Two and a half years after the last major fighting in the southern port city of Aden, officially Yemen’s “temporary capital”, our Arabian Peninsula Project Director April Longley Alley finds a patchwork of rival armed forces, buildings in ruins and political groups’ effective steps toward autonomy, if not outright separation.
ADEN, Yemen – For now, there is little fighting in Yemen’s southern port city of Aden. But it takes me more than a year to arrange my journey. Everything about getting there drives home how deeply three years of war have broken and divided the country.
I start by seeking a visa at a consulate of the Yemeni government headed by President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi. My first application in January 2017 languishes in bureaucratic limbo. Unofficially, I am told that Aden is too unsafe for me.
I press for help from the upper reaches of Hadi’s administration, which, far from the complications of life in Aden, are mostly located in exile in Saudi Arabia. I make progress but lose that visa in a bureaucratic mix-up. Then, at last, all my phone calls, meetings, messages and form-filling pay off. A Yemeni diplomat pastes the visa into my passport while I am visiting the United States in the late fall of 2017.
The importance attached to this official symbol of Yemeni statehood is, of course, in stark contrast to the reality on the ground. It is a U.S.-backed, Saudi-led coalition that is the main support of the internationally recognised Hadi government, which Houthi rebels and allies of former President Ali Abdullah Saleh ousted from the capital Sanaa in 2015.
After three years of war, the country is in fact fragmented into several competing power centres. The Houthis retain control of the north-west, including Sanaa. Components of the Hadi government aligned with Saudi Arabia are dominant in Marib, east of Sanaa. Those aligned with the United Arab Emirates (UAE) focus on the territories of the former South Yemen, an independent state prior to 1990. Nominally one bloc, the Saudi-led coalition and its Yemeni allies are divided, with UAE-aligned southern forces at odds with the Hadi government, especially over control and influence in Aden.
Bureaucratic hurdles and technical difficulties are frequent obstacles to my and Crisis Group’s mission: finding and advocating ways to end Yemen’s war and mitigate its catastrophic impact on the country’s 27 million people. My most recent trip to Houthi-held Sanaa in 2017 was equally hard to arrange. It taught me how isolation, hunger and siege tactics are failing to win the war, worsening the country’s divisions and making northern Yemenis, many of whom are Houthi critics, rally against the U.S.-backed coalition.
Checking and Double-checking
A Hadi government visa is only one step in planning my trip to Aden. Before travelling, I inform UAE officials of my trip and obtain approval from the UAE-allied Yemeni security forces that control the airport and most of the city. My next challenge is to book a flight on Yemenia, the only airline flying there. With just one or two flights a day from either Cairo or Amman, competition for the seats is intense. Several Yemeni friends trying to reach Aden around the same time are told the flights are all booked, and some think they might have to pay bribes to jump the queue. In my case, a contact in Aden is able to do the labour-intensive work of constant personal follow-up at the Yemenia offices. When the airline quotes me a price of over $1,000 for the short flight, I pay up. What choice do I have?
When I board the Yemenia plane in Cairo at the end of February, I am surprised to see that one third of the seats are empty. I suspect that potential travellers are deterred by the exorbitant price for anything less than emergency occasions. Many of my fellow passengers are returning home after medical treatment abroad. I see one young man I had previously met, who had taken a relative to India for treatment of a medical problem that could not be resolved in Yemen. It was too late. He died. The family is coming home to mourn his passing away with other relatives and friends.
We take off for Aden five hours late, typical for Yemenia flights from Cairo, which are scheduled to depart very early each morning. My nerves are jangling. The plane is in shocking disrepair. All the seats are at different levels, and mine is falling off its mountings. No staff member bothers to give the usual safety instructions.
Guns, Guns, Everywhere
The aircraft lands intact and I emerge to find an Aden transformed. I have not been here since January 2015, a few months before the Saudi-led intervention. Back then, southerners were preparing to repulse the coming Houthi offensive, but as yet there had been no combat. Now there are bombed buildings in and around the airport and a sense of militarisation everywhere. A new military-style barrier made of large sand-filled canvas bags is under construction around the airport perimeter.
The terminal is still in one piece, and passport control is open, if sparsely manned given the limited flights. Because the terminal is closed to car traffic for security reasons, there is nobody outside to meet me. A friend had arranged entry, but it was denied at the last minute. So we walk through the large, empty car park outside. My fellow passengers and I carry our bags to the entrance checkpoint, where we cross into a narrow, congested two-lane street that now functions as the access road to the airport. As painstakingly arranged, a friend of a friend is loyally waiting. He picks me up and drives me to where I will stay.
I am to spend the first part of my eight days in Aden in the Bouraiqa district, on an island-like peninsula 15km west of the main city, itself also almost an island in the Gulf of Aden. On the way to Bouraiqa, we pass through a stretch of desert wasteland where security forces from the UAE have set up a base. We share the road with armoured personnel carriers either headed to Bouraiqa’s port or possibly to the war front at Mocha, a city on the Red Sea coast. This is my only sighting of Emirati troops. The UAE wields great authority in Aden, but its soldiers mostly seem to stay hunkered down in their compound.
The highway from the airport to Bouraiqa, like many of Aden’s roads, is still wrecked from the fight to expel the Houthis two and a half years ago. Incongruously, there are also shiny new billboards along the causeway. One shows Aydaroos Qasim al-Zubaydi, head of the UAE-backed Southern Transition Council (STC), his deputy, a Salafi cleric, Hani bin Breik, and smaller photos of other council members. Another displays the leader of the opposing political bloc, President Hadi. Other pictures are of southerners who fought the Houthis, only to be killed later by al-Qaeda or Yemen’s branch of the Islamic State (ISIS).
Travelling from the airport toward the south’s only oil refinery, which is also in Bouraiqa, I pass through at least six checkpoints manned by the security belt forces set up after the Houthis were pushed out of Aden to protect the city’s approaches from any renewed offensive. They are made up of southerners allied with Zubaydi and the STC. The Hadi government calls them illegitimate militias on the UAE payroll.
It was the Emiratis who led the military campaign that ousted the Houthis from Aden. And they support and pay the security belt forces, in part because they know that many in the city perceive Hadi, who is aligned more closely with the Saudis, as corrupt and ineffectual. The Hadi government includes the Islamist party Islah, which contains the Yemeni version of the Muslim Brotherhood. Both the UAE and its southern Yemeni allies view Islah with deep suspicion and associate the group with political radicalism and violence. Many southerners in Aden resent Hadi and Islah, and the UAE-aligned local groups have the military advantage on the ground.
There is also a regional component to the raging intra-southern feuds. True or not, many people I spoke with in Aden believe the UAE is taking sides with individuals from Dalia and Lahj governorates against their historic adversaries from Abyan, President Hadi’s home governorate. There is a perception that the security belt forces in Aden draw too heavily from these areas and that the STC, whose membership is regionally diverse, under-represents Aden. Others vehemently deny the importance of regionalism. While current divisions are not carbon copies of the past – in which groups from the current governorates of Dalia and Lahj fought a brutal ten-day civil war against Abyan and Shebwa in 1986 – history does appear to have an echo.
The friction between the UAE and Hadi camps erupted into open clashes in January 2018 that lasted two or three days before the Emiratis and Saudis stepped in to impose a ceasefire, which has remained fragile and tense. Yemeni government officials, and many in society at large, seem to suffer from a lack of information about what the UAE can and cannot do, or what the Gulf country’s long-term aims are. If the Emiratis wish to gain more traction, they need to communicate better what their military and political goals and capacities are.
The January truce has held, but there has been no political reconciliation. Instead there is Balkanisation and political paralysis. In parts of the city, for instance in the vicinity of the Interior Ministry, pro-Hadi forces hold sway. Elsewhere, STC-allied forces are in charge. And then there are pockets of the city held by local, almost neighbourhood-based, “resistance” forces that played a role in evicting the Houthis and are not completely aligned with either faction.
What surprises me most, however, are the guns. In northern Yemen, especially in rural areas, guns are ubiquitous, but that was never the case in Aden. Not under British colonial rule, not under the communists who ruled the South when it was an independent state until 1990, and not in unified Yemen under the regime of President Saleh. Today, guns are everywhere, carried by the security forces in pickup trucks with heavy machine guns mounted on the back – some of them clearly dressed in uniforms, others in a confusing mix of tribal and military garb – and by young men on motorbikes, some of whom may be part of the divided security services, others not. For Aden, this is not the “normal” I am used to.
Another danger feeds underlying tensions. Since 2016, unknown assailants have assassinated over twenty clerics and preachers, many of them associated with the Sunni Islamist party, Islah. The party’s headquarters have been set ablaze and its members feel targeted by UAE-allied security services, who share the Emirates’ animosity toward the party. Al-Qaeda and ISIS are also present and both have attacked the city’s security services and government officials. All of this violence is targeted, of course, but I do not want to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. This makes Aden quite unlike Sanaa, which the Houthis run as a relatively secure police state.
Because of the insecurity, I do not move around much. Most of my contacts and friends come to see me where I am staying in Bouraiqa, with a family of business people who have a fine villa overlooking a lovely small fishing bay. When I do go out, I always wear the abaya and niqab – a long black robe and a full-face veil. That way, at checkpoints and in public, I draw less attention.
A City Holding its Breath
Moving around town, I am shocked by the scale of war damage in Aden. The main road into the city from the north, where the Houthis advanced and retreated, I am told looks like east Aleppo. In Aden, almost every large hotel is destroyed. On past visits I would stay at the Mercure Hotel, right on the beach. The Mercure is now ripped open, its entire lobby exposed by an airstrike aimed at the Houthis, who were occupying the building at the time. The nearby Aden Hotel was destroyed in Saudi coalition airstrikes. ISIS bombed a third hotel built by Saleh. Many parts of the city are in ruins. There has been a lot of looting.
Amid the destruction, there is still plenty of life. Fishermen are out in the bay off Bouraiqa. At lunchtime, the fruit and vegetable markets are packed. A few state institutions have relocated to Aden, bringing life to a city that was sleepy and neglected under Saleh. Here, unlike in Sanaa, state employees, teachers, street cleaners and medical workers are, for the most part, being paid. Most noticeable are the security belt forces members in the markets buying leafy bunches of qat, a mildly narcotic plant chewed by many Yemenis. The UAE is paying them well and on time. The value of the government’s Yemeni riyal is plummeting, though, so dwindling purchasing power is a constant complaint. And the daytime bustle cannot mask Aden’s deeper problems.
I meet all sorts of people: civilians and security personnel, backed by either the UAE or President Hadi; government officials and other politicians; Salafis and secularists; men and women; doctors, journalists and NGO activists. Everyone I talk to brings up how the city feels paralysed, especially by the political impasse between Hadi and the UAE-backed forces, a national struggle complicated by a regional intervention layered on top of local feuding.
Hadi’s interior minister is the only cabinet member present in Aden while I am here. He is barricaded behind concrete walls in the area policed by pro-Hadi fighters. He is refusing to leave Aden, even after a battle in January laid bare the depth of the dispute between Hadi-aligned forces and UAE-backed groups and underscored the latter’s military dominance. Still, he is confident and eager to tell the government’s side of the story.
The local government is barely functioning. The last Hadi-appointed governor never effectively took up his post or stayed in the city longer than a few months. A deputy governor is filling in as best he can, but at least in part because the governor is a pivotal person for getting things done locally, Aden’s local government is frozen. The city is held hostage by an interconnected tug of war between, on the one hand, Hadi government supporters and their STC opponents and, on the other, between competing national and local government interests, with all seeking control over resources and none effectively governing.
The lack of governance is evident everywhere. A friend living near the airport complained to me that nothing could be done when someone started a construction project that cut a main local sewage pipe, and now sewage is spilling into the street. “In my district, it’s the survival of the fittest”, she says. A businessman laments how men with guns occupy buildings that do not belong to them and evict the rightful owners. “The fighters say they shed blood for these buildings while fighting the Houthis, and have taken them as spoils of war”, he tells me. The businessman is asking the courts for help, and is being told he can file suit and win, but that no one will enforce the verdict. No one can do anything about the situation.
Traditional Adeni families, many of them in business, long felt neglected or abused by northerners during the Saleh years and by their southern rural compatriots, who dominated politically during the pre-1990 socialist period. They say history is repeating itself as fighters from the countryside are struggling with each other for power in Aden now that the Houthis have been evicted. The younger Adeni generation, many of whom took up arms against the Houthis, remain armed. Some are aligned with the STC, others with Hadi, and others with neither side.
There is plenty of anger and frustration with outside powers as well. I arrange to meet a large group of educated, professional women. These are lawyers and businesswomen, and they feel helpless, pawns in a game played by the Saudis, Emiratis, Americans and British. They say their lives are in ruins because of the war against the Houthis but also and especially because of continued infighting in the south. They are holding their breath, wondering if the next phase is going to be even worse.
These women are my friends. I always see them when I visit. They tell me what is going on in society, which I do not learn about in structured interviews, and that helps me contextualise local politics. I hear details about corruption that I would not know otherwise.
Before the war, we used to gather at a women’s sports club, but this time we cannot go because the club was damaged by the war and the women consider the area where it is located unsafe for them. So this time we meet at one of the women’s homes. My friends joke that they have to get together because without some kind of normalcy they would go crazy. One woman says she had a medical problem that was misdiagnosed in Aden. She underwent unnecessary surgery, and her condition got worse and worse. She only received proper care after she managed at last to travel to India, a difficult journey given the expense and limited flights.
Thanks to coalition spending, the economic situation in Aden is not as dire as I expected, and is better than in Sanaa. But my friends’ stories highlight the cost of the government’s failure to revive normal life. Yes, people are relieved that the Houthis were driven out. Yes, there is running water sometimes, unlike in many other towns in Yemen. When I am there, electricity is working, even as everyone worries that the intense summer heat will overwhelm the system. But in general, nothing is functioning properly. Frustrations run high, and the population, desperate for proper governance and better physical and economic security, has no champion in the Saudi-led coalition, the coalition’s foreign backers, Hadi or his local opponents.
Aden feels neglected. Two and a half years after the last Houthis left, little reconstruction has started. No foreign diplomatic missions are operating. The Adenis are starting to resent the inattention, from the UAE in particular, which residents say is overly focused on narrow security concerns, and especially counter-terrorism. The Emiratis were once viewed as liberators, but now the term “occupation” is in the air. I heard a lot of this talk even from people who are not on the side of the Hadi government.
Facts on the Ground
After staying in Bouraiqa, I move to Crater, the bowl of an ancient volcano in which nestles the old downtown centre of Aden. During my stay there, I meet Shalal Ali Shaiya, the chief of Aden police. He is at the forefront of counter-terrorism efforts. I decline to go to his headquarters, since he has been a target of assassination attempts. Going to his seafront home in the Tawahi district, out on its own peninsula, is the one time I get really nervous.
Shalal sees me partly because I first met him a decade ago when he was a fugitive southern rebel hiding from the Saleh government. He tells me – as others in Aden do too – how much he appreciates that in its reports, Crisis Group empathises with, and reflects, the plight of southerners, even if we may not come down on their side politically on the issue of separation. Back in 2007, he talked about the inevitability of the south splitting off from the north, and now here he is, in charge of a de facto autonomous southern force backed by the UAE. He does not seem triumphant. Southerners like Shalal still want their own country, but they have not declared an independent southern state at this point. They are still paying lip service to Hadi and sending fighters north to fight the Houthis.
The police chief’s personal trajectory underscores how unlikely Yemen is to reunify. So does the composition of the south’s new security apparatus. Both the army units aligned with the Hadi camp and the various security forces being built by the UAE in Aden are 100 per cent southern. With the exception of northern Hadramout province, there are no northerners with guns in the south. The south may be internally divided, but most factions say they want to build southern state institutions. This is the common narrative that unites them, even as they struggle for control over how to reach that goal.
If there is anything I take away with me from Aden, it is a new awareness of this fundamental fault line. It goes deep. South Yemen was an independent socialist state from 1967 to 1990. Throughout the period after it unified with the North, southerners chafed at what they saw as northern domination. Southern separatists fought and lost a brief war for independence in 1994. Even before the nationwide revolt in 2011 that unseated Saleh, Hadi’s predecessor, the south rose up against the central government, calling for southern rights, and later, independence.
Southern separatist sentiment has grown since then, through the flawed post-Saleh transition plan, the Houthi takeover of Sanaa, the civil war and the Saudi-led intervention to reinstall Hadi. Now all that seems to hold the country together is the national currency and a war economy, but since 2016 the riyal’s value has mostly been falling. At the same time, the internal power struggles within the south are evident to all and are effectively becoming a war within a war.
Each day in Aden is also reinforcing my sense of the limited traction the internationally recognised Hadi-government has, and my conviction that the UN’s past focus on bilateral peace talks has been unrealistic and unreasonable. It just does not make sense that the Houthis and the Hadi government are the only two actors that can negotiate a ceasefire or begin to solve the more complicated problems that led to the civil war in the first place. They both have a role, but so do an array of new actors on the ground, and also external parties.
Heading back to the airport, I feel again it is absolutely essential to deal with Yemen as it is on the ground and to understand these local aspirations and new power structures. My two dozen in-depth interviews have given me new ideas about how to improve the situation immediately. They include the need to reactivate local authorities and for political factions to agree on a governor who can unify the city’s security services – and govern.
When I board the Yemenia flight back to Cairo, the aircraft is once again only two-thirds full. I sit next to a family, an older gentleman, his wife and her older sister. They have made the treacherous drive from Sanaa, a north-south journey only the dedicated or desperate attempt any more. They say the trip took seventeen hours – it should only take six or seven – in part because as northerners they have so much trouble at checkpoints. But they have no choice. Aden and Sayoun in Hadramout are the only two cities with an airport from which civilians can leave the country.
From the air, I can spot the places where I had earlier seen the flag of the pre-1990 state, now a symbol of southern independence, painted on the remains of bombed-out buildings. On reflection, it seems as if the southerners are stamping a claim upon the ruins: “It may be rubble. But it’s our rubble”.