Yemen vice-president: Independence of the south is the solution
Peace in Yemen can only be achieved when southerners’ calls for independence are addressed, said the country’s vice-president, Aidroos al-Zubaidi.
Zubaidi has a prominent role as an influential member of the internationally recognised Yemeni government’s ruling Presidential Leadership Council (PLC).
Yet he is also head of the Southern Transitional Council (STC), a secessionist organisation set up in 2017 that seeks an independent south Yemen, and which oversees the administration of several provinces, including the strategic port city of Aden.
In London for meetings with British officials, Zubaidi told journalists: “We think that independence of the south is the solution.”
Nine years into a war that pits the Houthi movement in the north against forces aligned with the Yemeni government in the south, Yemen’s economy is shattered, with currency devaluation doubly as bad in government-administered areas than in Houthi ones.
The STC, which is heavily backed by the United Arab Emirates, believes the government isn’t doing enough to alleviate Yemenis’ suffering and has sought a change in its leadership - particularly a reshuffle that would better represent the south.
A week ago, the STC accused the government of “rampant corruption, fiscal mismanagement and driving the country to the brink of bankruptcy”. Southerners have long been dissatisfied with the outcomes of last year's truce agreement with the Houthis, in which the Saudi-led coalition backing the government eased its choke hold on the Houthi-held Hodeidah port and Sanaa airport.
Zubaidi said the economic situation in the south has only been made worse since ships began being allowed to dock in Hodeidah, rather than Aden, and noted that while a fragile de-facto truce remained, Houthi attacks on oil installations had exacerbated the fuel crisis, which causes regular blackouts.
However, despite saying the STC prioritises working with the parties in the PLC to stabilise the riyal, end fuel shortages and increase food security, Zubaidi believes Yemen can’t move forward unless the issue of southern independence is addressed.
From 1967, Yemen was divided between two states, until the socialist south was conquered by the north in 1990. But since Yemen’s latest war broke out in 2014, in which the Houthis were beaten back from the south by a Saudi-led coalition, support for southern independence has grown.
Four years ago, the STC and Yemeni government forces even came to blows, with Saudi mediation bringing the deadly clashes to an end.
Describing the PLC as “a coalition of different agendas”, Zubaidi said the executive body can hold together only as long as the southern issue is addressed as a priority.
Yet exiting the PLC altogether would be disastrous, he said.
“Everything would be destroyed,” Zubaidi said. “So we are not pulling out, especially because the STC is on the ground and so pulling out would affect us. It's about how to solve the problems, because we don't have time.”
Notably, two other members of the eight-person PLC joined the STC last month.
Talks with the Houthis
If relations with the STC’s fellow parties within the Yemeni government are hard to navigate, the prospect of power-sharing with the Iran-aligned Houthi movement appears to be an even more difficult prospect.
The Houthis, which control most urban centres including the capital Sanaa, held peace talks with Saudi Arabia earlier this year without the participation of the STC or other elements of the Yemeni government. Another round is expected soon.
Around 250,000 people are believed to have been killed in the war. And while Zubaidi believes Riyadh is genuinely seeking peace - “They want to leave. They want to close this file and focus more on their Vision 2030” - the vice president also thinks the Houthis are playing for time and regrouping for another round of conflict. “They live and they survive during war, not during peace.”
Zubaidi said finding common ground with the Houthis would be hard, as the rival Yemeni governments adhere to two “totally different systems”.
“The Houthis' ideology is a theological system that believes authority comes from God. While we in the STC and the south, and now in the PLC, believe that authority comes from the people - not from up, from down,” he said.
“And this is a big difference that makes it very difficult to share something together and to form a system together.”
Rapprochements are in vogue in the Middle East. Saudi Arabia, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates have largely buried the hatchet with regional rivals Turkey and Qatar. Meanwhile, in April, Saudi Arabia and Iran came to a landmark agreement in Beijing, and have since reopened embassies and consulates.
Zubaidi described the Saudi-Iran talks as “something positive for the region”.
“If it can fix some of the problems, calm the situation, this is good. We won't say no to this and we support it.”
But, he added, they are yet to affect Yemen positively. “If there is an effect, we didn't see anything,” he said. Either way, Zubaidi said, many of Yemen’s problems “need to be solved from the grassroots, not from outside”.
Ironically, while many of the region’s players are coming together after years of disruptive competition, close allies Saudi Arabia and the UAE are now reportedly in disagreement over a number of issues, including Yemen.
Riyadh and Abu Dhabi entered the Yemen war in 2015 to support the Yemeni government. Since 2019 they have pursued contrasting policies, with the UAE withdrawing troops, seeking footholds in the south and acting as the STC’s patron.
“The rift between the Saudis and the Emiratis, we just hear it from the media. So we don't know about it. We don't know the details,” Zubaidi said.