After a tumultuous marriage of more than 27 years, South Yemen appears to be edging closer to divorcing the north in a move politically and financially sponsored by the oil-rich United Arab Emirates (UAE).
In the southern coastal city of Aden, unified Yemen’s familiar flag of three horizontal bars has all but vanished, replaced by the former Communist nation’s emblem of a red star within a sky-blue chevron, while pictures of Emirati royals adorn the hallways of govern-ment buildings and ministries.
Military units once loyal to the government of President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi are also distinctly absent. Instead, local militias and Yemeni soldiers are flanked by Emirati troops – tasked with guarding key installations and protecting Aidarous al-Zubaidi – the UAE’s ‘man in the south’ and leader of the southern secessionist movement.
Perceived by some as the only credible rival to Hadi, the 50-year-old militia leader set out his vision for the region on Friday saying an independence referendum would be “held soon.”
Speaking to a raucous crowd of southerners’ hungry for secession, he announced the formation of a new 303-member parliament, a body analysts say will be administered un-der his presidency.
Mansoor Saleh, a senior member of Zubaidi’s Southern Transitional Council (STC), said that plans to hold a referendum were still under review, but the STC would be willing to push ahead without the approval of Yemen’s internationally recognised government.
“The only way to restore our country [south Yemen] is through liberation,” Saleh said.
“A referendum will be held on terms set by the STC. Hadi is a partner to us, just like the Arab coalition. But he has never supported the STC and is not playing any role in this process.”
Hadi’s government, which was forced by Houthi rebels to relocate to Riyadh two years ago and has made only sporadic visits to Aden, has yet to comment on the announce-ment. But sources close to the presidency said they were ready to thwart any effort to divide the country.
One Yemeni official said the government “didn’t feel compelled to respond to the an-nouncement and for now, would ignore it.”
Speaking on condition of anonymity, he said: “The referendum was announced shortly after events in Spain’s Catalonia region and Kurdistan, and we believe [Zubaidi’s an-nouncement] was a reactionary move – we think it’s unlikely it’ll go ahead.”
Zubaidi, a prominent southern secessionist, emerged from relative obscurity in late 2015 after helping purge northern Houthi fighters from Aden.
He was later rewarded and made governor of the city, but soon fell out of favour with Hadi and was dismissed along with Hani Ali bin Braik, a former minister of state, after re-ports emerged they were both receiving patronage from the UAE to campaign for seces-sion.
The media reports are said to have sent Hadi into a frenzy; he was still angered by a fire-fight at Aden’s international airport in February when Emirati-backed forces refused to re-linquish control of the facility to Hadi’s son.
Hadi later accused Abu Dhabi crown prince Mohammed Bin Zayed of behaving like an “occupying power rather than a force of liberation,” remarks which are said to have en-raged Emirati officials.
Dhahi Khalfan, Dubai’s outspoken Chief of Police and Public Security, demanded Hadi’s dismissal, while Anwar Gargash, the UAE’s minister of state for foreign affairs, said in a tweet: “Among the rules of political action is that you should build trust with your allies, that you should not stab them in the back, that your decisions should be commensurate with your capabilities and that you put public interest ahead of personal ones.”
Zubaidi admitted to receiving “money and forces” from the Gulf emirate, amid claims that the UAE was seeking to seize control of the strategic Socotra island, located in the Indian Ocean, and Aden port.
The UAE has confirmed carrying out military operations on Socotra, famed for its flora and fauna, with local media reporting that the UAE was leasing Socotra and the nearby Abd al-Kuri island for 99 years. Hadi’s government has refused to comment on the issue to Al Jazeera.
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