Is the UAE Gearing Up to Annex Yemen’s Socotra Island?

The UAE has taken over Socotra after setting up a military base on the Yemeni island and carrying out extensive social and economic development. Is the UAE merely providing humanitarian and economic aid or is it laying the groundwork for the island's future “secession” from mainland Yemen?
Is the UAE Gearing Up to Annex Yemen’s Socotra Island
Dragon's Blood Tree, Socotra Island, Yemen/Photo by Rod Waddington.

The Yemeni island of Socotra, dubbed the “Jewel of Arabia,” is located in the Gulf of Aden near the Horn of Africa, 217 miles off the southern coast of Yemen and 817 miles from Abu Dhabi as the crow flies. In recent years, Socotra has become the focal point of a power struggle between Yemen and the United Arab Emirates (UAE).

A Saudi-UAE-led coalition launched a military intervention in Yemen in 2015 to support the country’s internationally-recognized government in an insurgence by Yemeni rebels, known as the Houthis or Ansarullah movement, backed by Iran.

A Saudi-UAE-led coalition launched a military intervention in Yemen in 2015 to support the country’s internationally-recognized government in an insurgence by Yemeni rebels, known as the Houthis or Ansarullah movement, backed by Iran. Although the Houthis have come nowhere near Socotra, the UAE has been using the strategic placement of the UNESCO-protected island to expand its regional power.

Socotra, which has been largely forgotten in the ongoing Yemeni crisis, has been a focal point of the UAE. After Socotra was devastated by the Chapala and Megh cyclones in November 2015, the UAE provided significant humanitarian aid to the island’s residents. It launched several projects to improve infrastructure, including the rebuilding and development of schools, hospitals, and roads.

Throughout 2016, Emiratis sent plane loads of food and supplies to the inhabitants of Socotra. By October 2016, the 31st planeload of medical and other supplies from the UAE had landed on the island. By March 2017, the UAE had sent millions of dollars to the island. Yet, these efforts continue to raise questions as to the Gulf country’s long-term intentions.

Why Socotra?

Since Dubai’s Jebel Ali became the most congested port in the Middle East, the UAE has started building and expanding other ports in the Red Sea and the Arabian Gulf to monopolize the area and undermine Iran’s influence as it too tries to gain control of the major shipping channel.

In fact, Socotra is  strategically located  in the middle of one of the world’s most important oil trading routes. The UAE intends to become central to a future East-West trading route, according to academic Andreas Krieg. Socotra’s location would enable the UAE to control the trade that goes through the Suez Canal and the Bab al-Mandeb Strait between Yemen and the Horn of Africa.

The UAE stationed tanks and troops on Socotra in May 2018, seeking to boost its presence and consolidate its power in the channel.

The UAE stationed tanks and troops on Socotra in May 2018, seeking to boost its presence and consolidate its power in the channel. In the same month, the UAE established a military base on the island, seizing Socotra’s airport and seaport and building maritime infrastructure and communication networks.

This move is a “mix of the UAE’s both hard and soft power strategies both in Yemen and in the wider sort of Horn of Africa region,” said Bethan McKernan, journalist and author of the first witness report on UAE troops in Socotra.

The UAE’s military base has created up to 5,000 new jobs. The UAE also conducted a census for the island’s population, took a number of Socotris to Abu Dhabi to receive free medical examinations, and even offered some special permits to work in the UAE.

As the island is home to extraordinary and unique flora and fauna, Abu Dhabi’s move has been seen by some as a quest to transform Socotra not only into a permanent Emirati military base, but also an important holiday resort. Emirati businessmen are planning to build luxurious hotels across the island, according to McKernan.

A Future UAE Territory?

The UAE has exploited the semi-absence and dysfunction of the Riyadh-backed Yemeni government to strengthen its hold in south Yemen. Since 2017, the UAE has supported the Southern Transitional Council (STC), a movement calling for independence in southern Yemen governorates, including Socotra. In January 2018, the group “seized several government offices during deadly clashes in the port city of Aden,” leading the Yemeni government to accuse them of attempting to stage a coup d’état.

As well as being at odds with the STC, former Yemeni Prime Minister Ahmed bin Dagher was also in conflict with the UAE. In May 2018, Emirati forces blockaded bin Dagher during a visit he made to the province of Socotra. In addition, Gulf-backed President Hadi dismissed bin Dagher in October 2018, accusing him of “negligence” and blaming him for the country’s economic crisis. However, it is more likely that he was sacked over his conflict with the STC.

In a meeting with a group of Socotran sheikhs and residents in late December 2018, Emirati historian Hamad al-Matrooshi said that the people of Socotra would “be part of the UAE and deserve citizenship without a request,” claiming historical ties between the Emiratis and Socotris. This statement angered some Yemenis who view the UAE’s presence in Socotra as the beginning of a colonial agenda.

Despite its coalition with Abu Dhabi, Yemen’s government-in-exile has criticized the UAE’s takeover of Socotra, calling the move “unjustified” and an “assault on Yemen’s sovereignty.” Moreover, in May 2018, inhabitants of the island protested to express their indignation  at the UAE’s military deployment across the island.  

“An Effort of the Arab Coalition”

The UAE has categorically denied all accusations regarding its alleged attempts to undermine Yemen’s sovereignty.

The UAE has categorically denied all accusations regarding its alleged attempts to undermine Yemen’s sovereignty. Furthermore, Abu Dhabi asserts that it has played an important role in developing much-needed infrastructure, assisting Socotran inhabitants through various projects, and securing the island.

However, the Saudi-UAE-led coalition is waging a brutal war in northern Yemen and has created the world’s worst humanitarian crisis, while Socotra, far from the southern coast of Yemen, is isolated from the conflict and rebel strongholds.

The UAE  justified the deployment of its troops in May 2018 by claiming that it was part of “the efforts of the Arab coalition” to support the legitimate Yemeni government at this critical stage in the history of Yemen. Yet, in the same month, the Yemeni government asserted that there had been no military coordination between it and the UAE, so it requested that Saudi Arabia intervene instead to broker a resolution to the situation in Socotra.

The UAE withdrew a large number of its troops from Socotra after it had brokered a deal with Saudi Arabia to quell the indignation of both the Yemeni government and Socotris. According to the deal, Saudi soldiers would replace Emirati troops to provide training to Yemeni security forces and operate Socotra’s airport and seaport.

Notwithstanding this deal, the UAE continues to maintain its role as the de facto government authority and aid provider on Socotra. In February 2019, the UAE released a number of UAE-based job opportunities for young people from Socotra. During the same period, the governor of Socotra also opened several facilities at a new hospital built by the UAE on the island.

With every day that goes by, the UAE expands its reach in Yemen to become a stronger regional power. However, it remains to be seen whether Abu Dhabi will leave Socotra once the conflict ends, or whether it will continue to serve its own interests on the island and, maybe one day, even claim it as an Emirati territory.