A handful of Western policymakers have long argued for the necessity of partitioning the Middle East, tending to cite the examples of Iraq and Syria amid sectarian conflicts in both countries. Few, however, have discussed Yemen, a country with a half-century history of division.
The Cold War saw Yemen partitioned into the Yemen Arab Republic, more often dubbed North Yemen, and the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen, a Soviet-sponsored communist state better known as South Yemen. An alliance between Emirati generals and Yemeni secessionists driven by the Yemeni Civil War might have laid the groundwork for South Yemen’s once-unlikely return.
A map shows areas of control in Yemen as of February 19, 2018. In addition to fighting Ansar Allah, pro-Saudi coalition forces have encountered insurgencies by southern separatists backed by the UAE. and jihadi groups Al-Qaeda and ISIS.
Four years ago, when Iranian-aligned Houthi rebels ousted the Yemeni government from Sana'a and Saudi Arabia launched an intervention to blunt the extent of Houthi advances, the UAE looked for new allies to secure its sphere of influence there. The UAE found them in the Southern Movement, or al-Hirak, a collective of Yemeni secessionists intent on reviving South Yemen. They had founded their political movement in 2007 but failed to gain much traction since then.
In an ambitious military and political gamble, the UAE promised to arm al-Hirak in exchange for al-Hirak’s support against the Houthis, whom the secessionists already considered a northern threat to southern autonomy. This arrangement proved critical to Emirati ambitions in Yemen, for it allowed the UAE to project its influence in Aden, a Hirak stronghold and the largest city still under nominal Yemeni control. The motley alliance also undermined the authority of the Yemeni government, which came to depend on secessionists who, by definition, opposed the concept of its unitary state.
For its part, al-Hirak now enjoys more legitimacy than at any point in the two decades after South Yemen’s 1994 fall to North Yemen in a civil war. Emboldened by Emirati support, Hirak members installed their flags on Yemeni government buildings in Aden in 2015. In 2017, they wrote an open letter to the United Nations Security Council arguing for South Yemen’s right to self-determination. While little suggests that the international community has paid any heed to al-Hirak’s provocations, these moves show that Emirati sponsorship has afforded the political movement ambition and confidence.
As al-Hirak grows more powerful, however, signs of tensions between it and its sponsors have begun to appear. In early May, Hirak leader Hassan Baoum demanded that Emirati soldiers withdraw from the Yemeni island of Socotra; the Emirati occupation of Socotra had enraged Yemenis across the political spectrum. Meanwhile this June in Aden, Hirak politician Dr. Jafar Muhammad al-Shalali claimed that well-armed Emirati commandos raided his home, prompting him to demand "an investigation" into an incident that speaks to the fraying alliance between al-Hirak and the UAE.
By empowering the very secessionists now contesting its control, the UAE’s power play might have backfired, loosening its sphere of influence and providing an opportunity for South Yemen to return. Whether or not al-Hirak gains diplomatic recognition for its secessionist ambitions -- a dubious scenario -- al-Hirak’s growing strength has given it the opportunity to execute its vision of a sovereign state on the ground. This possibility bodes ill for the Emirati sphere of influence in Yemen.
Several other Emirati actions in the Yemeni Civil War have already attracted unwelcome attention. Last year, an investigation by the Associated Press revealed that Emirati officers and Emirati-trained militias were torturing detainees in prisoner-of-war camps across the south of Yemen -- though the report failed to detail whether those militias included Hirak fighters. This year, the same news agency reported that the UAE had removed al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula from several battlefronts not by fighting the American-labeled terrorist organization but by paying it to leave.
If Emirati sponsorship enables al-Hirak to launch a war of independence, the UAE will find itself embroiled in another controversy and may conclude that the pros of undercutting the Yemeni government, the UAE’s nominal ally, by supporting al-Hirak no longer outweigh the cons. The United States, the UAE’s most important ally, would also likely take issue with the partition of Yemen. The UAE and the US have coordinated their campaigns against Sunni militants in the south of Yemen, but al-Hirak’s actions endanger that relationship, and the UAE no doubt values the US far more than it does al-Hirak.
In effect, the Houthis and their Emirati, Saudi, and Yemeni opponents have already partitioned Yemen. The Houthis hold Sana'a as well as the north and west of the country while the Saudi-led coalition dominates Aden, the east, and the south. When al-Hirak decides to recreate South Yemen, it just has to seize territory under the control of its allies and the Yemeni government, which can barely defend itself. Al-Hirak even attacked a commencement at an Aden military academy aligned with the Yemeni government in mid-August, signaling the growing resolve of the secessionists.
The Yemeni government represents a paradox. On the one hand, it represents the last hope for a unitary state in Yemen. On the other, the Yemeni government depends on the military support of self-interested secessionists and their Emirati patrons -- as well as Saudi Arabia. The longer the Yemeni Civil War lasts, the greater al-Hirak’s chances of rebuilding South Yemen.
As Saudi Arabia focuses on fighting the Houthis in the north and west of Yemen, the UAE must consider what its support for al-Hirak has wrought in the country’s east and south. The chaos of the Yemeni Civil War has diminished the authority of the Yemeni government and enabled the rise of Sunni militancy, dynamics that will allow al-Hirak to reconstruct South Yemen from the wreckage.
Policymakers interested in the realities of partition need only look as far as Yemen, a country that may soon devolve into two. The UAE and the Yemeni Civil War have presented al-Hirak the ultimate opportunity to engineer South Yemen’s return. Flush with money and weaponry, the secessionists have all the tools that they need to divide the country and take Yemen back to the Cold War. At this point, it seems more than likely that only American, Emirati, or Saudi intervention could stop them.