The relationship between supporters of the STC and Saudi Arabia remained amicable in public, but was already showing signs of strain
As Saudi Arabia’s footprint in Aden grows, its relationship with the STC sours
On the evening of Feb. 14, dozens of activists and supporters of the UAE-backed Southern Transitional Council (STC) gathered in front of the headquarters of the Saudi-led coalition forces in Aden, chanting "you Saudi liars, you are supporters of terrorism."
Although not the first time the UAE's local affiliates have protested against Saudi Arabia, their chants had never been so clear and direct, especially not in a city where the UAE has created, funded, and otherwise controlled numerous armed groups.
The standard script of STC members and their supporters at rallies in the interim capital has been to chant their praise for the UAE, followed by voicing appreciation for Saudi Arabia. More recently, however, the latter has become a focal point of criticism in campaigns led by STC activists on social media.
The change in tone appears to have come as a result of Saudi Arabia’s more direct activity in the south, particularly with its role in overseeing the implementation of the Riyadh Agreement signed between the Government of Yemen and the STC late last year. More specifically, an incident on Feb. 8 appears to have sparked the change in tone from STC supporters toward Saudi Arabia.
That evening, UAE-backed Security Belt Forces prevented military units belonging to the Yemeni government from entering Aden, thereby hindered efforts by the Saudi military commission to implement the redeployment of troops as stipulated in the military annex of the agreement. The next day, STC supporters began voicing unprecedented criticism towards Saudi Arabia.
The Al-Alam checkpoint incident
The evening of Feb. 8, three prominent Security Belt leaders went with Saudi officers to Al-Alam checkpoint, located 12 kilometers from Aden, to supervise the passage of the government’s Coastal Defence Forces, according to two military and local sources Almasdar Online spoke to about the incident. Saudi forces had requested the presence of the Security Belt commanders as representatives of the STC. These commanders were Haddar Al-Shuhati, Nasser Al-Jawhari, and Kamal Al-Halemi.
When the three Security Belt commanders arrived at Al-Alam, the Saudi commander told them that a government unit would then pass on its way to Lahj, according to the agreement to redeploy and reorganize the government forces. However, Naji Al-Yahri, a local STC-aligned commander responsible for overseeing Al-Alam checkpoint, ordered his men to be prepared and military vehicles were deployed in the area, with concrete barriers blocking the route.
This prompted negotiations between Saudi military leaders and the STC loyalists in the vicinity of the security checkpoint. Al-Yahri refused to allow the Coastal Defence Forces to enter Aden, and informed the Saudi commander that the STC’s official stance on the matter was that forces led by Col. Hassan Bin Muaily should be withdrawn from Abyan’s Shaqra district in exchange for allowing the entry of government forces into Aden. Bin Muaily leads a unit within the pro-government Presidential Protection Forces, and UAE-backed forces wanted his troops to move farther away from Abyan and other areas surrounding Aden.
According to one of the sources involved, a Saudi officer hinted at the possibility of carrying out an airstrike on the STC-allied forces, while simultaneously a coalition aircraft was flying over Al-Alam checkpoint. This intimidation tactic failed, however, as the Saudi committee left back to their headquarters and the Coastal Defence Forces returned to their positions in Shaqra city. The plane flying overhead was reportedly told to leave to defuse tension on the outskirts of Aden.
The next morning, the Saudi committee, accompanied this time by five armored vehicles, went to the Al-Alam checkpoint again to negotiate with the leaders of the Security Belt, but the latter insisted on preventing the entry of any government forces before the withdrawal of the Presidential Protection Forces led by Bin Muaily.
Despite the fact that the Security Belt Force didn't not have to cede any ground, a coordinated campaign on social media led by activists and journalists loyal to the STC was launched, targeted at the three commanders, Al-Jawhari, Al-Shuhati, and Al-Halemi. A barrage of accusations was hurled at them from activists and journalists for allegedly planning to topple Aden by helping government forces in coordination with the Saudi and Yemeni governments, which they say is under the influence of the Islah Party.
From ally to “conspirator”
Prior to the Feb. 8 checkpoint incident, the relationship between supporters of the STC and Saudi Arabia remained amicable in public, but was already showing signs of strain. The STC’s success in controlling Aden last August with the support of the UAE and the Security Belt Forces, followed by Saudi Arabia’s lack of decisive intervention on the ground, gave the STC a boost towards improving the relationship with Saudi Arabia by moving toward the Riyadh Agreement while still maintaining the upper hand.
After Feb. 8, however, many STC activists and journalists voiced accusations that Riyadh was conspiring with the government to “overthrow” Aden by allowing access of the Coastal Defense Forces led by Brigadier General Zaki Abdullah. Moreover, STC activists and journalists accused Saudi Arabia of planning to topple Aden by backing a “terrorist leader,” referring to Al-Muaili, who participated in terrorist operations with the Arab Afghans in the early 1990s. This is a common accusation STC and UAE loyalists have levelled against their opponents, including after the UAE bombed Yemeni army units on the outskirts of Aden in September, then claimed they were not military forces but rather members of a terrorist group.
With the STC’s media continuing to criticize Saudi Arabia in the week that followed the Al-Alam checkpoint incident – including direct accusations of supporting terrorism – the Riyadh Agreement itself appears no closer to being implemented.