Yemen. Zubaidi, bin Brayk and their allies may be the strongest forces on the ground, but their control is far from uncontested. While the Jihadis who once held sway over whole neighbourhoods have largely been driven underground, control of the city remains split between a mosaic of (often extremist) armed groups.
Owing to its strategic location and historical Al Qaeda presence, unrest in South Yemen could reverberate beyond Yemen’s borders. Renewed tension in South Yemen risks dragging key Gulf states further into a sinkhole of conflict, further destabilising the peninsula.
This should be of great concern for Europeans, who should consider three sets of actions that could help stabilise the conflict.
The first is sustained outreach with Southern forces currently left out of the internationally-backed political process. Regardless of key stakeholders’ firm commitment to Yemen’s continued unity, the voices of secessionists must be heard. As recent history demonstrates, their marginalisation over the course of the post Arab Spring transitional period has only served to further secessionist views among southerners. Recent meetings between key southern leaders and European diplomats represent a step in the right direction; rather than being shunned, Zubaidi and other members of the newly established Southern Council should be recognised as the key players they are.
The second is to increase efforts to return order and the rule of law in Aden. Two years after the city’s liberation from the Houthis and their allies, Aden remains a city on edge, lacking basic services like water and electricity despite significant UAE-led stabilisation efforts. Simultaneously, increased stabilisation efforts present an opportunity not just to increase the lives of the average Adeni, but to build good will in the city and the long marginalised south, something that will undeniably aid in building trust in any political process.
Finally, Europe should increase coordination with the Gulf States regarding both stabilisation and mediation efforts in the south. Deepening stabilisation coordination between Gulf States and key European actors represents not just an opportunity to maximise efficiency, but also to build trust and greater cooperation between local and regional actors. Simultaneously, careful coordination between the Gulf States and Europe stands to dramatically increase the efficacy of efforts towards mediation and de-confliction.
The precariousness of the current situation cannot be overstated, and a descent into full-scale armed conflict in the south is far from unforeseeable. Allowing the situation to continue simmering not only risks ending the internationally recognised government’s ability to operate in Aden, but also threatens the outbreak of a new civil war between pro and anti-secessionist forces within Yemen’s larger conflict. This would push the country into an even deeper spiral of localised warfare—one that has already left Al Qaeda stronger and wealthier than ever.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.