by Eleonora Ardemagni
Once upon a time, people believed that Socotra was the garden of Eden. Beyond the legends, Yemen’s civil war has definitively changed the reality of this quiet island, protected by Unesco for its biodiversity. Although there are neither Houthis nor jihadists there, Socotra (with about 60,000 inhabitants) has been experiencing increasing geopolitical pressure and an unprecedented military build-up. On the island, the balance between nature and humans risks being irremediably altered by planned constructions, mass tourism and emerging networks of patronage.
From 18 May 2018, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) started withdrawing soldiers and military vehicles from Socotra, in compliance with a Saudi-brokered agreement with locals and Yemen’s recognised government. Emirati forces had been deployed a few weeks before without prior consultation with the Yemeni government, seizing control of the port and the airport. Today, Saudi Arabian soldiers are de facto replacing the Emiratis ‘to train Yemeni security forces’ in Socotra, with Riyadh also announcing its own development plan for the island. Contrary to public statements, this controversial story is not completely patched up and it is likely to influence the future of Saudi–Emirati relations in Yemen, especially in the areas of the south the Houthis have been driven from.
What’s more, this is a dispute between supposed allies the UAE and Saudi Arabia. Abu Dhabi attempted to include the island in its ‘string of ports and military bases’ strategy astride the Horn of Africa and the Indian Ocean, while Riyadh – forcing the Emiratis to downsize their ambitions in Socotra – helped Abd Rabu Mansur Hadi, the recognised government’s president who is still backed by the Saudis, to publicly restore a minimal level of Yemeni authority on the island.
Emirati involvement in Socotra has grown since 2015, when it was partially damaged by two cyclones: a third cyclone hit the island on May 2018. Abu Dhabi was the quickest to begin donations to start reconstruction back in 2015, also providing basic goods and electricity to one of the most marginalised areas of Yemen. But ‘emergency aid’ turned into ‘development aid’ and then into what appeared, also in the eyes of many locals, to be the increasing Emirati colonisation of Socotra. ‘We should have communicated more’, said the Emirati Minister of Foreign Affairs Anwar Gargash, denying any strategic purposes behind the UAE’s humanitarian aid.
Considering its strategic location, Socotra may be set to become the UAE’s Diego Garcia (the US military base in the Indian Ocean). The pattern followed by the Emiratis on the island resembles that previously shown in Assab (Eritrea), Berbera (Somaliland) and key Yemeni southern coastal cities such as Aden, Mukalla and Al-Mokha: first the rebuilding/enlargement of commercial ports and secondly the establishment of military bases/facilities, thus serving overlapping economic and geostrategic goals in the Indian Ocean. As a matter of fact, the UAE expanded the port of Hadibo, the capital of Socotra (which became a governorate only in 2014), in the northern and most populated part of the island, on the maritime route for Mukalla (Hadhramaut) and Berbera. Socotra would also be a perfect hub for trade links with India, given the rising economic partnership between Abu Dhabi and New Delhi, enhanced by a 2017 agreement.
Last year, the UAE confirmed the presence of a military base on the island, and since 2016 Emirati recruits have been sent to a training camp in Socotra for intensive battle and weapons handling simulations. Moreover, the Emiratis are reportedly recruiting residents to create a local militia.
In Socotra, as elsewhere in the sub-region, the UAE has managed to combine hard and soft power: focusing on basic needs and service delivery, establishing direct weekly services from Hadibo airport to Abu Dhabi, providing medical treatment, subsidising education and work permits to the UAE, and organising cultural events and group weddings for Socotris.
Such a multi-layered approach has boosted the Emirati position on the island, with three intertwined implications.
Firstly, this has contributed to weakening not only Yemen’s recognised government’s authority on the whole territory, but also its diplomatic leverage, further eroding President Hadi’s perceived legitimacy. The UAE decided to upgrade its military presence in Socotra at the beginning of May 2018, while the new UN Special Envoy Martin Griffiths was working hard to revive diplomatic talks.
Secondly, the Socotra issue has created further friction within the Saudi-led Coalition, which has intervened in Yemen against the Houthis since March 2015. As a matter of fact, the Saudis and the Emiratis were already pursuing parallel strategies in the south, as demonstrated by recent clashes in Aden. Abu Dhabi’s informal support for the pro-secessionist Southern Transitional Council (STC), coupled with the flourishing of Emirati-backed militias on a regional basis, are fuelling separatist spirits in many of southern Yemen’s regions and reportedly in Socotra, challenging the original Saudi plan of a unified Yemeni state.
Thirdly, the local impact of the ‘Socotra crisis’ should not be underestimated. Socotris have experienced an unprecedented tide of politicisation mostly due to the nascent networks of patronage built by the Emiratis: both anti– and pro-UAE demonstrations were held during the climax of the dispute between Abu Dhabi- and Yemeni- recognised institutions. This exposes Socotra’s unique natural and human environment to unpredictable geopolitical interferences, as has already occurred in Mahra, Yemen’s easternmost governorate, where Oman has traditionally been a softly-engaged neighbour: Muscat supports the heir and would-be Sultan of Mahra and Socotra, Shaykh Abdullah bin Issa Al-Afrar.
What is happening in Socotra has already been seen in Mahra, another area until recently left relatively unscathed by the civil war. First, the Emiratis increased their humanitarian and military presence in Mahra and then, in response, the Saudis decided to send aid, Salafi preachers and soldiers (in December 2017) to counterbalance the UAE’s geopolitical ambitions. However, the intra-Gulf competition for Socotra has been better-covered in the media as compared to that for Mahra, which is also due to the peculiarity of this Unesco-protected island and the reaction of a segment of the local population.
For the UAE, controlling Socotra means strengthening its commercial and military projection in the Indian Ocean, thus emphasising its rising inter-regional prestige. For Saudi Arabia, reducing the Emirati influence in Socotra means re-affirming Riyadh’s leading role not only in the military coalition for Yemen, but also with regard to the inter-state balance in the Gulf region.
The indirect battle for Socotra confirms that the Emiratis and the Saudis are not always on the same page: they are allies against the Houthis (fighting alongside each other on the Red Sea front), but are clear competitors for Yemen’s present and future regional balances. And with an eye on Socotra, they are advancing assertive geopolitical strategies in the Western Indian Ocean.
Eleonora Ardemagni is Associate Research Fellow at the Italian Institute for International Political Studies (ISPI), Gulf and Eastern Mediterranean Analyst for the NATO Defense College Foundation and the Aspen Institute Italy. Among her latest publications on Yemen and the Gulf monarchies is ‘Gulf Powers: Maritime Rivalry in the Western Indian Ocean’, (ISPI Analysis, April 2018).