Yemen’s ‘Handshake moment’: What other peace processes can tell us about the Riyadh...


Robert Forster uses data from the PA-X Peace Agreement Database to examine what other peace processes can tell us about the provisions of the Riyadh Agreement, signed on 5 November 2019 between the Yemeni government and the Southern Transitional Council. Mr Forster is a PhD candidate with the Chr. Michelsen Institute in Bergen, Norway and an associate of the Political Settlements Research Programme. Thanks to Kevin McNicholl and Robert Wilson for comments on earlier drafts.

Last week on November 5, 2019, the Yemeni government led by President Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi signed a power-sharing agreement with the break-away Southern Transitional Council (STC) 12 weeks after the STC seized and held Yemen’s interim capital, Aden, in August 2019. The international community praised the deal and STC Spokesman Nizar Haytham described the agreement as a “strategic step” on the war to “liberation”.

Framed as a “war within a war,” tensions in the south of Yemen escalated steadily after the STC announced its formation in May 2017. August 2019 is not the first time the STC resorted to force to exert pressure on the Hadi government. Ostensibly an ally of Hadi in the war against the Houthis, in late January 2018 the STC attempted to force a re-shuffle of the Hadi government by also seizing Aden. After three days of fighting, Saudi Arabia negotiated a ceasefire that, according to a leaked agreement, included a provision on shuffling the government. The ceasefire held, but political provisions were never implemented.

In the two-years since its establishment, the STC consolidated itself institutionally through the creation of a legislature, an executive, and multiple sub-councils at the governorate and district levels across multiple areas in the South. Despite national-level ramifications in the STC’s defection from the pro-Hadi alliance, the Council has been unable to gain access to UN-led peace talks. Capturing and holding Aden was an indication of the relative strength of the STC as well as evidence of the degree to which the United Arab Emirates (UAE) is willing to support their Yemeni allies. (During the August 2019 conflict, the UAE bombed pro-Hadi positions). Moreover, by depriving Hadi of his interim capital, the STC was able to raise regional grievances to national significance and find a means for the power-brokers beyond Yemen to reconsider their status.

Not a ‘war within a war’

The paradigm of a ‘war within a war’ does not accurately describe the nature of the ongoing conflict between Hadi and the STC. Rather, the conflict is only the latest violent manifestation of political developments going back some 30 odd years. The STC is a faction of the Southern Movement, itself a loose coalition of organizations with ever shifting memberships and alliances, subscribing to varying degrees of southern independence. Founded in 2007 by former civil and military officials from the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen (PDRY), leaders within the Southern Movement sought justice for what occurred to the South and its people following their defeat in the 1994 civil war.

However, the Southern Movement has always been factionalised and vulnerable to divisive tactics by national-level politicians. This dynamic was evident following the overthrow of President Ali Abdullah Saleh in 2011 where attempts to include southern representatives in the 2013/14 Comprehensive National Dialogue Conference (NDC) were contentious. Seeking to provide the principles of Yemen’s new constitution, the NDC produced a document of 1,800 principles (many contradictory), and one of the working groups was strictly dedicated to finding a solution to the Southern Issue. Nonetheless, following disagreement, the most prominent southern representatives walked out and southern support for the process wavered.

In a deteriorating political climate after 2014, the goal of Southern secession intensified and was seen by many southerners as the only means of separating themselves from northern political tumult and corruption. Disagreement over the six-region federal system forced through by Hadi in 2014 was another factor driving separatism whereby proponents worried that political divisions in the South would again allow for the government in Sanaa to plunder southern natural resources.

The STC billed itself as a unifying entity of Southern factions and as an entity able to by-pass the Hadi government and communicate directly with the international community. However, from its announcement in May 2017 multiple Southern factions (including those led by Hassan al-Baum, Nasser al-Nuba, Fadi al-Baum, among others) challenged the primacy of the Council. Recognition of the STC as a partner in the Yemeni government is thus a crucial development in the Yemeni conflict and its peace process – but it is likely that this new-found status will either be extended to other key Southern players or increase competition between them.

Primary Aims of the Riyadh Agreement

Consisting of three sections, the Riyadh Agreement was produced in talks that occurred first in Jeddah and then in Riyadh between August 20 and November 5, 2019. Under the tutelage of Saudi Arabia, the main compromise of the agreement is for the Hadi government to recognize the STC and allow them to join peace talks and formally enter into the Yemeni government as part of a power-sharing arrangement. In response, the Hadi government will reshuffle, be allowed to re-enter Aden, and take control and re-organize security responsibilities in the South. There is no specified end to these arrangements, whether by elections, time limitations, or other means.

The strategic aim of the Riyadh Agreement is to re-concentrate military efforts towards defeating the Houthis. Since September 2014, the Houthis have been in control of large areas of Northern Yemen in addition to the capital, Sanaa. Conflict between the STC and Hadi led to a withdrawal of many southern fighters from the front-lines to bolster the STC’s efforts in Aden. The Riyadh Agreement, thus, provides for the return of these men in fighting the Houthis.

The other aim is to solve the governance problem caused by a proliferation of armed groups in Southern Yemen and in Aden, which witnessed multiple skirmishes between groups allied with the STC, Hadi and other militias. With armed forces placed under control of the Ministry of Defence and security forces placed under the command of the Ministry of Interior, the Riyadh Agreement aims to encourage cohesion through the regular payment of salaries. The payment of salaries to civil servants including the armed forces has been a consistent issue in various areas of Yemen since 2011. The lack of payment has been used by army officials to either justify disobeying orders or pursuing other means of income. Even before the currentl conflict, low wages in the military were bolstered through corrupt practices that fragmented security forces as they fought over sources of income.

Politically, another key aim of the agreement is to ensure the primacy of the GCC Initiative and the continued rule of President Hadi. The preamble to the Riyadh Agreement highlights that the agreement takes place in the framework of the “three references”, i.e. the GCC Initiative, the NDC Outcomes Document and UN Security Council Resolution 2216. The inclusion of this clause is likely a result of pressure from both the Hadi government and the Saudi government, since it provides support for the legality of Hadi’s continuation in power and Saudi Arabia’s decision to intervene militarily in 2015.

For the STC, however, the adherence to the three references is contrary to their stated aim of independence. In doing so, the STC recognise that the political transition set in place in 2011 by the GCC Initiative will continue once the conflict with the Houthis has reached a settlement. Moreover, the Southern Issue was for many not satisfactorily solved by these documents. As stated by STC’s Vice President Hani bin Brik over Twitter in 2018, both the two-region and the six-region models of federalism are unsatisfactory, and it will be either “independence or frontlines.”

What other peace processes can tell us concerning the Riyadh Agreement

The features of the Riyadh Agreement are quite standard for framework peace agreements – in addition to extensive security provisions, the agreement provides for a 24-member unity government and anti-corruption clauses as well as a solution to the central bank issue. Many of these design features however feature trade-offs made by the mediators and negotiating parties – so what can we learn about the Riyadh Agreement in the context of other peace agreements and processes?

On the formation of power-sharing governments:

The Riyadh agreement provides for the formation of a 24-member power-sharing government with 50/50 representation of northerners and southerners. In the Yemeni transition process since 2011, power-sharing governments have been seen as the primary tool for conflict resolution. The role of such governments is to ensure parties of their political survival and relevance, as well as ensure no one party can take control over core aspects of government. Power-sharing also allows parties to observe the actions of their counter-parts, discourages defection, and provides an early warning mechanism in case of potential defection by their opponent.

However, the details of power-sharing government formation are often contested. The stakes in being excluded from government are high – members of war-to-peace governments are provided opportunities to build new client-patron relationships, and many members continue in similar roles post-conflict. Thus, wartime ministers become part of the political scene post-transition and ensure their continued access to state funds and privileges as has occurred in Afghanistan and Iraq, among other examples.

As is evident from contemporary and historic peace processes involving power-sharing governments such as in Liberia, Libya, Madagascar and South Sudan, the composition of these governments is regularly among the most contested aspects of these agreements. A leaked draft of the Jeddah agreement (as it was then named) in mid-October specified that the STC would share southern representation with other southern political groups including the pro-Hadi Southern National Coalition, the All-Hadramawt Conference and the anti-STC Revolutionary Hirak. This was amended in the signed agreement, so that the selection of ministers and southern governors would be undertaken in conjunction with President Hadi – there are no quotas for each southern faction, the negotiation of which is now undertaken in the implementation phase.

In the context of Yemen, where negotiation over ministerial seats is already contested within the Hadi government, the Riyadh Agreement is unlikely to put an end to this trend and rather indicates a continuation of it. As pointed out by Peter Salisbury, the positions of Minister of Interior or Defence are not allocated, which he indicates could be a “potential [deal-breaker] for the STC”. Even agreements that include specific mechanisms for choosing ministerial seats may fail (see example in Art. 10, Chapter 1, South Sudan). Indeed, the focus of the Riyadh Agreement on power-sharing between the northern and southern governorates rather than the STC itself (or other political units) is telling as a means of attempting to dilute the relative power of the STC – which although not hegemonic in Southern Yemen – is certainly among the strongest regional actors. How this tension is handled will be a crucial during implementation.

Last, the Riyadh Agreement is a relatively minimalist power-sharing arrangement and only provides for ministerial seats, some governorship positions, and the merger of armed forces. The agreement does not expand on the functioning of government: there is no agreement on mutual veto or minimal voting requirements, there are no mechanisms on how government may be re-shuffled or replace ministers, nor is there any extension of power-sharing to the legislature (which was elected in 2003, and had its first meeting since the Houthi conflict began in 2014 in April 2019). Most importantly, there does not appear to be any conflict resolution mechanism in a system where the President is merely “consulted” on most of the decisions outlined in the agreement. Hence, if issues of interpretation arise, the government cannot rely on the agreement to solve them.

Implementation as continued negotiation:

Although vague in many areas (such as how to divide ministerial seats), the Riyadh Agreement is not unique in this respect. ‘Constructive ambiguity’ – where all parties can interpret agreement texts as being in their favour – is a central aspect in many peace processes. For the technically minded, the role of peace agreements is one of a blueprint towards ending the conflict. However, it is never possible to include all details in a single document.

When peace agreements are implemented, the items agreed upon are often drafted into law through the use of legislation, executive decree, or at times using UN Security Council Resolutions. In the case of the Riyadh Agreement, for instance, it is President Hadi that issues the necessary presidential decrees to allow for implementation. Then, the minutia of implementation processes are taken care of through parallel processes of:

  • decision-making within pertinent bureaucratic institutions;
  • debate within the legislature (and potentially constitutional assemblies and national dialogues if applicable);
  • court decisions, and;
  • continued negotiations between peace process participants.

As made evident by the PA-X Peace Agreement Database – a collection of 1700+ documents from 1990 to 2018 – the average peace process includes roughly 10 implementation agreements.

These processes are necessary to counter-balance the precariousness of the ‘handshake moment’ in which any peace agreement is signed. As a compromise made at a specific moment by a specific constellation of power which is likely to change over time, constant (albeit minor) (re-)negotiation during the implementation process is necessary to ‘check in’ and make sure everyone remains committed. This is even more the case when agreements rely on ‘consensus’ and lack effective dispute resolution mechanisms.

The Trade-off with Timelines:

The Riyadh agreement includes multiple deadlines which are sequenced as follows:

  • 0-7 days: Prime minister commences work from Aden.
  • 0-15 days: President appoints (in consultation) the Governor of Aden. All forces originating from outside Aden are withdrawn and replaced with security forces of local authority. All medium and heavy weaponry collected in Aden and placed in camps under Arab Coalition supervision.
  • 0-30 days: President appoints members of government in consultation with Prime Minister and southern components. President also appoints governors of Abyan and al-Dhalea. All STC-aligned forces transferred to camps outside Aden and placed under Yemeni government command. First Brigade of Presidential Protection Forces remain in Aden to protect President, Presidential Palace, and the leaders of the STC. Police and Emergency services secure Aden while other forces are reformed and the government is being appointed. Moreover, under the auspices of the Ministry of Interior: (1) the Special and Counter-Terrorism Forces in Aden is reformed by merging members from pro-Hadi and pro-STC factions, training them and appointing a new commander. (2) The ‘facilities protection forces’ (FPF) is reformed from merging members of pro-Hadi and pro-STC factions – FPF protects essential infrastructure (central bank, airport, port, refinery, etc.).
  • 0-60 days: President appoints governors of remaining southern governorates. All STC forces in Aden and all military forces in Abyan and Lahj merged under the Ministry of Defence (MoD). All other security forces in Aden, Lahj and Abyan, placed under the auspices of the Ministry of Interior (MoI).
  • 0-90 days: All military forces in remaining Southern governorates merged under the MoD. Essential infrastructure in other liberated governorates (Mukalla, Mocha, Belhaf and Dhaba) protected by the FPF and remaining security forces in southern governorates reassembled under the MoI.

However, the use of timelines are a complicated trade off when implementing a peace agreement. At first glance they provide a standard to measure the commitment of conflicting parties to the agreement itself. More importantly, they provide an assurance of progress. However, conflict actors as never homogenous despite being ‘on the same side’. It is easy for dissatisfied factions to delay and derail, or for other unaccounted factors to postpone implementation. Implementation deadlines such as those in the Riyadh Agreement adhere to the peace agreement trope of multiple 30-day increments that are often arbitrary. As a result, deadlines are broken, extended, and maybe abandoned.

Peace agreements may instead adopt alternatives to time-related deadlines. One of the simplest is the use of loose sequencing with parallel tracks that provides for items to be implemented in succession without strict deadlines. Although timelines are not necessarily the be all and end all of the implementation process, repeatedly delayed implementation may de-legitimise the process as patience wears thin and conflict parties begin to doubt whether their opponents will follow through.

Negotiating degrees of autonomy in secessionist conflicts:

Configurations of federalism and other means of territorial power-sharing are regularly adopted in peace processes as a means of ensuring some degree of political independence and division of decision-making among conflict parties. The Riyadh Agreement itself does not mention what will become of the issue of Southern autonomy. Instead, the issue is peripherally addressed through the agreement’s adherence to the ‘three references’, which effectively transfers the solution of the Southern Issue back to the principles of the National Outcomes Document and potentially back to the regional delimitation agreement signed by the National Body in 2014.

This is a surprising development for the STC and an issue that will undoubtedly be raised in the near future. Members of the Council have repeatedly mentioned their dismissal of the federal options of either two or six states. Indeed, the stated aim of the STC is to be the foundation for a new state in the area previously covered by the PDRY – an aim incompatible with federalism or even the unity of Yemen. STC leadership has adopted a pragmatic stance in regards to their aim of independence and they have repeatedly announced that they desire independence in partnership with the other Gulf countries. However, the issue cannot be shelved indefinitely. One option for secessionist movements adopted in peace processes from the South Pacific (Bougainville and New Caledonia) was the inclusion of a promise of an independence referendum ten years after the signing of a peace agreements – such arrangements have managed to limit violence, but we will not know how such mechanisms play out until the referendums are held in the next few years.


The Riyadh Agreement is a framework agreement providing for a temporary solution of internal tensions within the pro-Hadi factions in the Yemeni civil war. While the agreement can be praised for its success in broadening representation within the Yemeni government and providing greater guarantees to Southerners in their ability to have a say in the future of Yemen, the agreement contains multiple pitfalls that are common to transitional power-sharing arrangements. Moreover, despite the opportunity to move beyond the formal UN-led peace process structure underpinned by UNSC resolution 2216, the agreement rather brings southern representatives into an otherwise limiting framework. Saudi Arabia’s role as the guarantor and broker of the agreement will be key in implementation. However, as evident from the events in August 2019, competing loyalties with actors on the ground and rival visions of Yemen’s future may undermine these efforts. One unresolved matter is how the STC will continue to push their independence agenda within the framework of the central government – that is yet to be seen.

For more information, read Robert Forster’s previous articles on Yemen or visit our publication database for more resources.

Image by kate nev is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0