The construction of an airbase on the Yemeni volcanic island of Mayun (also known as Perim Island) is shrouded in mystery, as it is still not clear which country is behind the airstrip. While no government has claimed ownership, there are many indications that the UAE has initiated the project, according to an Associated Press (AP) report.
The Saudi-led military coalition engaged in Yemen responded to the AP article, stating that “it had established a presence on a strategic island to counter perceived threats to maritime trade from the Iran-aligned Houthi movement.” Yet the coalition’s statement, given to the state-run Saudi Press Agency, did not name who is actually in charge of the new facility’s construction.
However, the latest AP reports bring additional ambiguity around the island. In mid-June, Tariq Saleh a militia leader and nephew of Yemen’s late strongman president, admitted that his Emirati-backed combatants were stationed on “an” island in a critical maritime area. At the same time, at least two Emirati vessels were detected traveling to Mayun.
Mayun sits some 3.5 kilometers (2 miles) off the southwestern edge of Yemen. But more importantly, it is located in the Bab El-Mandeb Strait, one of the world’s busiest maritime routes, which is essential for commercial and energy shipments. The island’s strategic position has been exploited by great powers for centuries, especially after the opening of the Suez Canal.
The Mayun airbase’s modern-day saga began in 2015, after Emirati and allied forces retook the island from the Iran-backed Houthi militia.
The Mayun airbase’s modern-day saga began in 2015, after Emirati and allied forces retook the island from the Iran-backed Houthi militia. In 2016, the UAE started building a massive runway over 3 kilometers long, suitable for the landing of heavy bombers. However, the works were abandoned in 2017, after engineers reportedly encountered technical problems related to the island’s volcanic landscape and inability to incorporate the old airstrip with the new one.
Indeed, the shipping data collected by the Refinitiv firm, which tracks ship signals, clearly linked the Emirates to the abandoned effort to set up the airbase on the island. Still, it has been less clear who stands behind the latest construction works.
AP reported that the work at the site continued again in February, supporting its claim with satellite photos of the island, showing the construction of a new 1.85-kilometer runaway, which would be long enough to accommodate attacks, surveillance, and transport aircraft. Yet the news agency did not mention any presence of Emirati troops on the island.
According to Raiman Al-Hamdani, a Visiting Fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations, and a researcher for the Yemen Policy Center, it is most likely that UAE and Saudi-backed forces such as the Giants brigades, Tareq, and Saleh forces are responsible for the newly emerging base.
Alex Almeida, Head Security Analyst at the Horizon Client Access, a leading risk advisory firm, supports this view, adding that despite the Emiratis recently pulling out of their airbase at Assab in Eritrea, it’s likely they still want to maintain a residual presence in the area to keep an eye on the Bab al-Mandeb. “All of this is a strong indicator that the airstrip is Emirati, though it’s quite possible there’s a Saudi component as well,” he told Inside Arabia.
The UAE’s interest in Mayun island should not come as a surprise, as Abu Dhabi has been highly interested in setting up a spy base on Socotra – another Yemeni island located near the Gulf of Aden in the Arabian Sea – in coordination with Israel, which has also been focused on Bab El-Mandeb strait for decades.
Abu Dhabi has been highly interested in setting up a spy base on Socotra – another Yemeni island located near the Gulf of Aden.
But Mayun island is perhaps an even more attractive solution than Socotra, since it is geographically remote and isolated from the main Yemen conflict, has only a tiny population, and is situated directly on the Bab al-Mandeb. Almeida thinks that a small presence on Mayun would allow the UAE to monitor the Bab al-Mandeb and Iranian maritime smuggling activity around Yemen and the Horn of Africa without getting drawn back into the conflict.
It’s important to note that there are no indicators the Emiratis are settling down for a long-term presence on Mayun, according to Almeida. “The construction work we’ve seen so far suggests a relatively austere, very small-footprint presence, not a large permanent airbase and it may involve a purely temporary repositioning of assets previously based at Assab in Eritrea,” he explained.
It is quite possible, Almeida noted, that the Emiratis are developing the Mayun airstrip into a site that can be periodically accessed by UAE forces without the need for a permanent presence.
In a similar fashion, the UAE retains a small residual counterterrorism task force in Yemen focused on the local branch of Al-Qaeda (known as Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) or Ansar al-Sharia in Yemen), with a small presence at Balhaf in Shabwah and Riyan airbase in Hadramawt. However, Al-Hamdani claims that the UAE has already established a long-term presence in Yemen by funding its proxies, fostering stronger networks with southern Yemenis, and hosting and funding the Southern Transitional Council (STC) – an armed military group – and its affiliates.
The secretive nature of the UAE’s presence on the island has raised concerns among some Yemenis.
The secretive nature of the UAE’s presence on the island has raised concerns among some Yemenis.
The coalition’s statement said that equipment helps the coalition back Yemen’s internationally recognized government against the Iranian-backed Houthi rebels, and that the UAE was “providing air support in defense” of the Yemeni city of Marib, which has been under the siege of Houthi forces for some time.
Still, several Yemeni lawmakers demanded answers regarding the base just a day before the Saudi state news agency released the coalition’s statement. Mohammed Qaisan, an Undersecretary to Yemen’s Information Ministry, went one step further by saying that the UAE had “tampered” with Mayun island and criticized the Emirates for its “continuous support for the illegally armed militias in liberated areas.”
These comments may seriously question the coordination within the Saudi-led anti-Houthi coalition, particularly between the UAE and the Yemeni internationally recognized government led by President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi and his Saudi ally.
But in Almeida’s opinion, the UAE’s shift to Mayun was almost certainly coordinated with the Saudis, even if the UAE isn’t directly involved in combat operations in Yemen any longer. It’s quite possible the Emiratis began work on Mayun without notifying the Hadi government, particularly as the Emiratis already maintained an on and off again presence on the island since 2015.
The Riyadh-based government also hasn’t had a significant influence on the ground in that part of Yemen for years. Nevertheless, Abdulghani al-Iryani, a Senior Researcher at Sana’a Center for Strategic Studies, pointed out that the rumors of UAE and Saudi pressures on President Hadi to sign agreements granting them exterritorial rights in Yemeni territories have circulated for years.
Speaking to Inside Arabia, al-Iryani explained that “the Yemeni constitution does not grant authority to the president, or any single individual in the government, to sign away Yemeni sovereignty or any part of it. Such documents, if signed by Hadi, will have no value in Yemeni or international law.”
But despite very possible collaboration on the Mayun island issue, Al-Hamdani reiterated that the UAE and Saudi Arabia are quietly competing in Yemen to further strengthen their interests, as seen in a discreet proxy/cold war in the Al-Mahra governorate East of Yemen. Their differences are also exposed in their failure to force their backed forces to implement the Riyadh Agreement.
The “UAE has done much to annoy the Saudis while spoiling Saudi plans in Yemen . . .”
The UAE’s presence in Yemen, according to Al-Iryani, is not only against the wishes of the internationally recognized government but is openly hostile to it, recalling the deadly UAE airstrikes against government forces in late August 2019. And although the UAE and Saudi Arabia are clearly at cross-purposes in Yemen, since the “UAE has done much to annoy the Saudis while spoiling Saudi plans in Yemen, the UAE officials avoid actions that may unnecessarily upset the Saudis,” Al-Hamdani added. At the same time, the Emiratis have been very careful not to get dragged back into the main conflict with the Houthis.
The UAE’s mysterious airbase on Mayun island could also be construed as a broader shift in Abu Dhabi’s foreign policy approach, away from military-centric hard power projection to a softer power approach, according to Almeida. This does not mean the UAE is also disengaging from the Horn of Africa, he explained, but that military and security-focused efforts are taking a back seat to diplomacy, development, and infrastructure projects.
With Eritrean military forces getting involved in the Tigray conflict in Ethiopia, Almeida suggests that it’s likely the UAE’s decision to pull out from Assab in Eritrea was also influenced by a desire not to get drawn into that conflict as well.
The airfield on Mayun is therefore a way for the UAE to keep an eye on the Bab al-Mandeb without maintaining a big military presence in the area or getting pulled into the fighting in Yemen, Ethiopia, and Eritrea.