Karen Dabrowska

Originally published: 15th November 2020

by Friends of South Yemen

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Spotlight on Socotra:

MILITARY BASES AND INTELLIGENCE GATHERING
ACTIVITIES THREATEN IDYLLIC ISLAND

Described by an intrepid traveller as an idyllic island forgotten by man, blessed by the gods, Socotra has not managed to escape from the conflict which has ravaged Yemen for the past six years.

On June 20th this year the Southern Transitional Council (STC) seized all government and military locations on the island, declared self administrative authority and appointed its own acting governor. The move, carried out by a small number of fighters and little bloodshed, followed the STC’s declaration of self-rule in Aden and the areas under its control, which proved to be a significant turning point in the Yemeni civil war and indicated the Southerners’ intention to eventually establish an independent state.

Map of Socotra

The Internationally Recognized Government (IRG) led by Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi condemned the action as a full-fledged coup and accused STC forces of attacking government buildings in gang-style behaviour. The deposed governor of Socotra, Ramzi Mahrous, accused the coalition and the UAE of turning a blind eye to the takeover of the island. The STC reportedly expelled dozens of Yemenis from the northern governorates who live on the island, transporting them in small boats under the pretext that they worked in the private sector.

The UAE, the main backer of the STC, has crystal clear strategic interests evident in its April 2018 deployment of heavy arms and troops to the island, as part of the coalition fighting the Houthis. Dubai Ports World has established a number of ports along the Red Sea and has identified Socotra for future business expansion, which has gone hand in hand with aid projects and a recent charm offensive to get the locals on side. With a portfolio of 78 operational marine and inland terminals supported by more than 50 related businesses in 40 countries across six continents, the presence of Dubai Ports World in Socotra could seal it for the UAE, making it an extremely powerful nation. The UAE’s control over the islands is reflected in the fact that it continues to issue tourist visas to those travelling on direct flights to Socotra, an initiative that the Socotri and IRG authorities oppose.

Mohammed Al Basha, of the US-based Navanti Group which conducts specialized research on food security, logistical challenges and security in Africa, the Middle East and Eastern Europe, said the group’s latest opinion poll told the story of a divided house, divided between those who support the IRG led by Hadi and those who support the STC. In principle Socotra’s remoteness should have isolated it from the civil war on the mainland. However the presence of competing political parties have torn Socotra’s social and political fabric apart.

The once peaceful island, situated near strategic shipping lanes linking Asia to Europe via the Red Sea and Suez Canal and famed for its rare and picturesque biodiversity, is a weak spot for all parties involved in the Yemen conflict, all of which have attempted to sneak their way into the hearts of the local population.

The Socotra Archipelago, in the northwest Indian Ocean near the Gulf of Aden, is 250 km long and comprises four islands and two rocky islets which appear as a prolongation of the Horn of Africa. The main island covers most of the archipelago. The site is of universal importance because of its biodiversity with rich and distinct flora and fauna: 37 per cent of Socotra’s 825 plant species, 90 per cent of its reptile species and 95 per cent of its land snail species do not occur anywhere else in the world. The site also supports globally significant populations of land and sea birds (192 bird species, 44 of which breed on the islands while 85 are regular migrants), including a number of threatened species. The marine life of Socotra is also very diverse, with 253 species of reef-building corals, 730 species of coastal fish and 300 species of crab, lobster and shrimp.

But the conflicts on the island are preventing it from benefiting from its tourism potential as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. At the end of October UNESCO decided to send a mission to the island amid concerns over increasing threats to the archipelago’s unique biodiversity. A nature reserve is now under the control of the STC. Yemen’s delegate to UNESCO, Muhammad Jumaih, discussed plans to carry out a report on the state of the reserve, with Mechtild Rossler, the Director of the UNESCO World Heritage Centre. The Socotrans have resorted to using wood as fuel owing to a gas shortage which they blame on the STC.

The Socotra Post reported that 21 local and three international lawyers have joined a human rights group working to file a lawsuit against Hadi’s government over its failure in fulfilling its duty to protect the sovereignty of the archipelago as the UAE consolidates its influence.

Although Socotra is part of Yemen, the central government has done little to improve the lives of people on the island which has been plagued widespread poverty and economic underdevelopment. The UAE has been luring Socotra with promises of economic benefits, residents are provided free health care and work permits in Abu Dhabi, and many have been given UAE citizenship, gestures in return for naval facilities, but the island’s rare flora and fauna and clear waters are at risk if such plans go ahead. Any unfettered increase in human and cargo traffic could be devastating for the environment.

Since 2000, UAE humanitarian organizations such as the Emirates Red Crescent have played an active role in Socotra. The organization provided relief and aid in March 2000 after major floods damaged buildings and agriculture.

STC military parade on Socotra
STC military parade on Socotra

In 2015, when Cyclone Chapala and Cyclone Megh struck the island, the UAE sent an aid ship and plane carrying tons of food, blankets and tents. The following year it increased supplies to Socotra which had largely been abandoned and forgotten as the mainland was preoccupied with the civil war. A UAE military base was also established as part of the Arab coalition’s intervention in the war.

When Emirati troops appeared on the island some Yemeni political factions accused the UAE of attempting to occupy Socotra and looting and ravaging the flora of the island. The deployment of military personnel to the island has increased since the STC takeover. Yemeni media reported that on September 28 STC fighters were transferred to Socotra aboard an Emirati ship. Al Jazeera reported that a private Emirati plane had operated four flights to Socotra transporting a number of European experts and UAE officers.

Middle East Monitor stated on October 2 that 600 Sudanese troops had arrived on the island. The Socotra Post mentioned the arrival of an Emirati ship suspected of unloading military and communications equipment. It is speculated that the shipments may be used to complete the construction of a military and intelligence base. There are concerns that Israel, which has normalized relations with the UAE and with Sudan, is working with the UAE to set up a spy base on Socotra.

ABNA News Agency reported on October 27 that the head of the STC militia in Socotra, Rafat al-Thaqali, met two officers, Lieutenant Mohammed Salem Ahmed Al-Jamhi and Lieutenant Khamis Saleh Saeed, on the islands of Abd al Kuri and Samaha where the UAE wants to establish military bases. UAE military leaders have also held extensive meetings with STC leaders on Socotra. The UAE is reportedly also trying to seduce citizens to sell their land to them. It is trying to acquire land through its delegate Abu Mubarak who has already bought large areas.

Scores of Yemeni tribal leaders and dignitaries have called for the removal of the STC forces and the checkpoints they established. STC forces have reportedly shot at demonstrators causing tension. ABNA reported that the people in the Sarhin area have accused the UAE of pushing the STC to seize their land to achieve its military interests, and there were a number of violent clashes between the residents and STC forces. In June the UAE reportedly established a joint operations room with the Israeli navy in the strategic Ras Quttainan area after displacing the people who lived there.

Issa Salem bin Yaqut, an Oman-based senior sheikh of Socotra, continues to campaign fiercely against the UAE’s presence which he condemned in his testimony before the US Congress in October 2019. Bin Yaqut accused the UAE of allowing the Israelis onto the island amid rumours that they are seeking to establish a spy base. He also accused Riyadh and Abu Dhabi of “destroying the charming and rare environmental landmarks on Socotra and establishing military camps amid a terrible international silence.”

Military activity on the island, the building of military bases, and conflict between the locals, the STC and the Emiratis has resulted in a lethal mix and Yemen’s only haven of peace and natural wonder is now set to become an environmental and cultural tragedy as the traditional way of life is threatened by outsiders who trying to use the island to serve their own interests with scant regard for the wishes or welfare of the local inhabitants.