Yemen could come to regret a messy divorce

Yemen's south cannot easily stay within a united Yemen. But, writes Faisal Al Yafai, going it alone has far more risks than Hirak and southerners care to admit

A supporter of Yemen's Southern Separatist Movement stands in front of a tank flying the movement's flag near the international airport in the port city of Aden. Southerners may want to leave the union, but, says Faisal Al Yafai, may soon come to regret it. (AFP PHOTO / SALEH AL-OBEIDI)
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In the south of Yemen today, every outsider is a northerner. The red star on a blue border, part of the old South Yemen flag, can be seen everywhere. The “northern occupation”, as the unification with the north has been increasingly called since 2009, is now the northern invasion.

There’s a grain of truth in the expression and it has gained from repetition and reality. The Houthis, once confined to the furthest northern province of Saada, suddenly appeared on the roads of Aden a few weeks ago, armed with guns, missiles and fighter jets. They brought with them the remnants of former president Ali Abdullah Saleh’s army.

And, because of their appearance and attempt to take over Yemen’s second city, they also brought the fighter jets of the GCC and the warships of Egypt. Sanaa had become a remote city for southerners since the Arab Spring – now it appeared to have returned to the South with a vengeance.

The South has had enough. Once the Houthis have been pushed out, calls for secession will rise again. In the past, during the transition from Ali Abdullah Saleh’s presidency, such calls could be muted by offering federalism – especially if it came from the mouth of the new president Abdrabbu Mansour Hadi, himself a southerner.

But after the ravages of the war are cleared away, it is unlikely anything will convince the southerners to stay. Even voices that once seemed open to autonomy within the union – in particular the former president of South Yemen Ali Salem Al Beidh, who still commands significant support – have turned against the Houthis and the North. Yemen’s south is marching towards the exit.

But going it alone has far more risks than either the southern movement Hirak or southerners themselves care to admit. Southerners may get their own country, only to regret it.

Popular support for the Southern Movement is built on two pillars: a recognition of the wrongs of unification and a remembrance of the past.

The wrongs of unification are well-documented: the South went into the 1990 unification expecting parity with the north, but soon found itself sidelined. After the 1994 war, the differences intensified.

The remembrance of the past is more hazy, but the more potent for that. Southerners remember and celebrate the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen as a bastion of liberalism and modernity. “Modern and educated” is the phrase so often used by southerners – one that contains within it an unfairly unflattering comparison with the north.

Particularly as the influence of the more tribal and conservative north has expanded, southern Yemenis have looked more and more to this imagined past, seeing in it the promise of better days.

How liberal Aden and the rest of the south was in the 1970s and 1980s is a matter of fierce debate. But what is certain is that those two decades also coincided with the rise of the Gulf’s economies, to which many Yemenis migrated, taking with them their memories. The reality of Yemen today – a reality reflected across the Middle East – is that religion and social conservatism have increased since that time. It is not unity alone that made Yemenis conservative.

Of greater concern is how any split would be negotiated and what would happen after. With the bulk of Yemen’s limited oil reserves in the south, Hirak could find themselves in the same position as South Sudan, figuring out a way to split the oil revenues without triggering war. Those negotiations would be fraught. It would be an acrimonious divorce.

The post-split future also relies heavily on rosy scenarios. Because of geography, a new South Yemen would stretch from the border with Saudi Arabia down to the port of Aden. To the east, it would border Oman. In addition, the south is majority Sunni – Yemen’s Zaydi Shia are based mainly in the north.

All of which would make an independent South Yemen an ideal partner state for the GCC. For Saudi Arabia in particular, the attractions of partnering with a new South Yemen are obvious, providing a clear route to the Gulf of Aden and the Arabian Sea. For the rest of the GCC, extending the planned railway network from Salalah in Oman down to Aden would be a simple way of moving goods and people to the new capital.

All of that, though, is a best-case scenario, one that relies heavily on external investment – and minimises the effects of having a weak administration in the south, a lack of a strong military and limited resources.

If that seems like the best case scenario for the South, it is also a worst-case scenario for the North, which would then be a majority Zaydi state, hemmed in on three sides by Sunni states.

Southerners may hear that and not care. Such is the anger in the south of Yemen that many southerners may seek to be rid of the Houthis and the northerners at any cost. But that could be short-sighted. A split that works for South Yemen alone would be as bad as a unification that worked only for the North.

On Twitter: @FaisalAlYafai