The Gulf Cooperation Council has condemned the Zaydi Houthi takeover of Yemen and appealed to the United Nations Security Council to reverse their “coup.” How will the Saudis and other GCC states try to oust the Houthis? Will Riyadh support the southern secession movement, Al Hirak, and try to divide Yemen again to weaken the Iranian-backed Houthis?
Saudi Arabia has supported independence for South Yemen in the past. In 1994, the former communist dictator of the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen, Ali Salem Al Beidh, renounced the unity agreement he has signed with Ali Abdallah Salih four years before. The south proclaimed itself the Democratic Republic of Yemen. Civil war broke out.
The Saudis rushed money and arms to Beidh including advanced MiG-29 fighters purchased in Eastern Europe. The Saudis were eager to humiliate Salih, who had backed Saddam and Iraq in the Kuwait war. But Salih quickly defeated the south, captured Aden in July 1994, and Beidh went into exile in Oman.
Iran has been courting Beidh in the last few years and he has moved to Beirut, where the secession movement has a TV station called Aden Live. The Saudis can easily outspend Iran for Al Hirak’s loyalty or finance other southerners. Aden and the south are almost entirely Sunni. Pro-independence demonstrations have become common since 2011, although there are divisions with Al Hirak.
The GCC states have the capital to make South Yemen survive. It could be a base for Sunni opposition to the Zaydi-dominated north. The south is also the home to much of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), which will fight the Saudis for control. An independent South Yemen government could invite foreign forces to help it fight AQAP and the Houthis.
Riyadh may simply try to boycott the Houthis. They have already suspended all aid to Sanaa. The UN will back the GCC. The GCC can finance Sunni resistance to the Zaydis. Desperately poor Yemen will face economic disaster without GCC money and remittances from Yemeni workers in the GCC states. Nonetheless, it’s likely that, at a minimum, the Saudis will flirt with supporting southern independence to try to undermine the Houthis.