While the scant media attention towards Yemen’s civil war has largely focused on the flare-up in violence between the Houthis and government forces since January, UAE-backed separatists have been grappling with local authorities in their repeated bids to takeover Socotra—Yemen’s island territory. 

Though presenting its involvement in Socotra as solely humanitarian, the UAE’s apparent bid to stage a coup against Socotra’s leadership and seize control of the island has attracted increasing local resistance. 

Approximately 250 miles off Yemen’s southern coast, and known as the Galapagos of the Indian Ocean, Socotra hosts just 50,000 inhabitants on its main archipelago. 

Distinct from almost anywhere else on earth, Yemen’s Socotra island is full of unique nature – including the Dragon Blood Tree, along with over 700 species that are exclusive to the island, earning it recognition as a UNESCO world heritage site. Approximately 250 miles off Yemen’s southern coast, and known as the Galapagos of the Indian Ocean, Socotra hosts just 50,000 inhabitants on its main archipelago. 

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Socotra Island in the Arabian Sea, approximately 250 miles off Yemen’s southern coast.

Yet it is the island’s location that has grabbed the UAE’s attention, seeing Socotra as an essential component of its ideal geopolitical empire. 

Controlling the island’s ports would vastly boost the UAE’s global maritime trade, as it has also sought to secure ports in southern Yemen and the Horn of Africa. Furthermore, its military base in Socotra adjacent to its presence in East Africa would help consolidate its control over the Red Sea and Bab el-Mandeb, through which a significant amount of international trade passes. 

A UAE military base in Socotra adjacent to its presence in East Africa would help consolidate its control over the Red Sea and Bab el-Mandeb.

The UAE has managed low-level trips and guided tours to Socotra since 2017, indicating it seeks to fully make the island its own. 

Though backing different sides in Yemen’s war, both Riyadh and Abu Dhabi have currently settled their geopolitical differences over mainland Yemen, and sought to unify their preferred candidates in a power-sharing treaty in November called the Riyadh Agreement. 

Yet both countries are still subtly jostling over Socotra, particularly as the UAE has become increasingly assertive in the island, against Saudi Arabia’s wishes.

After intervening in Yemen in March 2015 to shore up the government of Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi and defeat the Houthi rebel insurgency, Saudi Arabia has sought to uphold government control over Socotra and consolidate it with its military presence. 

Given the lack of violence or Houthi presence on the island—leaving no pretext for military interventions, Saudi Arabia and the UAE have resorted to using aid as soft power. Cyclones and floods have hit the island and created advantageous conditions for a humanitarian response. 

In January, Saudi Arabia announced that through the so-called Saudi Development and Reconstruction Program for Yemen (SDPRY) it had launched numerous development and security projects on the island in an effort to provide aid following Cyclone Mekunu. These projects are supposed to improve water accessibility, boost electricity supplies, as well as develop healthcare and transportation services.

Since 2012, the UAE has pursued development ventures in Socotra, though they have really proliferated as the UAE’s regional foreign policy became more assertive, particularly after its intervention in Yemen’s mainland in 2015. It has used aid as a tool – including food and other humanitarian deliveries – to win over the locals, while also offering Socotra islanders treatment in Emirati hospitals.

After a controversial military expansion into Socotra in May 2018, evidently to consolidate its control, scrutiny over Abu Dhabi’s role has intensified.

Yet after a controversial military expansion into Socotra in May 2018, evidently to consolidate its control, scrutiny over Abu Dhabi’s role has intensified. Emirati forces kicked out workers from the island’s airstrip and port, reported The Independent, to facilitate its own control over them and regulate the traffic coming to and from Socotra. 

The UAE Minister of State for Foreign Affairs, Anwar Gargash, responded that “the UAE’s role in Socotra is not strategic,” claiming it had no geopolitical interests. 

“Because Socotra was far away from the conflict in Yemen, we took a decision not to communicate what we were doing there,” he said, adding that the UAE should have “communicated more.”

The UAE was forced to partially scale down its presence after its May 2018 expansion triggered an outcry, prompting Saudi Arabia to negotiate a minor Emirati withdrawal. However, the UAE has since tried to further expand its military presence on the island, even as it is in breach of the Riyadh Agreement.  The UAE should have reduced its involvement in southern Yemen following the truce.

Just a week prior to the Riyadh Agreement, on November 5, UAE-linked militias had besieged the governor of Socotra, cutting off public access to the island’s central bank and main roads, whilst besieging the governors’ residence, according to local sources. In January, the outlet Uprising Today referenced local media Al-Mahrah’s claim that militias had sought to close fuel stations in order to trigger a shortage. 

These moves indicate that the UAE seeks to isolate and turn Yemenis against the native governor, Ramzi Mahrouz – an outspoken critic of Abu Dhabi’s occupying attempts – and make the island more dependent on Emirati fuel exports and influence. 

Along with Abu Dhabi increasing its property on the island, a Socotra coast guard official announced in early February that the 1st Marine Brigade had defected to the Southern Transitional Council (STC), after being promised higher salaries from the UAE. Yemen’s government had dismissed military commanders in Socotra for switching allegiance to the STC, according to an army statement.

As Abu Dhabi’s presence in Socotra expands, there is growing popular indigenous opposition to its involvement, which may hinder the UAE’s long-term ambitions.

As Abu Dhabi’s presence in Socotra expands, there is growing popular indigenous opposition to its involvement, which may hinder the UAE’s long-term ambitions. The UAE is locked in a tug of war with the local officials and population.

Last October there were protests against the UAE, where thousands expressed frustration that it was tearing up the country; the demonstrations lasted well into November. 

On February 4, Socotra’s governor once again accused the UAE of backing a rebellion on the island. Further protests may not only draw attention to Abu Dhabi’s influence, it could restrict its objectives. Local security sources have also previously claimed that Emirati property, which was built illegally, Had been seized

Furthermore, the central Yemeni government has condemned the UAE’s continuous attempts to occupy the island. Minister of Sana’a Secretariat, Abdelghani Jamil, last June, called for the Hadi government to take further action against the UAE’s activities in the country, calling it a “full-fledged occupation.” 

Hadi himself even slammed Abu Dhabi as an “occupying power” for its actions elsewhere.

Saudi Arabia reigning in on its ally’s provocative aims could somewhat hinder Abu Dhabi’s influence. Though the Riyadh Agreement indicates it would prefer a quiet compromise, rather than a confrontation, particularly due to its vital alliance with the UAE.

Meanwhile, continued chaos within mainland Yemen, particularly after clashes between government and Houthi forces in January, will grant Abu Dhabi more of a smokescreen and freedom to pursue its insidious ambitions in Socotra.