A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Monday, October 20, 2014

Is Saudi Arabia (Indirectly) Signaling Approval of South Yemen Secession?

Since the Huthi (or Houthi) Zaydi movement took control of Sana‘a', they have moved steadily to occupy much of what was one (before 1990) North Yemen, recently taking the port city of Hodeida and other Sunni areas.

As a result, the separatist movement in what was once South Yemen, al-Hirak al-Janubi ("the Southern Movement," but usually just called Hirak) has been pressing for a separation. On October 14 (the date South Yemen launched its struggle against British rule in 1963) the movement held a big rally in Aden, demanding separation by November 30, the date former South Yemen won independence in 1967.

Many will recall that four years after unification in 1990, the former South Yemen ruling party, the once Marxist-Leninist Yemeni Socialist Party, launched an earlier attempt at independence, resulting in a civil war that saw the rebels defeated. At that time, and despite the Marxist credentials of the YSP, the northerners claimed Saudi Arabia was arming the southerners, mostly via more conservative tribal leaders.

Saudi Arabia considers the Huthis as surrogates of Iran, so it is hardly delighted to see their ascendancy in the North. Now it may be sending a subtle signal that it would not oppose the secession of the South.

Last Friday, the London-based Saudi daily Asharq al-Awsat ran a column by Abdulrahman Al-Rashed called "The end of a Unified Yemen." The Arabic original is here. The same day the article ran in English on the Al-Arabiya website;   though based in Dubai, Al-Arabiya is Saudi-owned. And the next day Asharq al-Awsat's English website ran the English version. 

Now as it happens Abdulrahman al-Rashed is the former Editor of Asharq al-Awsat, and the current General Manager of Al-Arabiya. Both positions assure that he is well-connected within the Saudi establishment, and the article specifically quotes a conversation with the late Prince Nayef, then Interior Minister, before Yemeni unification in 1990. (Nayef was Crown Prince at the time of his death.) So the article surely represents Saudi government thinking.

That said, it spends most of its time lamenting the prospect of Yemeni disunion and insisting the Saudis support a single Yemen. But it shifts to a sense of resignation that disunion may be inevitable; it concludes with:
In the event that the Yemeni government is pronounced dead, or if it collapses within the next few months but no such announcement is made, we will no doubt witness the South announcing its own independent state and the inevitable end of a unified Yemen. Yemen would thus begin a new chapter in its history. However, this history will almost certainly be just as rife with domestic disputes and foreign interference, while the biggest victims will be the Yemeni people who have yet to express an opinion over this putative division.
I think it worth considering this as a subtle, and with classic Saudi indirection, signal to Hirak that the Kingdom would not oppose a South Yemeni declaration of independence.


David Mack said...

Helps me peer into the murky politics of southern Arabia, but I think there is a typo in this sentence: "At that time, and despite the Marxist credentials of the YSP, the northerners claimed Saudi Arabia was arming the northerners, mostly via more conservative tribal leaders." Do you mean "arming the southerners"?

Michael Collins Dunn said...

Yes. Now fixed. Thanks.