Analysis: Riyadh Agreement: Factors of success or failure

Mohammed Salem, a government employee who lives in Khormaksar district of Aden, Yemen’s interim capital, says the agreement to resolve the conflict in the south and form a new government has brought him a sense of relief. Yet, he remains reticent about whether the Riyadh Saudi-made agreement will be implemented on the ground and put an end to the infighting that erupted in the south in early August.

Like other locals in Aden living near military camps and security sites, Mohammed was a strong supporter of the clause in the draft Riyadh agreement that stipulated the withdrawal of forces belonging to the internationally recognized government and the Southern Transitional Council (STC) to outside the city, with only one brigade remaining from each side. Recalling the troubled history of political agreements in his country, however, doubt began to take hold.

Nearly 90 days after the most recent – and most severe – escalation in the longstanding feud between Yemeni government forces on the one hand and UAE-backed separatist and paramilitary forces on the other, the debate is under way on how the Riyadh Agreement can contribute to resolving the crisis that has claimed the lives of more than 65 combatants on both sides of the conflict and civilians, in addition to about 50 soldiers and dozens of other government security forces who were all killed in an Emirati airstrike in late August.

In October, negotiations were held in Jeddah, resulting in a draft agreement known as the “Jeddah Agreement”. The final agreement is expected to be signed this coming week in Riyadh, and is therefore being referred to as the “Riyadh Agreement”. 

Before being officially signed, there are already clear signs that aspects of the agreement of Riyadh are beginning to be implemented. The withdrawal of UAE forces from their military bases along Yemen’s west coast and from the governorates of Aden and Lahj, their replacement by Saudi forces or local troops, in addition to the announcement by the Saudi-led coalition of repositioning its forces in Aden, indicates Saudi Arabia has already planned to oversee and monitor the implementation of the agreement, which is to be formally announced in the coming days.

A final draft of the agreement was leaked, which included three annexes related to the political, economic, military and security arrangements of the deal. Although subject to the final amendment before the official announcement of the agreement, it nevertheless contains key points that demonstrate the parties' stances and represent the essence of the agreement politically and militarily.

Riyadh has sought through the Riyadh Agreement to address the effects of the conflict in southern Yemen while working to give the forces in the north of the country sufficient presence, which seemed a pre-emptive step by Saudi Arabia to prevent any similar movement in the north of the country, as the first clause of the agreement on political affairs included the formation of a 50-50  government between north and south, which appears fair but may provoke internal conflict that could harm the continuity of the agreement and the government itself.


Government by quota: Factors of success and failure

The first clause in the political and economic annex provides for the formation of a government split 50% between northern and southern officials. The agreement does not specify the file of sovereign ministerial portfolios and whether they are also subject to quotas between parties and forces, or whether the president determines who holds their portfolios.

Saudi Arabia has succeeded in convincing the Southern Transitional Council to participate in a party-based quota government, where it will get two or three portfolios, while some military and security leaders loyal to it will be appointed to positions in the defense and interior ministries. It seems clear that the STC’s acceptance of this agreement is due to many factors.

Firstly, as a result of the complete withdrawal by the UAE from southern Yemen, reducing the STC’s regional support which it used in its dispute with the government to strengthen its influence in Aden and neighboring governorates, and forced it to step back as a result of the lacking support. At the same time, in light of the UAE’s roll-back of forces, the potential for any military advance by Yemeni government forces has prompted the STC to accept a role in the government to lose a little but not much.

Refusal by the STC to withdraw its forces and integrate them into army and security institutions would put the separatist group in direct confrontation not only with the government but also with Saudi Arabia, which has provided this item in order to give it the ability to stabilize security in the south and remove the effects of the southern conflict, which if renewed would further distract from the fight against the Houthis, who continue to launch ground and aerial attacks on the border.

Saudi Arabia also appears to have put in place guarantees for the Southern Transitional Council to be included in the government delegation to the UN-sponsored negotiations with the Houthis. This is a development the STC was looking for, although the ceiling of its ambitions amounted to an independent southern negotiating delegation.

At the same time, it is possible that the quota system will be a big problem and result in renewed dispute, as it will bring together ministers from different forces that have already conflicted and launched combative media campaigns, an issue which could potentially be exacerbated by disputes between regional powers with a stake in Yemen. 


Military and security arrangements

It seemed clear in the text of the military annex under the Riyadh Agreement that there is a Saudi tendency to find a balance of power in Aden by cutting the wings of both the internationally recognized government and the Southern Transitional Council, as the agreement provides for the removal of their troops and military formations out of Aden, and maintain military personnel who will be assigned to secure the president, ministers, and other leaders from both sides.

The agreement mentions that the First Presidential Protection Brigade is to secure the presidential palace and the movement of the president and the government. However, it is believed that the First Infantry Brigade belonging to the president of the STC, Aidarous Al-Zubaidi, will retain his position in the area of Jabal Jadid between the districts of Khormaksar and Al-Mu’alla to secure the ministers and commanders loyal to the STC, although so far there is no official confirmation of this.

Reading the terms of the agreement highlights how the steps to arrange the military scene in Aden will be to trim the parties to the conflict and remove the tools of military force from them in the city of Aden, which led to the August clashes. 

The clause that indicates the removal of all troops and heavy and medium weaponry from the camps in Aden relates mainly to the STC forces that have been in control of the interim capital since the beginning of August, which will push the STC to roll back some of the gains it made after August 10.

This clause will remove from the STC a significant source of power that it was heavily reliant upon to achieve many of its political gains, and this will affect the council’s presence later after the formation of a new government, as it will not be able to maneuver again in light of the Saudi military presence and the withdrawal of UAE forces. Additionally, after being merged into the ministries of defense and interior, including being financially and administratively incorporated, the separatist group will face difficulty to again control the UAE-backed security forces that it was heavily dependent upon. This, of course, depends on the extent to which the agreement is fully and legitimately implemented.

As for the government forces, according to the agreement, the military in Aden will not lose much, as the agreement gives them a limited return in light of the previous situation, as the First Presidential Protection Brigade, one of the brigades that were previously stationed in the presidential palace during the outbreak of the confrontations, will return. Meanwhile, in general the government will return in its new form, which will include the involvement of a number of southern powers, including the secessionist STC.

In the governorates of Abyan, Shabwa, and Hadhramout, government forces will maintain their formations and former positions, a point that stands for government forces, which in the meantime represents a major concern for the STC forces. However, it seems that these forces will be pushed in the battles to liberate some areas under Houthis control, while the council, through some of its military commanders, could seek empowerment in some military brigades in Lahj, Al-Dhale’a, and Abyan as part of a policy that the STC may use for hidden empowerment rather than direct military presence.

If the STC manage to maintain its influence and control over the military and security forces after the formation of the government and after the start of the process of merging these forces, there is a clear potential for this to lead to renewed conflict with the government.  If either side act outside the terms of the agreement, it will be a preliminary test of how Saudi Arabia can manage to control the situation in southern Yemen.

It is clear that Riyadh will deal decisively and try to take advantage of the mistakes of the UAE, because any attempt to return to the day before the implementation of the agreement will cost Saudi Arabia a lot on its southern border and its failure to the south will bring more problems to the region.

Riyadh will try to unite the home front in Aden in alignment against the Houthis, after local fighters have been long preoccupied with the conflict between the government and UAE-aligned groups. Saudi Arabia will likely seek not only to get military forces out of Aden, but moreover to engage these forces against the Houthis along the north-south border areas. Some military brigades will be maintained in Lahj, Abyan, and Al-Dhale’a for insurance purposes.

As for their presence in Aden, the two sides will both lose a degree of operational independence, as the wording of the terms of the agreement indicates Saudi influence in political, military and security files. This means that Saudi Arabia’s military presence in Aden is not only for supervision and monitoring, but may amount to military pressure on both sides to effectively implement the agreement on the ground.

It seems clear that the Riyadh Agreement mainly guarantees the reorganization and arrangement of the institutions of the army and security in the south of the country, which is an attempt by Riyadh to address the effects of the August and September confrontations in order to focus on the war with the Houthis. However, there are no real guarantees for the implementation of the agreement by the parties, which leaves all possibilities on the table.



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