Socotra: How a strategic island became part of a Gulf power struggle
The beautiful Socotra Archipelago off the coast of Somalia was inscribed as a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2008. Trip Advisor reviewers speak of an “unbelievable” unique habitat, white sandy beaches and exotic “dragon trees” that look like inverted pyramids.
Today, Socotra is the center of a controversy that has grown out of the chaos of the Yemeni civil war. The United Arab Emirates has been investing in infrastructure and security on the island, and that has angered Qatar and allies of Yemen’s Houthi rebels.
Socotra, the main island of the archipelago, is 130-km. (80-mi.) long and has 60,000 residents. Prior to 1967, it was part of a sultanate that was based on mainland Yemen and a British protectorate. In 1967, it became part of South Yemen and part of unified Yemen in 1990.
It might have remained mostly known for exotic flora and fauna had it not been for the Yemeni civil war. In 2015, Saudi Arabia led an intervention alongside the United Arab Emirates to stop Houthi rebels from conquering part of Yemen, including the strategic port city of Aden. The Houthis support Iran and Hezbollah and have fired numerous ballistic missiles at Riyadh, while Saudi Arabia has been accused of harming civilians with bombing raids.
Socotra is strategically significant because it sits at the entrance to the Gulf of Aden. Shipping traffic on the way to the Bab al-Mandab Strait and Suez passes next to it. The problem is that Yemen, north of Socotra, and Somalia to its west, are failed states, and both have problems with extremists gaining a foothold. This includes al-Shabaab in Somalia and al-Qaeda in Yemen. In 2011, leaked classified cables referred to the islands as a “piracy fuel base” and 63 ships were attacked by pirates near the islands. Before Yemen sank into civil war, it tried to invest in infrastructure on the island, including efforts to preserve its ecological diversity.
The recent controversy in Socotra stems from the conflict on the mainland. Although the Houthi rebels were pushed back from Aden, Iranian influence has been expanding its foothold in Yemen. Saudi Arabia, the UAE and the international community are concerned, especially since ballistic missiles have been fired at Riyadh. Iranian interests had already targeted Socotra as early as 2003.
“Iranian companies have completed several projects here, including the Socotra Airport strip,” a May 2003 US diplomatic cable said. Saudi Arabia also sent representatives to look into investments on the island in March 2008.
Quietly, the UAE stepped up support for the residents of Socotra who had been largely abandoned and forgotten during Yemen’s crisis. By October 2016, the 31st plane filled with supplies from Abu Dhabi had landed in Socotra, bringing with it two tons of medical and other aid.
THE KHALIFA bin Zayed Al-Nahyan Foundation pioneered efforts to support a UAE-supported hospital on the island. The UAE also helped construct a residential community on the island funded by the Emirates Red Crescent.
More than $2 billion in support had been sent to Yemen, millions of which went to Socotra, by March 2017. The UAE’s efforts led to rumors. “Some critics see this as the UAE’s attempt to occupy Socotra,” wrote Khalid al-Karimi in The National in April 2017. “The UAE aspires to achieve peace and stability in the region, it is neither an occupier nor a troublemaker,” he added.
In 2017, Socotra’s governor pledged his support for a new Yemeni organization called the Southern Transitional Council (STC). The STC took control of Aden in late 2017. In February, STC leader Aidarus al-Zoubaidi held meetings with the UAE to discuss the situation in Yemen and Aden.
It is in this context that the UAE allegedly began to deploy military assets to Socotra early this month. Jane’s 360 reported on May 4 that BMP-3 infantry fighting vehicles arrived aboard a C-17 transport plane. Qatar’s Al Jazeera, which has been critical of the UAE and Saudi Arabia since the two Gulf states broke relations with Qatar in June 2017, claimed that Socotra residents were “angry” at the UAE deployment.
The Independent also included a report from Socotra, saying its writers quietly came ashore from a cement cargo ship from Oman. “We found the UAE has 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.”
For those who oppose the UAE’s work in Socotra, every UAE encroachment – even healthcare – is part of a conspiracy. They link it to UAE investments in Somaliland and Djibouti and a former UAE training mission in Somalia. There have even been rumors since 2016 saying the UAE agreed to a 99-year lease on land in Socotra.
For the UAE and its supporters, the country is carrying out important security work in Socotra and aiding the island’s inhabitants who have been neglected by Yemen’s failed government as Yemen’s civil war drags on. Under an Arabic hashtag of “UAE supports Socotra,” many have been tweeting about the important aid work and pointing to Socotra residents supporting the UAE’s role. They argue that the anti-UAE articles are part of a Muslim Brotherhood whispering campaign that opposes the UAE and seeks to use the Socotra story for propaganda.
The Socotra issue now joins a much larger strategic battle between Qatar and the UAE and between Iran and Saudi Arabia. Amid the Yemen civil war it appears that the UAE’s presence will aid security in the Gulf of Aden and off the Horn of Africa. It also illustrates how the UAE is combining soft-power of investment and aid to further its objectives.