By Alistair Lyon, Special Correspondent
ADEN, Yemen, Feb 24 (Reuters) - When Islamists criticised a concert by a Syrian woman singer in Yemen’s port city of Aden this month, disaffected southerners took it as yet another slight from their more powerful northern cousins.
Troops and police guarded the half-empty stadium when Asala took the stage, braving a reported threat from al Qaeda to stop the show, but she sang into the early hours with no disruption.
Still, the verbal sniping by Islamist parliamentarians from the north left a sour taste for many in the sleepy southern city, where performances by Arab pop stars are a novelty.
"They’ve had concerts in Sanaa and Taiz and Hodeida before. Nobody opened his mouth," said Raqiya Humeidan, a woman lawyer, referring to northern cities. "Why is it different in Aden?"
Far less trivial grievances are fuelling discontent here, where many are once again querying the value of the 1990 union between the Marxist-led south and the tribal-dominated north.
Southerners complain they have lost out since unity in access to local power, jobs and land, and some even say they feel they have been subjected to a northern "occupation".
President Ali Abdullah Saleh, whose army crushed a southern bid to secede in 1994, sees Yemeni unity as the jewel crowning his 30 years in power — but it does not glint for southerners.
In recent months, protests spearheaded by former soldiers demanding pension rights have met a tough response from the security forces, with several people killed or wounded.
"They took our lands, our jobs and our wealth," Humeidan said. "We all feel they treat us with hate. So people are saying: ‘If that’s what you mean by unity, we don’t want it’."
Aden, under British rule from 1839 to 1967, was the capital of the former People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen, which stumbled into unity with the north 18 years ago when its Cold War patron, the Soviet Union, was itself nearing collapse.
The south is home to only a fifth of Yemen’s 22 million people, but it generates much of the impoverished Arab country’s revenue. Up to 80 percent of oil production now comes from the south, which also has fisheries and Aden’s port and refinery.
"Many people in the south now feel they have been unfairly treated," said Sarah Phillips, an Australian researcher on Yemen. "They feel that they have got these great resources and they are not seeing the benefits of them."
SENSE OF EXCLUSION
Southerners ask why the governors of all seven southern provinces should be from the north. They also complain of a systematic land grab by well-connected northerners.
The owners of property nationalised under communist rule in the 1970s were to have been compensated after unity.
"That didn’t happen," said Abdul-Ghani al-Iryani, co-author of a paper on southern discontent published this month by the Washington-based Middle East Institute.
"Instead northern commanders, prominent sheikhs and businessmen went down and, one way or another, secured over half the land in Aden and maybe 20 to 30 percent of the agricultural land in (the province of) Abyan," the Sanaa-based analyst added.
Some protesters have demanded secession, but many southerners are merely demanding greater autonomy within a unified Yemen and less interference from the centre.
"We have never called for separation," said Bashraheel Bashraheel, the managing editor of Yemen’s leading independent newspaper Al Ayyam, which is based in Aden. "What we are calling for is that everybody is treated the same under the law."
Many Adeni women say they had better access to education and jobs before unity, while some voice bitterness over rigid dress codes imposed by Islamists who gained influence after 1994.
"After 1994 we went 100 years backwards," said a Yemeni staffer with a foreign aid agency. She asked not to be named.
In Sanaa, southern rancour is often dismissed as the grumblings of ousted leftist leaders or those nostalgic for socialism, overlooking its rigours and economic failures.
Deputy Finance Minister Jalal Omar Yaqoub, himself an Adeni, said southerners had legitimate economic woes, but their gripes about high prices and unemployment were shared across Yemen.
"These problems of unrest in the south are problems that exist everywhere," he said, adding that they only took a special form because they were politically exploited.
While grouses about economic hardship and centralised rule may indeed resonate in the north, Iryani said southern anger ran too deep to be ignored and serious solutions must be found.
"If this doesn’t happen, you will see further deterioration and then the situation in the south will cross a point of no return and then it will be very messy."
Decentralisation had already been promised by Saleh, but political will was needed to implement it, Iryani added.
"This is by far the largest threat to stability and the future of the regime. If the south falls into open rebellion, the economy will collapse and the regime will fail."