The conflict raised speculations of a crack in the Saudi-led coalition that since March 2015 has waged war in Yemen. In Saudi political rhetoric, the war aims at bringing Hadi back to power as “the legitimate president.” Yet the Emiratis, a coalition partner, have in multiple ways contributed to the military and political strength of the southern opposition to Hadi’s regime. The January fighting was not remarkable because it revealed a division in the coalition, tensions that were quickly denied by an Emirati military spokesman. Rather, the event consolidated the STC as the true governing body in the south, simultaneously underlining the irrelevance in this part of Yemen of Hadi’s so-called legitimate government.
What sparked the January events? The tensions that led to the January fighting have been boiling for decades. Southerners’ dissatisfaction started in the early years of unity in the 1990s once the exclusionist politics of the late President ‘Ali ‘Abdullah Salih became explicit. According to southerners, the regime voluntarily allocated national resources unfairly, flagrantly plundered southern land and properties, and destroyed accomplishments dating from the time before unity such as education and health care systems. The result was a transformation of the erstwhile national capital Aden into an ill-functioning regional center. In response to protestations from southerners, the regime advanced a narrative of “equal suffering,” meaning that every region suffered underdevelopment due to national state’s poverty (and thus southerners had no grounds to complain). Southerners recognized Salih’s plundering of the south for what it was.
The Houthis took over Sanaa in September 2014, and in early 2015 forced Hadi and his regime to flee to Aden. Southern political forces allied under the banner of the Southern Movement, or hirak, anticipated the Houthi-Salih military campaign to conquer Aden. Although critical of Hadi’s rule, the hirak had little choice but to ally with him against the attack from the north. Since the start of the war, Aden residents have felt as if they were living in a huge garbage bin. They have seen the intensified collapse of water, power, health service, education and security. Preventable illnesses spread easily, malnutrition kills vulnerable people and desperation forces those who can to leave the country. While the “legitimate president” sits in a palace in Riyadh, his government has taken office in Aden. Residents are frustrated that while these local authorities have failed to fix the electrical grid, they have responded to investors eager to establish a high-speed communication network in a city with a power supply that fails for 16 hours a day. The last straw came when several hospitals in Aden announced that they may need to close due to the power outages.
A recent report has compared the decline of Aden with that of Marib in the east. Despite heavy fighting against the Houthis, argues author Muhammad Fadhl Murshid, Marib has begun to prosper because the governor has been able to create political stability without government interference or political rivals. In the 1990s, Marib was known as the “wild east” of Yemen, with armed militias terrorizing the population. But with the end of fighting in Aden in summer 2015, both al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula and the Islamic State have turned their attention to government and southern targets. In November 2017, governor ‘Abd al-Aziz al-Mihlafi resigned. Hadi had nominated him to the post after sacking STC leader al-Zubaydi in April of the same year. In a bitter letter addressed to the president, al-Mihlafi accused the government of Prime Minister Ahmad Obeid Bin Daghr of stealing the funds allocated to repair the city’s electrical grid and restore its water supply. He called the prime minister the “leader of a top level corruption ring.” The anger towards the government was fueled by the fact that Aden governorate has often been the only region to regularly pay all of the revenues collected from taxes and customs directly to the state treasury. When in January the city remained without a governor and in a state of rapid collapse, hundreds of activists took to the streets and openly challenged Bin Daghr, holding his government responsible for the desperate situation. A social media campaign followed with the hashtag #GovOverthrow.  The activists demanded that Hadi sack the prime minister and form a new government.
Toward a United South
Since Aden was liberated from Houthi-Salih forces in summer of 2015, four different governors have tried to improve life in the troubled city. Among them, the first one was nominated as a minister in Hadi’s cabinet, one was assassinated, another was sacked and the latest resigned. The sacked governor was Aidrus al-Zubaydi, who in May 2017 stepped into the leadership of the southern movement after mass demonstrators, who were protesting al-Zubaydi’s sacking by Hadi, demanded that he do so.
In May 2017, al-Zubaydi formed the STC to unite all social and political forces in the south in establishing a joint political leadership with the goal of regaining independence. The STC had learned from past failed secession efforts the perils of declaring independence too quickly. Instead, the STC sought to reunite all of the former southern governorates under one body and build a governorate-level organization to run the administration. The next step was to create a national assembly. In the beginning, al-Zubaydi was able to call upon the traditional social forces to join the STC, namely important elite families, tribal dignitaries and regional leaders. Once the national assembly was formed, those political forces that had been hesitant about the STC joined, including key members of the former ruling party of the south, the Yemeni Socialist Party (YSP). Indeed, the STC managed to unify the south in a manner that the hirak was never able.
Key to its success were al-Zubaydi’s efforts to personally convince members of traditional elites to join. The war also led many southerners to increase their resolute to end the union with the north. Many in the south called the Houthi-Salih assault a “North-South war.” Among hirak activists, the formation of the STC brought mixed feelings. ‘Ali Salim al-Bayd, the former YSP leader whose discussions with Salih in 1989 led to quick unity in 1990 (and whose breakup with Salih led to the 1994 civil war), has strongly supported al-Zubaydi and the STC. However, al-Zubaydi’s close relations with the UAE have raised alarm among some hirak. As one activist put it, “he is too close to the Emiratis. We in the south need to be careful with any foreign power.”  The hirakhas long called for a referendum among southern governorates, and the STC has endorsed that objective. But some southerners have watched with concern the failure of recent independence referendums in Catalonia and Kurdistan. They fear that the powerful among the “international community” discourage any attempts to split current nation states, and Yemen is no exception. At the same time, hirak activists note that neither Kurds nor Catalans ever have had an independent state; the south was independent until as recently as 28 years ago. Activists have compared the current Republic of Yemen to the failed United Arab Republic formed by Egypt and Syria in 1958 but dissolved in 1961 after Syria withdrew without any international protest.
Acting as the leader of the uprising against the government, al-Zubaydi announced an ultimatum on January 21, 2018 for Prime Minister Bin Daghr to resign and Hadi to nominate a new cabinet. When the ultimatum deadline passed a week later—and with people from all over the southern territories arriving in Aden for massive demonstrations—government troops opened fire on the demonstrators. They were met with STC-loyal Popular Resistance troops with the two sides clashing in full-scale street fighting. STC troops dominated, quickly seizing military barracks and government buildings across Aden and eventually encircling Bin Daghr and his ministers in the government palace. Fireworks then illuminated Aden sky as southerners celebrated their victory over the corrupt government. The clashes brought to daylight a disconnect between Hadi and Bin Daghr. In the heat of the fighting, Hadi commanded his troops to withdraw to the barracks while Bin Daghr made public accusations of a coup in the making.
By calling off the fighting, Hadi rescued his unpopular government, and Bin Daghr was able to resume the government’s work in Aden in mid-April. But the message to Riyadh was clear: the regime will collapse unless money is invested to stop the spiraling of Yemeni economy. Alarmed by the events in Aden, Saudi Arabia committed two billion dollars to boost both the war-torn Yemeni currency and Hadi’s unpopular government. New bills worth 30 billion Yemeni riyals, printed in Russia, arrived in the port of Aden; civil servants promised that they would receive their full salaries, which had been unpaid for the past 18 months. The Interior Ministry in Aden announced that the national army would be open to southerners, another effort by the government to demonstrate that it was responsive to the popular unrest. 
The UAE is a partner to the Saudi-led coalition supporting Hadi’s government, but it has particular interests in the south. While the fighting continues for a fourth year elsewhere in Yemen, the Emirati Red Crescent Society has financed and implemented reconstruction in large areas of the south. The UAE has trained southern troops formed under popular committees, groups of southerners who joined the fighting when the war broke out in 2015 after having been excluded from the national army since the 1994 civil war. Some of these fighters had former army training, but many more were young and untrained recruits.
When the southern fight against the Houthi-Salih coalition ended in summer 2015, Emiratis worked with then-governor al-Zubaydi to clear Aden of jihadist groups. When the Gulf states organized a boycott against Qatar in summer 2017, the STC was first in Yemen to join. The UAE is concerned about the Muslim Brotherhood sowing dissent across the region and Qatar’s support for various brotherhood groups. In the south in Yemen, STC rhetoric portrays the Islah party in Yemen—one branch of which includes the Yemeni Muslim Brotherhood—as sponsoring terrorist attacks in the south. According to Amnesty International, Islahi activists in the south have been subject to a manhunt, with numerous disappearances and many tortured in illegal detention centers.
Emirati support for the south and sponsorship of building projects have not been met with universal praise. On the island of Soqotra—the largest of the four-island Soqotra archipelago in the Indian Ocean located nearer to the Horn of Africa than to mainland Yemen—local residents are appealing to the international community to stop Abu Dhabi’s large-scale “development” plans there. In addition to a permanent military base, the Emiratis have begun to build Zayed Residential City, a large-scale commercial development plan that includes multiple international hotels and other facilities for global tourism. The plan threatens the fragile flora and fauna of Soqotra’s unique natural habitat; UNESCO designated Soqotra a World Heritage Site in 2008. But even more, Soqotra’s native population has had no say in the plans and are unlikely to reap a fair share of any profits.
Soqotra is not the only island where the UAE has gained a foothold. At the mouth of Bab al-Mandab, the strait that connects the Indian Ocean to Red Sea, the Emiratis have established a coalition military base on the island of Perim. But Emirati interest in Soqotra goes far beyond the need to secure the sea route from enemy operations. Yet even as local authorities cooperating with the UAE face widespread popular anger about foreigners occupying their land, the STC, Hadi and Soqotran authorities all deny that Emiratis are effectively occupying Soqotra. Ultimately, southern Yemen is part of the UAE’s sea route strategy, one that links Abu Dhabi to a chain of ports along the Indian Ocean, the Red Sea and the Mediterranean. 
The Saudis, for their part, remain preoccupied with defeating the Houthis and identifying a pro-Saudi leader to rule Sanaa, one who would allow the kingdom to build its long-dreamed oil pipeline to the Indian Ocean. But their partner in Abu Dhabi has meanwhile developed its own regional security strategy. The STC sees little downside to supporting the UAE’s strategy for eliminating the persisting jihadi threat on both sides of the Bab al-Mandab strait. But for southern residents, no foreign country ever should dominate the sovereign people.  In this respect, southern interests align with Yemenis elsewhere in the country, including the Houthis. If Saudi Arabia and the UAE withdrew from Yemen—an unlikely scenario—the war would not end. But it might give a window for local political forces to negotiate a political compromise for and by Yemenis.