What is the UAE doing on the Yemeni island of Socotra?

The oil-rich kingdom of the UAE, which has of late earned the distinction of conducting itself as a  rogue state, has seized control of the Yemeni island of Socotra, a key archipelago located near major shipping routes between the Indian Ocean States, East Asia and rest of the continents. 

Last week,  French-Jewish media organisation Jforum, reported that the UAE and Israel are setting up “spy bases” in Socotra and that the two nations have already deployed “espionage equipment” on the island, which is about 350 kilometres far from the Yemeni mainland. 

Tel Aviv’s surveillance centres are already monitoring the actions of Houthi militants in Yemen and Iranian naval movements, as well as examining sea and air traffic in the southern region of the Red Sea. With it gaining access to the island, its network has achieved greater strategic depth in the region. 

Socotra is the biggest island in the Socotra Archipelago with a length of 130 kilometres. About 60,000 people live there and it became part of unified Yemen in 1990. Between 1967 and 1990, it was part of the autonomous government of South Yemen and prior to that, between 1839 to 1967, it was a British protectorate led by the monarchs of Lahej Sultanate. 

With Yemen slipping into civil war in 2015, the Saudi-led intervention added fuel to the conflict. Riyadh’s foremost ally, the UAE, which is involved in other regional conflicts, became engrossed with taking control of the island of Socotra. 

Abu Dhabi has  reportedly been investing in the island’s infrastructure and security since 2012 when President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi assumed Yemen’s presidency. That same year, Geo International, a film crew from Abu Dhabi, filmed the island for a documentary, on the orders of the kingdom. Some media reports suggest  the UAE’s military came to Socotra Island along with the Emirati media crew with an unknown purpose. 

In 2015, the first agent of the province of Socotra, Hashim al Saktari, revealed that Abu Dhabi “sent two people” as investors, and then “it became clear recently that they were military personnel and have come for the control of the island.”

The Saudi-led military intervention in Yemen in 2015 paved the way for the UAE to sign a deal with the Hadi government and reportedly  leased the island for 99 years.

Since then, the UAE has quietly  stepped up its activities on the island, pumping in money to help its people overcome economic turmoil. In October 2016, the 31st plane was filled with two tons of medical and other aid, and it  departed from Abu Dhabi to land in Socotra.

The Khalifa Bin Zayed Al-Nahyan Foundation and Emirates Red Crescent  built an Abu Dhabi-supported hospital on the island. The UAE also helped to construct a residential community on the island.

In 2017, more than $2 billion was already invested by the UAE into Yemen out of which millions went to the island. Afterwards, the governor of the Socotra Island pledged his support to the Southern Transitional Council (STC) which is backed by Abu Dhabi.

With the STC taking control over Aden in late 2017, STC leader Aidarus al-Zoubaidi held meetings with the UAE to discuss the situation in Yemen and Aden. Then, Abu Dhabi allegedly started deploying military assets to the Island.

At that time, The Independent  reported that its writers came ashore from a cement cargo ship from Oman in which they found the UAE had all but annexed this sovereign piece of Yemen, building a military base, setting up communications networks, conducting its own census and inviting Socotra residents to Abu Dhabi by the planeload for free health care.

Since Riyadh and Abu Dhabi have been positioning themselves to become major powerhouses in the wider region, Saudi Arabia is aware of the importance of controlling the Red Sea trade which might enable it to export oil in case Iran denies access to the Persian Gulf by blocking the Strait of Hormuz.

Like Saudi Arabia, Abu Dhabi also recognises the importance of controlling the Red Sea trade by having access to the Bab El Mandeb Strait.

Despite the reported leasing of Socotra Island in April 2018, the government of Yemen has condemned the takeover as “an act of aggression”.

“For the UAE, controlling Socotra means strengthening its commercial and military projection in the Indian Ocean, thus emphasising its rising inter-regional prestige. For Saudi Arabia, reducing the Emirati influence in Socotra means re-affirming Riyadh’s leading role not only in the military coalition for Yemen but also with regard to the inter-state balance in the Gulf region,” said Eleonora Ardemagni, who is an Associate Research Fellow at ISPI.

Since the UAE started backing separatist militias in Yemen, London-based STC Spokesperson, Saleh Alnoud, in a previous conversation with  TRT World, said, “We should not shy away from the possible solution of a two-state solution. That is not something people should fear whether in the north of Yemen or in the region or internationally.”


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