Mohammed Ali Kalfood is a freelance Yemeni journalist based between Sana’a and Hudaydah. The former managing editor of the Yemen Observer, he has written for The New York Times, The Intercept, The New Humanitarian (formerly IRIN), The Telegraph and Al Jazeera.
In mid-June, dozens of political and tribal figures from Yemen's largest governorate, Hadhramaut, announced the establishment of a new political entity known as the Hadhramaut National Council, which they said "aims to serve as a political platform to express the aspirations and represent the interests of the Hadhrami community in Yemen." Hadhramaut, which holds some 80 percent of Yemen's oil reserves, shares a long border with Saudi Arabia—which partly explains why the formation of the council was announced in Riyadh, rather than in Yemen itself.
The Yemeni representatives had been hosted in the Saudi capital for a month of talks, and it was no accident that they announced the new Hadhramaut National Council in the presence of the Saudi ambassador to Yemen, Mohammed bin Saeed al-Jaber. In early April, al-Jaber had made a high-profile visit to Sana'a to launch public, direct talks with the Houthis for the first time since 2015, in the hope of extricating Saudi Arabia from Yemen's drawn-out war, building on years of backchannel talks with the Houthis mediated by Oman, and a fragile cease-fire brokered by the United Nations. Yet despite their initial promise, those peace talks between the Saudis and the Houthis have already stalled over their fundamental flaw: the fact that they excluded the many other warring parties in Yemen.
Among those sidelined from the Saudi-Houthi talks are the Presidential Leadership Council, the eight-man group of Yemeni political rivals that assumed power from Yemen's exiled president, Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi, last year in an orchestrated handover in Riyadh. Also excluded is the secessionist Southern Transitional Council, which is backed by the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia's former coalition partner in Yemen that is now more of a rival on the ground. The STC controls much of southern Yemen and sees itself as a government-in-waiting for an independent South Yemen, which was a separate state from 1967 until Yemen's unification in 1990.
The stalemate in peace talks has exposed the deep rifts and overlapping rivalries in Yemen, including within the Saudi-led coalition fighting the Houthis. Riyadh and Abu Dhabi are increasingly at odds in Yemen, backing rival proxies and pursuing diverging interests, especially in southern and eastern Yemen. Both Saudi Arabia and the UAE likely have designs on the region's ports and resources. This brewing rivalry has inflamed tensions across almost all of Yemen's southern governorates, most of which fall currently under the control of the STC, whose influence Saudi Arabia wants to roll back.
"There is no path to restoring the stability of Yemen except through deep decentralization and allowing governorates to rule themselves."
- Abdulghani al-Iryani
The Hadhramaut National Council may appear to be part of this Saudi plan. After its announcement, Gregory D. Johnsen, a non-resident fellow at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington and a former member of the United Nations' Panel of Experts on Yemen, warned that it "is merely the latest attempt by Saudi Arabia to graft its vision for Yemen onto the state itself."
Hadhramaut has long been an arena of competing Saudi-Emirati interests since both Gulf countries intervened in Yemen in 2015 after the Houthis took over Sana'a. The STC has been seeking to drive Saudi-aligned forces out of Hadhramaut in an attempt to bring the governorate under its total control.
"The UAE has been frustrating Saudi designs on eastern Yemen since the beginning of the war," Abdulghani al-Iryani, a senior researcher at the Sana'a Center for Studies, told Democracy in Exile. He said that both the Presidential Leadership Council, installed last year, and the new Hadhramaut National Council reflect efforts by Saudi Arabia to push back on the STC and retain its own influence in southern and eastern Yemen.
Yet the Presidential Leadership Council has proven itself to be too weak to run the Yemeni government from Aden, also the seat of the STC, which remains the dominant power in southern Yemen. The establishment of the Hadhramaut National Council has catapulted a new player into this fractured political landscape. The STC might want independence, but Yemen could be headed instead for a decentralized and federalized state.
"There is no path to restoring the stability of Yemen except through deep decentralization and allowing governorates to rule themselves," al-Iryani said. He believes that the Hadhramaut National Council will "enable Hadhramaut to exercise its autonomy" and that the STC "should welcome it."
The STC has been growing its outreach abroad as it asserts more influence in Yemen and tries to win more support for its goal of an independent south. In late June, Chatham House in London hosted Maj. Gen. Aidarous al-Zubaidi, the president of the STC and a member of the Presidential Leadership Council. In his talk there, al-Zubaidi echoed what he told The Guardian in an interview: peace in Yemen could not be achieved without accepting a new reality of a north controlled by the Houthis and a separate south under the authority of the STC.
At Chatham House, al-Zubaidi insisted that U.N.-led peace talks in Yemen must be redesigned to prioritize the issue of southern independence, calling for a referendum to be held under U.N. supervision to let southerners vote on a separate, united or even federalized Yemen. "Some people say that we tried the separate states in Yemen and it didn't work, and we tried unification and it didn't work, so maybe we should try a federal system," he said.
In al-Iryani's view, al-Zubaidi and the STC are "warming up to the idea of a federal Yemen."
An elusive U.N.-mediated political process must address whether Yemen can even remain a unified state at all.
- Mohammed Ali Kalfood
But "a peaceful outcome that leads to a federalized Yemen seems more like a fantasy under the current circumstances," Nadwa al-Dawsari, a nonresident fellow at the Middle East Institute, told Democracy in Exile. "The conflict in Yemen is still evolving. As the Saudis have been taking steps to extricate themselves from the war, it is likely that the fighting will intensify internally. The Houthis are still aiming at controlling all of Yemen."
And complicating matters, Saudi Arabia "has always opposed a federal system in Yemen," added Fernando Carvajal, a Yemen expert who previously served on the U.N. Panel of Experts. A federalized Yemeni state, he said, would make it more difficult for Riyadh "to manage parties across the country." He also doubted that the STC would accept a multi-region federal system either: "It's two regions"—northern and southern Yemen—"or continue the fight."
For Carvajal, the Hadhramaut National Council "unfortunately feeds the image of a policy of divide and conquer." The role of regional councils in Yemen's governorates so far, he argued, "is to maintain fragmentation within a unified state, because this allows the government—and its patron—to maintain unity through different actors that prevent geographic divisions." Hadhramaut could not secede from Yemen today, he said, "because then three parties would fight for a while over who would govern the region." The fractured "unity" of Yemen "remains as long as that conflict exists."
While the STC has not yet taken a formal position on the establishment of the Hadhramaut National Council, a number of STC officials insist that the new council "lacks consensus." Others have claimed that "the recent establishment of the alternative political councils won't stop the demands of Southerners." Given Hadhramaut's oil and gas fields, it would be key to any STC dream of an independent state—potentially putting Saudi Arabia and the UAE on a collision course via their proxies in southern Yemen.
"It is certainly possible that the STC would escalate through mobilizing supporters in Hadhramaut, which could evolve into clashes," al-Dawsari said. Tensions are already rising between the rival factions in Hadhramaut.
Al-Iryani believes that the prospect of such conflict could push the STC to "come around and admit that autonomy within a united Yemen is a better option than the treacherous path to independence."
Meanwhile, the U.N.'s special envoy to Yemen, Hans Grundberg, continues to warn that Yemen's warring parties could return to open fighting as peace talks stall. "At the heart of my mediation efforts remains the resumption of an inclusive, Yemeni-owned political process," Grundberg told the U.N. Security Council earlier this month, providing "a platform for a plurality of Yemenis from across the country to collectively discuss and determine their own future." That elusive U.N.-mediated political process must address whether Yemen can even remain a unified state at all.