Yemen’s Socotra Island – often dubbed a “hidden gem” due to its beauty and remote location between the Arabian Sea and Pacific Ocean, 500km (310 miles) away from the Yemeni mainland – is regarded as one of the most fascinating archipelagos in the world and was registered as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2008 for the impressive cultural and natural richness it contains, within an area of 3,650 km² (1,409 square miles). Some locals suggest that its name derives from the Arabic word for “market of resin.”
However, its attractive ecological features aside, Socotra is currently at the heart of geopolitical developments in the region for another reason. Indeed, its location near the Horn of Africa, on the international maritime route that connects the countries of the Pacific Ocean to the rest of the world, gives Socotra a significant strategic importance. This has aroused covetousness from nearby countries—chief among them, the UAE.
Following the UAE’s participation in the 2015 Saudi-led military campaign – dubbed “Asifat Al-Hazm” (Decisive Storm) – against Houthi rebels in Yemen, the UAE started to implement a hidden agenda to benefit their own interests in the country. This agenda now overshadows the coalition’s primary mission of deterring the Iran-supported Houthi rebels seeking to overturn the internationally recognized government of Yemen.
Although there is no apparent relation between Socotra Island and the ongoing conflict with the Houthi rebels, the UAE is using the Saudi-led intervention as a cover to achieve its own political, economic, and military interests in controlling the island of Socotra. It possibly aims at forcing Socotra into secession in order to integrate it to UAE territory in the future. The majority of the islanders have recognized the Emirati presence as “an unwarranted and illegitimate one,” a situation that has led to a series of violent clashes between locals and UAE troops in Socotra.
UAE Economic Ambitions in Socotra
Many observers reckon that the UAE interest in Socotra is not only geopolitical, but economic as well. The island has gained international fame for the presence of rare plants, whose oil extracts are used in various industries. Socotra is also a leading tourist destination thanks to its coral reefs, rare species of birds, beautiful natural sites, and abundant biodiversity, making it a potential economic asset for the UAE.
However, the main economic motive behind UAE occupation of Socotra Island is Abu Dhabi’s ambition to secure the management of Aden ports for Dubai Ports World (DP World), many sources allege. Just before the eruption of Yemen’s civil war, in 2012, the board of Aden Ports Corp had decided to cancel its agreement with DP World. Seven years later, reports revealed that the UAE prevented Yemen from implementing a Memorandum of Understanding signed with China in 2019, to take part in Beijing’s new Silk Road project, also known as the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). It can therefore be assessed that DP World is striving to control all Yemeni ports and the Bab-el-Mandeb strait, to realize its ambition of turning the port of Aden into a major trading center for the UAE.
Dubai Ports World is striving to control all Yemeni ports and the Bab-el-Mandeb strait.
To achieve this strategic goal, the UAE appears to have resorted to several shadowy methods, among them the bribery of local influential figures. In fact, some sources in Yemen allege that after the country’s President, Mansour Hadi, turned down the UAE proposal in 2016 to lease the island of Socotra for 99 years in exchange for a large amount of money, the UAE started to offer bribes to prominent social and tribal dignitaries.
Furthermore, the UAE has been accused of manipulating and funding the Southern Transitional Council (STC) since 2020, to get a foothold in the island without any direct involvement. Since then, the STC has become one of the most devoted Emirati agents in Yemen.
UAE-Israeli Security Coordination
Over the last ten years, the UAE has been dedicated to establishing itself as a regional and international power. It has attempted to gain favor with the US and ally with a regional superpower – Israel – which is why the UAE normalized its relations with the Zionist state in 2020 and signed the Abraham Accords.
Among the benefits of the UAE normalization agreements is the White House provisional approval of US$23 million worth of weaponry, including F-35 fighter jets, which are owned by no other country in the region but Israel.
Furthermore, the UAE wants to convey to Washington its readiness to support the American vision of countering the Islamic Republic’s foreign policy agenda in the Red Sea and Bab-el-Mandeb strait, which is essential for protecting US bases in the region from any Iranian preemptive strikes.
Thus, the current Emirati-Israeli coordination in Socotra derives from shared interests, as Socotra represents a strategic geopolitical position from where Iranian influence can be further monitored. The Emirates Center for Strategic Studies and Research confirmed that curtailing the Iranian expansion in the region is a common goal between the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen and Israel, as each country has witnessed continuous tensions with Iran and considers it a security threat.
According to an article published in 2019 by JForum, Israel has been interested in building up military intelligence bases on the Yemeni island of Socotra since 2016 to monitor all marine and air movements within the Red Sea, the Gulf of Aden, and the Indian Ocean. One of the means of achieving this goal is through cooperation with the pro-Emirati STC, which controls the island of Socotra.
Additionally, Israel’s media outlets continuously disseminate reports focusing on the threat that the Iran-backed Houthi rebels pose for Israel. For example, the Israeli i24 TV channel broadly shared a press release by the Houthi Minister of Security, Mohammed Nasser al-Atifi, who said that his forces own “a bank of Israeli targets on land and sea.” In response, the spokesperson of the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF), Hidai Zilberman, declared that Israeli submarines sail everywhere, and the activities of the IDF cover all regions in the near and far off Middle East.
It is worth mentioning that Israel built a military intelligence base in Eritrea in 2016, which, as the JForum report states, serves the purpose of “electronic surveillance of the Saudi-led forces, besides watching over Sudan which [Israel] has accused of providing weapons to the Palestinian resistance from 2010 until 2014.” However, it appears that the island of Socotra was not part of the geographical reach of the Israeli intelligence watch, despite its importance for the surveillance of Iranian movements within this vital region, for the security of Israel.
Ehud Yaari – an Israeli Middle East expert at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy who is close to the Israeli State Security Service – believes that “Socotra Island is attracting a lot of attention from the Israeli security services,” as noted in a report by the Hebrew Channel 12.
Intelligence Online revealed that the island has seen the arrival of economic delegations and military experts from the UAE and Israel.
Intelligence Online revealed that the island has recently seen the arrival of many economic delegations and military experts from the UAE and Israel, in spite of the Egyptian and Saudi opposition to such moves. The Governor of the Socotra Archipelago, Ramzi Mahrous, was reportedly not surprised at the Emirati-Israeli normalization of relations, as the UAE is apparently trying to support US and Israeli military bases in the region to further its control and connect its bases in Eritrea and western Yemen.
As for the wider geopolitical repercussions of the Emirati-Israeli cooperation in Western Asia and the Middle East, Giorgio Cafiero, CEO and Founder of Gulf State Analytics, believes that an Israeli presence in the coastal waters of the Red Sea and the Arabian Gulf would be a source of concern for Pakistan as well. Accordingly, many observers are rather uneasy about what this situation may lead to. Indeed, the UAE and Israel’s involvement in Socotra is bound to increase over the next years, particularly due to the United States’ desire to see more coordination between India, the UAE, and Israel in the Indian Ocean.
UAE Human Rights Violations in Socotra
Undoubtedly, the Emirati military and intelligence activities in Socotra, in coordination with Israel and without the approval of the internationally recognized Yemeni government, present a dangerous situation to the sovereignty of the Yemeni state. They violate the UN Security Council resolution no. 2216, which “bans the direct or indirect supply, sale or transfer…[of] weapons and ammunition, military vehicles and equipment [to Yemen].”
Three human rights organizations – namely Human Rights Watch, the International Human Rights Organization, and Rights Radar – have brought attention to the rights violations committed by the UAE-backed Southern Transitional Council in Socotra, as well as in South Yemen, against journalists and activists.
For instance, one of the most prominent journalists detained is Adel Alhasani, who was arrested and tortured for seeking information on the UAE role in Yemen for a CNN report. The organization Mwatana for Human Rights also accused the Southern Transitional Council of arbitrarily detaining journalists who criticized Emirati actions in Yemen.
Afrah Nasser, a researcher for Human Rights Watch, confirmed that many journalists and activists face systematic threats, terrorist attacks, violence, and detention for covering the situation in the country. Sources from the organization reported that the STC places offenders on used boats and sends them to other coasts in Yemen. These sources cited the case of Colonel Abdulrahman al-Nazfi, an air force commander in Socotra, who was exiled and taken to an unknown location.
In addition to these human rights violations, the UAE is also accused of carrying out illegal trade activity in Yemen. They reportedly use commercial aircrafts to transport weapons and set up charity organizations as a “front cover for their intelligence military activities, child recruitment, persecution of minorities, and preventing access of humanitarian aid.”
The Associated Press has documented incidents of assassination squads, detention centers, and torture programs in Yemen.
The Associated Press has documented incidents of assassination squads, detention centers, and torture programs in Yemen. This, according to experts, represents “a flagrant violation of national Yemeni laws as well as international laws.” Locally, the prominent Sheikh of Socotra, Issa bin Yaqoot, accused Saudi Arabia and the UAE of destroying the rare and enchanting nature sites on the island of Socotra. He added that “the STC’s violations occur with the knowledge of Saudi forces, which have been given these locations previously by the Yemeni Forces.”
Marked by occupation and oppression, many political movements in Yemen demand the organization of an international court to investigate the UAE. Mukhtar al-Ruhbi, Advisor to the Yemeni Minister of Information, released a statement to Khaleej Online, saying that the Yemeni government intends to lodge a complaint against the UAE soon. This is due to what he referred to as “the crimes and violations committed by the UAE or through ally forces in the country.”
Moreover, he stated that “even if the government did not move formally, there are local and international organizations that will take action with international governments and organizations and shall reveal these crimes.” Mwatana for Human Rights has also released a report demanding UN member states to take action to end the UAE’s violations of human rights in Yemen.
Although this resource rich and beautiful island is going through difficult and unprecedented times, due to the geopolitical and economic interests of regional powers like the UAE, one must hope that it will regain its status as a first-class tourist island. As a one local said in an interview with the Financial Times, Socotra is “a heaven on earth and should always be protected.”