Following celebrations of South Yemen’s 14 October revolution, the Southern Transitional Council (STC) – a UAE-backed separatist organization – has dramatically increased its activity in Shabwah and Hadramawt provinces. STC President Aiderous al-Zubaidi and other council members recently opened an office in Shabwah’s provincial capital, Ataq. They did the same in Azzan, an area in the south of the province that UAE-backed Shabwani Elite Forces recently liberated from al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). In addition, the STC opened an office in the key port of Mukalla in Hadramawt. Notably, crowds of supporters greeted the STC leaders at the offices’ opening ceremonies.
In our view, the STC opened these offices to show that it is a functional organization. Many observers initially dismissed the STC as yet another symbolic attempt at succession under the Southern Movement umbrella. They also alleged that the UAE only founded the STC as a resentful response to Yemeni President Abdo Rabbu Mansour Hadi’s dismissal of Zubaidi as governor of Aden. However, the STC has begun to build a credible presence on the ground with institutional capacity. Next, it aims to open a legislative “National Body” and more offices across the south.
The latter not only aim to organize protests but also provide government services, bolstering the STC’s claim that its members are the sole representatives of the South Yemeni population. Opponents are taking the STC seriously, particularly Sheikh Awadh bin Wazir al-Aulaqi, a key tribal leader and MP in Shabwah who is aligned with Hadi. He has warned that Zubaidi and “his companions” were welcome in Shabwah as guests, but not if they have an “ulterior motive.”
STC actions also constitute a significant challenge to Hadi’s government, which remains largely in exile or confined to a heavily secured compound in the city of Aden. By boldly opening offices and portraying Hadi’s ruling circle as self-interested and unrepresentative of southerners, the STC is trying to delegitimize the internationally recognized government in Sana’a. Working in tandem, the UAE seems to be provoking the Hadi government to take action against southern politicians. Indeed, Hadi fired Shabwah Governor Ahmed Lamlas and Hadramawt Governor Ahmed bin Brayk after they joined the STC.
The STC is seeking to broaden its appeal beyond al-Dhale and Lahj, the traditional strongholds of Zubaidi’s wing of the Southern Movement, into formerly unreceptive territory. Indeed, Shabwah has traditionally followed the political lead of Hadi’s native Abyan province, and Hadramawt is Prime Minister Ahmed bin Daghir’s native province. The new STC offices also counter moves by Vice President Ali Mohsen and the Islah party in Shabwah and Hadramawt. In our view, the UAE is moving with greater confidence and attention to provincial politics as it supports the STC. The success of the UAE-led military operations to oust AQAP from Azzan was underscored by the STC leadership’s recent visit to that city. Emirati allies are able to hold meetings in areas considered largely off-limits to central government officials, adding to the UAE’s leverage over Hadi and his Islamist allies.
The STC is aiming to be the effective power on the ground over the long term, and its leaders have stated that they desire to eventually “reclaim the South’s resources.” Investors in southern Yemen should take the STC seriously and cultivate low-profile ties to its officials, albeit with great care to keep such meetings confidential. Many key council members are powerful in their own right, so regardless of the STC’s success, they are important stakeholders for long-term investors.