The Saudi- and Emirati-led coalition in Yemen is being challenged by a stalemate, the disunity of its local Yemeni partner forces and back-channel disagreements between Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) (al-Araby al-Jadid, May 16; see also Terrorism Monitor, May 19). The coalition-backed, United Nations-recognized Yemeni President Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi is struggling to maintain full authority over the disparate militia forces fighting for the coalition. Recent events have also severely tested Hadi’s power, as coalition-backed militias, including armed groups tied to the southern Yemeni secession movement, have sought a pathway to independence (al-Quds al-Arabi [Aden], May 21; al-Araby al-Jadid [Aden], May 8). On April 27, Hadi sought to reassert his authority over coalition-controlled areas of Yemen by dismissing prominent southern Yemeni leaders associated with the secessionist movement (al-Arab [Aden], May 5; al-Jazeera [Doha], May 4). Hadi’s decision to sack the governor of Aden province, Major General ‘Aidaroos Qasim Abd al-Aziz al-Zubaydi, was particularly controversial and resulted in widespread dissatisfaction that has led to protests and unrest in and around the city of Aden (Reuters, May 31; Arabi 21 [Aden], May 6).
Al-Zubaydi, 60, is also one of the most prominent leaders in al-Muqawama al-Janoobiyya (Southern Resistance), a political and armed opposition organization that was formed in late 2014 as a response to the civil war that was breaking out against the Houthis and their Saleh allies (Yemen Akhbar [Aden], May 7). The Southern Resistance is a network of predominately tribal militias that are allied with the southern Yemeni secessionist movement. Since 2007, al-Zubaydi has also been one of the key leaders within al-Harakat al-Janoobiyya (Southern Movement), a social and political organization that is seeking the secession of southern Yemen (al-Jazeera [Doha], May 14; Facebook, December 8, 2015).
Al-Zubaydi seemed destined for a life of militant support for the independence of southern Yemen. He is a native of the village of Zabid, in the south-central Dhali’ province. There al-Zubaydi was reportedly raised in a social and political environment that backed South Yemeni independence from the British, and which resisted incorporation into a unified, Northern-dominated government in the 1990s (al-Jazeera [Doha], May 14; Facebook, December 8, 2015). He is a former officer in the armed forces of the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen, the independent South Yemen prior to unification in 1990. Al-Zubaydi is a hero of the southern Yemeni secession movement with well-established credentials as an armed opposition leader during the 1990s in the secession movement against the former Saleh government (al-Jazeera [Doha], May 14; Yemen Akhbar [Aden], May 7; Facebook, December 8, 2015). Al-Zubaydi was a key field commander during the 1994-1998 civil war that resulted in the defeat of the southern Yemeni secessionist forces to the Ali Abdullah Saleh government. According to reports, he left Yemen for Djibouti before the conclusion of that war, and he was reportedly sentenced to death in absentia by the Saleh government, a sentence that was subsequently dropped by Saleh in an amnesty deal (al-Jazeera [Doha], May 14; Facebook, December 8, 2015).
Aden’s Governor in Opposition
Al-Zubaydi was appointed governor of Aden governorate in December 2015, after his predecessor, General Ja’afar Muhammad Saad, was assassinated in a car bomb attack that was conducted by the Islamic State (IS) (al-Jazeera [Doha], December 6, 2015). He has been a high value target for would-be assassins, and over the course of the first six months of his tenure as governor, al-Zubaydi survived four car bombing assassination attempts directed against him. It remains unclear if all the assassination attempts against him were conducted by IS, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), or by militia, tribal, or military rivals that are part of the Saudi- and Emirati-led coalition (Reuters, July 15, 2016; The National [Abu Dhabi], July 15, 2016).
As governor of Aden province, al-Zubaydi focused his attention on working with the coalition, particularly with the UAE, to improve the security and stability of the areas in and around the city of Aden (YouTube, August 28, 2016; YouTube, January 4, 2016). Aden, which is the “temporary capital” of Yemen as the seat of the Hadi government, is a major port for moving humanitarian assistance into the country, and it is the most important base of operations for coalition forces (The National [Abu Dhabi], April 9; al-Arabiyya [Dubai], March 7, 2015). Al-Zubaydi’s credibility with the Southern Resistance militia network, which fiercely contested the Houthi and Saleh allied forces in and around Aden and which has strongly contributed to the security infrastructure that protects the city, provided him with local influence and authority over a large component of the area’s security forces while governor (YouTube, April 28, 2016; YouTube, January 3, 2016). His political opponents allege that he was corrupt, embezzled tax revenue and practiced nepotism in appointing positions in the Aden province government and security services (Yemen Press [Aden], May 23).
Al-Zubaydi reportedly maintains close ties with the UAE, which is the member of the coalition responsible for holding and securing the area in and around Aden. It is believed that the ongoing dispute between Hadi and the UAE — and to a lesser extent disagreements between Saudi Arabia and the UAE on coalition strategy and the future end state for southern Yemen — motivated Hadi to oust al-Zubaydi (Associated Press, April 29; Xinhua, April 28). Al-Zubaydi’s ties to the South Yemen secessionist movement, which generally opposes Hadi’s presidency, likely led to his removal from the Aden governorship (Reuters, May 4). Despite the presence of coalition forces led by the UAE in the area in and around Aden, political disagreements and turf disputes have led to periodic clashes between forces loyal to Hadi and competing militias that are part of the secessionist Southern Resistance network (Reuters, May 31; Yemen Akhbar [Aden], May 3).
The Southern Transitional Council
Most of the estimated tens of thousands of demonstrators that sought al-Zubaydi’s reinstatement as governor were reportedly members of the Southern Resistance and belonged to the secessionist movement (al-Quds al-Arabi [Aden], May 21; al-Arab [Aden], May 5). Despite al-Zubaydi’s May 11 announcement regarding the formation of a 26-member “Southern Transitional Council” following mass public demonstrations in support of him, he has not consolidated the backing of the Southern Movement, an important coalition that has historically been the most powerful political proponent for secession (YouTube, May 11; Associated Press, May 11). However, al-Zubaydi’s move to form the Southern Transitional Council, which includes prominent southern Yemeni secessionist leaders, has significantly complicated his position. The Gulf Cooperation Council, led by Saudi Arabia, and the Arab League released public statements rejecting the formation of the Southern Transitional Council and southern Yemeni secession. Subsequently, al-Zubaydi was summoned to Saudi Arabia for consultations with coalition leadership (al-Araby al-Jadid [Kuwait City], May 16; Xinhua, May 13; al-Sharq [Doha], May 12). Al-Zubaydi’s trip to Saudi Arabia, and the GCC and Arab League rebuke of the Southern Transitional Council, is also believed to be a public Saudi rebuke of the UAE’s ambiguous position toward the southern Yemeni secessionist movement (Bawabati [Aden], May 15).
The local power dynamics in southern Yemen, and the coalition’s operating headquarters in Aden, will remain unstable for the foreseeable future. The Saudi- and Emirati-led coalition will continue to rely on powerful, local Yemeni leaders such as al-Zubaydi as the coalition prosecutes its campaign against the Houthis and Saleh-aligned forces. Al-Zubaydi is a well-known and popular local political, social and military leader who is not likely to remain marginalized by Hadi for the long-term. The constituents who support al-Zubaydi are part of an important popular mass movement in Aden and are seeking the independence of southern Yemen. Increasingly, the coalition (particularly the Emiratis), which has worked closely with constituent militias of the Southern Resistance movement, will be faced with a decision on whether to frustrate calls for southern Yemeni independence or to cater to these local partner forces at the expense of Hadi. Hadi, a troublesome partner at best for the coalition, may not be able to dissuade and deter his Yemeni coalition partners for much longer. This could lead Riyadh and Abu Dhabi to tacitly endorse the process that would bring about Southern Yemen’s independence. Secessionist leaders, prominently led by al-Zubaydi, would stand to benefit at Hadi’s expense if the coalition leadership calculates that it is better to permit the process of southern Yemeni independence than to confront it.