Riyadh Agreement between Legitimate Government and Separatists.. Way to peace on the rubble of sovereignty

Case Analysis | 9 Nov 2019 00:00
 Riyadh Agreement between Legitimate Government and Separatists.. Way to peace on the rubble of sovereignty





   The agreement between the internationally recognized Yemeni government and the UAE-backed Southern Transitional Council was signed after weeks of tension following the takeover of Aden and parts of Abyan, al-Dhale and Lahj. The Yemeni government accused the UAE of financing an “armed insurgency” and planning and implementing the events of August 2019 in Aden.

As part of the government's efforts to consolidate its control, the army regained positions and moved towards Aden and defeated the UAE's military formations. But on August 29, 2019, Emirati aircraft bombed army units at the entrance to the city of Aden, killing and wounding 300 soldiers, creating a major shift within the coalition, led by it and Saudi Arabia against the Houthis. The shelling increased the anger of the Yemeni government while the UAE said that the attack targeted “terrorists” who attacked the forces of the Arab coalition. The attack increased dispute between the legitimate government and the UAE. Yemen’s foreign minister complained to the UN Security Council during the UN General Assembly meeting and demands by the legitimate government that the UAE leaves the Arab coalition increased.   

The city of Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, has hosted indirect consultations between the legitimate government and the Southern Transitional Council, which have already begun since the end of September 2019, and many drafts have been submitted, most of which come within the UAE / Saudi consensus, at a time when the two sides presented their visions to resolve the crisis that almost ended the legitimacy of the coalition to face the Houthis.

In July 2019, the UAE announced the start of its withdrawal from Yemen, but in September and October 2019, most of the UAE troops left from Aden. The Saudi forces took over the management of military operations in the city and most of the southern provinces, according to an official announcement from the coalition that called it “the repositioning of forces” to begin a new phase of confrontation with the Houthis may end the war in the country and lay the seeds for coming up wars.

Riyadh Agreement

The agreement was signed on Tuesday, 5 November 2019, in the Saudi capital of Riyadh, in the presence of the Saudi Crown Prince, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi, the Yemeni President and the leaders of the Southern Transitional Council (STC). Each side had a team of negotiators. On the government side, the team was chaired by Vice President Lieutenant General Ali Mohsen Saleh. On the STC side, the team was chaired by General Aidaroos al-Zubaidi, chairman of the Southern Transitional Council, who was governor of Aden (2015-2017) until he was  dismissed by President Abd Rabbo Mansour Hadi.

The agreement is made up of four pages (foreword and three annexes: the Political and Economic Arrangements Supplement, the Security Arrangements Supplement and the Military Arrangements Supplement); these four pages require explanations to what has been mentioned and will be the subject of a joint committee that will be overseen by the coalition.

A) The main provisions of the agreement:

- Forming a committee under the supervision of the coalition to follow up, implement and fulfill the provisions of the agreement.

- Participation of the Southern Transitional Council along with the government delegation in political consultations to end the coup of the Houthi militia.

- Forming a government of political competencies, not exceeding (24) ministers, who shall be appointed by the President in consultation with Prime Minister and other political components. The political portfolios shall be divided equally between the northern and southern governorates within 30 days of the signing of the agreement. Those who are known for their integrity, competence and expertise and those who did not engage in any hostile or inciting acts during the events of Aden, Shabwa and Abyan are eligible for the ministerial portfolios.

- President Hadi appoints governors in Aden, Abyan, al-Dhale and then in other southern governorates in consultation.

- The current Prime Minister will start his work in Aden a week after the signing of the agreement. During the week, a new government is sworn in before President Hadi in Aden.

B) Military Annex

• Collecting and transporting medium and heavy weapons of various types from all military and security forces, including (tanks, armored vehicles, artillery, Katyusha, heavy mortars, thermal rockets, and heavy and medium caliber crews) and placing them under the Coalition administration and supervision.

• Moving all government military forces and military formations of the Transitional Council in Aden shall be taken out of the governorate - the location of shall be decided by the coalition - and only the first brigade of presidential protection will remain to protect the president, and security personnel to protect the leadership of the Southern Transitional Council.

• Numbering of troops (from both sides) and including them in the Ministry of Defense.

• Reorganizing the forces in Aden and then in other southern governorates.

C) Security Annex

• Reorganizing and redeploying government forces and formations of the Southern Transitional Council under the Ministry of Interior. Security and Rescue Forces will be responsible for protecting the city.

• Reorganizing Special Forces and combating terrorism in Aden, and selecting new elements and leadership from the government forces and formations of the Southern Transitional Council.

• Reorganizing the Facilities Protection Force. "The force shall be selected according to competence from the current facilities protection force or from the legitimate forces or from the formations of the Transitional Council. This force shall be responsible for the full protection of civic facilities, the headquarters of the government and the Central Bank, the port and airport of Aden, the Aden Refinery and the headquarters and branches of ministries and other state institutions in Aden. "

• The Facilities Protection Force shall be responsible for protecting civic and vital installations in the other liberated governorates, including the ports of Mukalla, Dhabah, Mokha and Balhaf, within ninety days from the date of the agreement signature.

Imbalances of the Riyadh Agreement:

1) Shifts in several copies: Several copies were submitted between September  and November 2019, and these shifts are noticed in several drafts which were presented, mostly by the Saudi side, and leaked to media, show the size of the gap between them. For example, the leaked drafts talked about "merging" formations outside the defense and interior ministries and the signed version talked about "reorganizing forces." The leaked drafts refer to the banning of any armed formation outside the defense and interior ministries, but this provision was deleted from the signed copy. The leaked drafts also dealt with the forces' orientation to fight the Iranian-backed Houthis, while the signed version talks about stabilizing security and fighting terrorism.

The leaked drafts of the agreement also confirmed the return of the Yemeni Parliament to meetings in the capital, Aden, but the signed agreement ignored this key point. The leaked drafts stipulated that the entire government would return to Aden, but in the signed agreement only prime minister would return  without any reference to other members.

The leaked drafts stipulated that all formations outside the state, including the "the Republic Guards" and the "Giants Brigades," shall be merged into the army but the signed agreement ignored that. The agreement did not mention the  security belts and elites but talked about "formations of the Southern Transitional Council."

The leaked drafts said that the signatories of the agreement were: the Yemeni government, the Southern Transitional Council, and other southern components, in an attempt to break the impasse of presenting the Southern Transitional Council as the sole representative of the southern governorates, but the agreement was signed between the Yemeni government and the Southern Transitional Council, and attended by symbols of other southern components as guests in honor of the ceremony - although some refused to attend.

2) References and Constants: The agreement indicates in its prelude that the "Coalition to Support the Legitimacy" is abided by the three references, the Gulf initiative and its executive mechanism, the outputs of the comprehensive national dialogue and Security Council resolution 2216. This means that the signatories  are not abided by the three references as the Southern Transitional Council  sees that the three references contradict with its objective to achieve what it calls "the restoration of the southern state before 1990". The lack of reference to the national constants in the preamble of the agreement, "Yemen's unity and territorial integrity" makes the agreement as the first step towards the division of the country.

Therefore, from the perspective of the Southern Transitional Council, the agreement gives it the first step towards achieving its objectives. This was confirmed by the Council before the agreement as a "strategic step towards the realization of its project in the separation of the south from the north"[1] and to be "an essential and strategic step in the fateful issue."[2]

3) Sovereignty of the country: The agreement did not refer to Yemen's unity, territorial integrity and sovereignty. On the contrary, the agreement mentioned  "consultation" in appointing ministers, officials and governors. While the government has repeatedly accused the UAE of violating its sovereignty, Saudi troops arrived as a substitute for Emirati forces, and the administration of Aden has been taken over entirely from the UAE that has already announced the departure of Aden. Saudi Arabia has not enabled the Yemeni government or its forces to impose its influence - as expected, so the country’s sovereignty, from the legal viewpoint, is still violated and that the administration has just handed over to a new foreign hand.

The agreement officially provides a new "supremely sovereign" authority, as the "coalition" (UAE and Saudi Arabia) will supervise the implementation of the agreement and will be a partner - in consultation - in dismissal and appointment. The restriction of the movement of forces and weapons to the coalition, not the Yemeni government, confiscates the right of the state that the coalition supposedly intervened to enable. This makes the Yemeni government, which will have security forces with only light weapons, similar to the Palestinian Authority.

4) Protection of Institutions: The agreement specifies that the facilities protection force shall receive vital ports and installations, not including those in Socotra, Mahra and Wadi Hadramaut. This means that the UAE will hand over the ports mentioned in the security annex along with the Balhaf facility at the end of January 2020 - which was confirmed by a government source familiar with the agreement and repeated Saudi promises on this - but the UAE will not hand over  Al-Rayyan airport and Balhaf base where its forces are located, in addition to  keeping its presence in Socotra. The same is true for Riyadh in al-Mahra and Socotra where Saudi forces will remain.

5) Integration and Arrangements: The agreement does not provide for the integration of paramilitary formations outside the state and melting them into the defense and interior forces, but it refers to the reorganization and numbering of forces within the security forces and the army. Government officials point out that the reorganization is "integration" and "melting," which the STC denies through spokespersons.[3]

It is known that most of the forces that fought in Aden, Shabwa and Abyan belong to these governorates, so reorganizing them according to geography - as the agreement indicates - keeping them away from the national identity.

The reorganization will take place not under the supervision of the ministries of defense and interior but of a joint committee from the new government and the Southern Transitional Council, and to be overseen by the coalition, and decisions  and visions shall be made in accordance with consensus between all parties. The decisions or visions are expected to be passed to Saudi Arabia and the UAE for approval.

6) Trap of Interpretation: It seems that most of the content of the agreement requires a clear interpretation that will be the responsibility of a committee under the supervision of the coalition. For example, "merging or reorganization" and the agreement does not refer explicitly to the security belts and elites, but to "formations belonging to the Southern Transitional Council," and these formations do not entirely belong to the transitional council, but receive orders from a separate command of the Emirates, and there are formations follow the Southern Transitional as they have been recruited from al-Dhale and Yafe and already receive orders from Aidaroos al-Zubaidi,[4] the president of the council. They are in thousands, while the security belts and elites are estimated at 90,000. Different interpretations of this agreement may be the seeds of its failure, as happened in the Stockholm agreement between the government and the Houthis regarding the Hodeida agreement (December 2018).

Impact of the Riyadh Agreement

The "Riyadh Agreement" is a new dramatic phase, which the United Nations and international actors believe will lead to a comprehensive solution with the Houthis. Efforts seem to be moving in this direction, but it may give more congestion to other local actors.

1) The Southern Transitional Council: The agreement gives legitimacy to the Southern Transitional Council that has never had any official international recognition because of the government's rejection to recognize it since its foundation in 2017. It also legitimizes other affiliated bodies such as the National Assembly that is considered as a parallel parliament.

By recognizing the Transitional Council through the latest agreement, its parallel bodies in other countries, especially Western countries which act against the legitimate government, can be transformed into legitimate institutions to move and meet with international officials and allow them to open partnerships.

Since 2017, the Southern Transitional Council (STC) has built itself as a parallel authority to the Yemeni state, denouncing the legitimate government and acting as a representative of the 'Southern Issue' despite popular rejection from many southern components, but with this agreement it will combine a parallel authority (such as the National Assembly / Parliament) and a state within the state.

2) Representation of the southern issue and separation: The agreement does not represent the southern issue as most of the other southern components either refused to attend or held other events to confirm that they are not affiliated with the agreement. But the agreement could halt the bloody events in southern Yemen that could have turned into a new civil war. But if the STC is dealt with as a representative of the southern Yemen, the danger of civil war will remain.  

The sons of Socotra, Hadramout, Shabwa and Mahra spoke clearly that the  eastern governorates will not admit the Riyadh agreement if it contradicts with their ambitions. These governorates are rich with oil and they have strategic ports and represent most of the country’s map, while the STC is considered to be a representative of al-Dhale and Lahj. However, it is feared that the increase in the number of southern components may lead Western actors to consider the "southern transitional" as representative of the southerners, which means a new phase of regional war that will not end easily.

Attempts to include other governorates may lead to disputes between governorates and make the federal state project - the solution to the form of the Yemeni state that was approved by the National Dialogue Conference (2013-2014) – fluctuate and make it difficult to implement this project or may be deliberately demolished.[5]

3)Other Formations: The agreement gives any new armed formations hope to   obtain political gains under similar agreements, while keeping their entities unchanged or dissolved. This is referred to as the “Republic Guards”, the “Giants Brigades”, the “Tihami Resistance”, and the “Abu al-Abbas Brigades” operating in the West Coast and Taiz. Prior to the signing of the agreement, the UAE handed over an island, with an important location, to Tariq Saleh, the nephew of former president Ali Saleh, and commander of the Republic Guards. This may lead to the creation of new formations in the liberated areas in order to obtain the same gains.

4) Consultations with the Houthis: The agreement provides a form of a good agreement between the Houthis with the internationally recognized legitimate government because the agreement keeps the Southern Transitional Council as an entity, not a party as the Houthis are asked to do. The Houthis group will be sure that they can keep their structure as “militia” and they can guarantee an effective presence in a large part of Yemeni territory in the north.

Saudi Arabia has opened a "contact" with Mehdi al-Mashat, head of the Houthi Supreme Political Council, through a third party. Sources spoke of advanced consultations in Muscat under US auspices. This comes after the Houthis offered a unilateral truce to stop ballistic and drones attacks on Saudi vital installations in September 2019, following an attack on oil plants in Abqaiq and Khurais in eastern Saudi Arabia. The Houthis adopted the operation, but Riyadh and the United States blamed Iran, the Houthis ally.

"The Houthis proposal is a positive step towards a more serious political dialogue," Prince Mohammed bin Salman said in an interview with CBS television, adding that Saudi Arabia was open to all initiatives for a political solution in Yemen. "We hope that this will happen today instead of tomorrow."

Saudi Arabia may have decided to unite forces behind Hadi before responding to the Houthi offer. The Saudis see the Riyadh agreement as "an opportunity for the Houthis to see that Saudi Arabia prefers to be a peacemaker in Yemen ... while Iran is trying to escalate the situation in the region." They see that the agreement was a massage that “Saudi Arabia's presence in Yemen is not to control the land or the acquisition of gas and oil, but to support the state, its institutions and unity, and target al-Qaeda and ISIS, and ending the Iranian interference in Yemen.”[6] What indicates this is that the agreement does not mention the unification of efforts to confront the Houthis as it was mentioned in previous drafts and in the statements of Yemeni officials.

For easing tensions between the Houthis and Saudi Arabia, the Riyadh agreement would boost UN efforts to pave the way for political talks leading to an end to a war that has killed tens of thousands and pushed millions to the brink of starvation. But reaching this would mean ignoring the Hodeida agreement, which the legitimate government wants it to be implemented before a comprehensive solution to the war.

The pressure on the legitimate government by Saudi Arabia to sign the Riyadh agreement may happen again for pushing in the same direction if an understanding is reached with the Houthis. The Saudis and Iranians[7] believe that resolving the escalating crisis in the region begins with a political agreement in Yemen. Mediations between Saudi Arabia and Iran have been conducted in order to defuse tensions via the so-called "political solution"[8] in Yemen.

5) UAE Withdrawal: The UAE already reduced its military presence in Yemen in June as Western pressure mounted to end the conflict that has pushed millions to the brink of starvation. But Abu Dhabi could retain its influence through tens of thousands of members of armed formations it has armed and trained for four years. According to sources, financial support has gradually decreased during the two months preceding the signing of the agreement under Saudi pressure.

Hadi's government asked the UAE to stop supporting the Southern Transitional Council, accusing it of being behind the weakness of the legitimate government and supporting "rebellions" against it.

In November, the UAE said it had withdrawn from Aden. But it was not expected that the UAE would leave its influence behind and leave the south of the country without maintaining a permanent presence as it planned before. It found that  several areas were suitable for the UAE presence, including "Thobab in Taiz", "Balhaf in Shabwa", "Mukalla in Hadramout" and "West Socotra." Abu Dhabi has military bases in those areas and it would those bases to be permanent. This is evident as the UAE tries to establish its presence, not withdraw from Socotra on the Arabian Sea, and pushes demonstrations in its favor amid rejection by the local authority. In contrast, the government officials say it has been agreed with the UAE to withdraw by January 25, 2020.

Obstacles to the implementation of the agreement

In most of the Yemeni agreements, which are carried out under external pressure or with compromises and middle solutions, face many obstacles in the way of implementation.

The agreement, which gave the Southern Transitional Council a legitimacy for the first time in the presence of the Yemeni president, the Saudi crown prince and the crown prince of Abu Dhabi, put the forces loyal to him under the "command" of the ministries of defense and interior. The Southern Transitional Council has also reduced its ambitions from "demands for secession" to a seat in the overall solution, while retaining its separatist goals, as its leaders say, with recognizing the Yemeni president as the legitimate president.

The main obstacles include:

-Loss of confidence: As the agreement seems to be good in this period – for both sides - the fears of "mistrust" between the two parties and misinterpretation of the agreement may prompt the explosion of the situation again, especially since the consultations were indirectly.

The meeting with the president on the third day of the signing of the agreement, November 7, 2019, without publishing pictures of the meeting – except news by official Saba agency – seems to be one of the most important indicators of loss of confidence. Talking about the mixing of "government" and "southern transitional" forces without merging and  dismantling previous formations makes them solid blocks ready to rebel at any time.


-Exclusion: The exclusion of civilian and military leaders who have implemented the orders of the President and the Ministries of Defense and Interior to protect the interim capital of Aden from government appointments is a setback for the state and may cause a loss of confidence in the leadership, encourage rebellions and support the rebels and threaten the future of anyone who dares to support the state.

As the Yemeni president has abandoned his most prominent military supporters, the transitional would give up his most important leaders, which could lead to conflict over the delivery of heavy and medium weapons and equipment, and could pave the way for new armed formations far from the government and the transitional.

The degree of leaders from the two parties to be removed from positions of    ministers is not known. The agreement has also ignored the National Assembly.

Although the Riyadh agreement would significantly ease any rebellion, excluding the Republic Guards and the Giants Brigades from the solution could lead to rebellion for gains similar to the southern transitional.

The agreement did not refer to Socotra and Mahra, and tribal representatives announced their rejection of this agreement, such as the "Southern Salvation Conference," and the leader of Socotra Sheikhs.[9]

-Different interpretations: The agreement talks about the formations like the facilities protection force from former members of the pro-government forces or those loyal to the southern transitional within a period of thirty days. This may cause disagreements about the number and degree of composition if not previously resolved. At the same time, there will be disagreements over the meaning of "reorganization" of forces and over the current forces, shall remain in the same command of brigades or shall be changed, or the integration of all forces in general.

-Houthi thinking: In the coming weeks, the Houthis will constantly monitor the cohesion of the Riyadh agreement and try to destabilize it to obtain subsequent gains.

-Saudi Responsibility: Most of the burden in implementing the Riyadh agreement will fall on Saudi Arabia, and it will be the final arbiter in the interpretation of the agreement. It is clear that the Yemeni government put all the eggs in the Riyadh basket. Saudi Arabia has begun to implement the agreement on the ground by sending military forces and vehicles, and the UAE is gradually coming out of Aden. Any breach by the Southern Transitional against the Saudi vision will put it in direct confrontation with it, and the same for the UAE, which rejected a government request to stop arming the "separatists" after the Riyadh agreement.[10] Saudi Arabia needs to get this opportunity to ease international pressure on the kingdom from its Western allies. It also needs to get this opportunity to make progress in its consultations with the Houthis for its interest.

Scenarios of success or failure:

The success or failure of the Riyadh agreement is based on overcoming the above obstacles or not. If the agreement is successfully implemented within a 90-day period, February 2020 - the deadline for the implementation of the last paragraphs - the Yemeni government's position towards the Houthis will be stronger, and the Transitional Council will be part of the government’s delegation to consultations with the Houthis. The delegation will include representatives from other southern streams alongside the political parties, while the Houthi delegation will include representatives of the General People's Congress (GPC), based in Sana'a.

But one of the downsides of the success of the agreement is that it will perpetuate the Lebanese situation in Yemen.

However, if the agreement fails, a war awaits the southern Yemen and it may turn into regional conflicts. The Transitional Council has failed to find a presence in Shabwa, Hadhramout, Mahra, Socotra and Abyan, and its forces suffered a setback there; and the Riyadh agreement also excludes the government forces in Marib, Taiz and al-Jawf from entering under it, and the Government forces have a large military force in these governorates. If heavy and medium weapons are withdrawn from the Transitional Council, and if Saudi Arabia does not abandon the Yemeni government and continues to restrict UAE arms access to pro-transitional formations, the government will be capable to resolve any anticipated rebellion. But if the government and its forces are restricted and the transitional continues to receive logistical and military support, the transitional will expand its armed grip on the eastern governorates, which are currently outside its control, and it can impose secession on the ground as a reality by force, which means returning to zero point in the file of peace with the Iranian-backed Houthis, which Saudi Arabia hopes to accomplish.


With the end of the war and the collapse of the dream of secession, at least in this difficult situation in Yemen, the Yemenis may have won peace temporarily but they lost the state sovereignty for at least the next few years. The agreement between the Yemeni government and the transitional council takes part of the right of the Yemeni state to use military force and gives the right of supervising military forces, using them, organizing them and composing them to another foreign country, Saudi Arabia, which oversees the implementation of the agreement, hoping it can replicate another version with the Houthis.


[2] Interview of Aidarous al-Zubaidi with Saudi Okaz newspaper (31 October 2019) https://www.okaz.com.sa/article/1753911

[3] Mansour Saleh, deputy head of the Media Department of the STC, told Al-Arabiya Al-Hadath after hours of signing (November 5, 2019).

[4] Receive salaries from the UAE but receive orders from Aidaroos al-Zubaidi and Shalal Ali Shaye, the security director

[5] In the meeting of leaders of the Eastern Region: Bakrit refuses Hadhramout, Bahsani leaves the meeting


[6] Sources: Saudi-brokered deal to include separatists in southern Yemen https://ara.reuters.com/article/idARAKBN1X50JK

[7] How to stop the war in Yemen? Answers from Iran and Saudi Arabia https://www.alhurra.com/a/yemen-diplomatic-efforts-iran-saudi/269252.html

[9]Parties welcome, "Youth Revolution" rejects and "Salvation" considers it a legitimization of foreign occupation.. Different local responses to the Riyadh agreement https://almasdaronline.com/articles/173843

"Al Afrar" refuses to attend the signing of the Riyadh agreement because of the marginalization of Socotra and Mahra https://socotrapost.com/socotranews/1185                                                                                                    

[10]CNN reveals: Yemeni government demanded UAE guarantees not to arm the separatists, but it did not happen https://yemenshabab.net/reports/51327  

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