Socotra Island: UNESCO-Protected ‘Jewel of Arabia’ Threatened by Yemen’s Civil War

This UNESCO human heritage site, located on a remote island isolated from the rest of the world off the coast of Yemen, hosts a third of the island’s plants that are found nowhere else on Earth, but the civil war in Yemen is threatening to destroy it.

This UNESCO human heritage site, located on a remote island isolated from the rest of the world off the coast of Yemen, hosts a third of the island’s plants that are found nowhere else on Earth, but the civil war in Yemen is threatening to destroy it.

Yemeni legend has it that humanity began here in the land of the dragon’s blood tree, where two brothers, Darsa and Samha, fought to the death. Otherwise known as the brothers Cain and Abel, they were the first people to settle in Socotra: “When the first murder was committed in history and blood flowed, the blood tree of the brothers grew.” The Arabic name for the tree is dam al akhawain (“the blood of the two brothers”).

Socotra Island, located 250 miles off the coast of Yemen near the Horn of Africa and the Gulf of Aden, is one of four islands on the archipelago of Socotra. These four islands, Abd al-Kuri, Samha, Darsa, and Socotra, are home to about 60,000 inhabitants.

Only 82 miles long and 30 miles wide, Socotra occupies a strategically important position at the international maritime corridor, linking the Indian Ocean and East Asian countries to the rest of the continents. More than 250 million years ago, Socotra rifted away from Arabia becoming a separate island. Since then, the island has remained isolated from Africa and the Arabian Peninsula and has become home to many breathtaking landscapes as well as unique species of birds, plants, and insects.

Once called “the most alien-looking place on Earth,” Socotra sits on ancient granite and sandstone and features impressive limestone cliffs. Socotra has also been described as a “Wonderland” due to its exotic mountains, valleys, plains, caves, and beaches. With its amazing array of unique and endemic flora and fauna, UNESCO named the island a World Natural Heritage site in 2008.

There are 750 species of plants on Socotra, 270 of which are endemic to the island, and are found nowhere else on Earth. There are ten species of rare and endangered plants on the island such as the unique blood tree, the olibanum tree, the desert rose, and the myrrh tree.

Socotra is also home to many rare animals and birds. Native marine life is characterized as a hybrid of species from the Red Sea, the Indian Ocean, and the Western Pacific. The island boasts 352 species of coral reef, 730 species of coastal fish, and 300 species of crabs, lobsters, and shrimp.

Additionally, 90 percent of the reptiles and 59 percent of the wild snail species in the archipelago are not found anywhere else in the world. The archipelago also hosts a significant number of birds (291 species, 44 of them breed on the islands, 58 migrate regularly). Ten species can be found only on Socotra, such as the Socotra Bunting, the Socotra Sunbird, the Socotra Starling, the Socotra golden-winged Grosbeak, the Socotra Scops owl, the Socotra Sparrow, and the Socotra Warbler.

Although it is not known precisely when humans settled on Socotra, the archeological remains on the island “date back to the Stone Age,” according to Vitaly Naumkin, head of a Russian archaeological expedition to Socotra. In an interview with al-Siyasah newspaper in December, 2008, he remarked that the remains were about a million years old. “They indicate the beginning of the existence of primitive man,” he said.

A letter of the deputy governor of Socotra province addressed to the governor of the Socotra on April 27, 2017. It warned against the dredging and export of coral reefs.
A letter of the deputy governor of Socotra province addressed to the governor of the Socotra on April 27, 2017. It warned against the dredging and export of coral reefs.

A 2007 study conducted by a team of specialized scientists from the  University of Florida and the University of Cambridge concluded that “Yemen is the source and the first homeland of mankind.” The study was based on a collection of samples from 550 cases from various parts of Yemen, including Socotra Island. These samples were analyzed in order to discover the gene at the beginning of human history.  Vice Dean of the Faculty of Medicine at the University of Sanaa, Dr. Ali Al-Miri, reviewed the results of a scientific study, saying, “Yemeni genes are the oldest, which makes them the origin of humanity. The genetics of the population of the island of Socotra are authentic Yemeni genes.”

Since ancient times, Socotra has been known as an important hub for the production of materials used in religious rituals such as frankincense and incense. At one time a major silk and spice trading route among Africa, Asia, and the Arab world, this small island sits in the middle of one of the most important oil trading channels in the world.   

Unfortunately, this rare site of human and cultural heritage has been devastated by natural disasters in recent years, including the Chapala and Megh cyclones in 2015 and the Mekunu cyclone in 2018. The whole province of Socotra was declared a “disaster area” after the cyclone ravaged the island in May 2018.

More significantly, Socotra now appears to be threatened by the civil war currently raging in Yemen. Despite the fact that Socotra is geographically distant from the combat in Yemen’s ongoing civil war, the UAE recently came under criticism for trying to “occupy” the island. A report by the Independent has been monitoring the UAE’s activity in Socotra and its relentless pursuit of control of the island. Not only has the UAE established a military base and communications networks there, but it has also tried to curry favor with Socotra’s residents by building schools and infrastructure and inviting residents to Abu Dhabi. Given its very strategic location in the middle of major shipping routes and the UAE’s military and economic interests in controlling access to the Arabian Gulf, it is clear why the UAE has taken such an interest in the island.

A Formal contract of sale and purchase of land in Socotra Reserve to the UAE official on the island, Khalfan Al Mazrouei, despite of the fact that is not permissible to sell natural reserves.

In a May 2018 statement, the Yemeni government objected to the UAE’s presence in Socotra and described it as “unjustified.” Tensions between the government of President Hadi and the UAE increased after a tweet from the UAE foreign minister, Anwar Gargash, which stated: “[S]ome recently discovered the island of Socotra and slander the Arab alliance and the UAE . . . .”  Yemeni activists also opposed the presence of the UAE in Socotra, launching a social media campaign to voice their opposition to and call for the end of the UAE’s  “occupation.”

In response to those protests, Saudi Arabia deployed its forces to Socotra on May 13, 2018 in an attempt to quell the opponents.  

Activists have also claimed that the UAE is trying to turn the island into a permanent military base and that it is stealing UNESCO protected plants and animals. 

Inside Arabia obtained a copy of a letter addressed to the governor of the Socotra province on April 27, 2017, from Abdul Jameel Mohammed, the deputy governor of the province, warning against the dredging and the export of coral reefs. In another letter addressed to the Commander of the Socotra Maritime Region, Mohammed complained about the illegal export of the island’s stones and held the commander “responsible for allowing the export of Socotra’s stones without environmental guidance.” Even more disturbing is the apparent existence of a contract for the sale and purchase of land in the Socotra Reserve to a UAE official, Khalfan Al Mazrouei, notwithstanding that it is impermissible to sell UNESCO natural reserves.

In short, the island of Socotra is under threat of exploitation by the Emirati and Saudi foreign powers who are making it attractive to the residents to become complicit in their own destruction. Meanwhile, the Yemeni civil war rages on with no apparent end in sight.