An airstrip is being built on a Yemeni island during the ongoing war, with 'I LOVE UAE' next to it

An airstrip is being built on a Yemeni island during the ongoing war, with 'I LOVE UAE' next to it
A new airstrip appears to be being built on a Yemeni island, Abd al-Kuri, as Houthi rebels continue to target ships.
5 min read
The UAE is a prime culprit in the deadly Yemen conflict [Getty]

As Yemen’s Houthi rebels continue to target ships in a Mideast waterway, satellite pictures analysed by The Associated Press show what appears to be a new airstrip being built at an entrance to that crucial maritime route.

No country has publicly claimed the construction on Abd al-Kuri Island, a stretch of land rising out of the Indian Ocean near the mouth of the Gulf of Aden. However, satellite images shot for the AP show workers have spelt “I LOVE UAE” with piles of dirt next to the runway, using an abbreviation for the United Arab Emirates.

Both the Gulf of Aden and the Red Sea to which it leads have become a battleground between the Houthis and US-led forces in the region as Israel's war on Gaza rages — potentially allowing a nation to project its power into the area.

The construction comes as the presence of troops from the Emirates in the Socotra Island chain to which Abd al-Kuri belongs — and that of the separatist force it backs in southern Yemen — have sparked clashes in the past.

In response to the AP's questions, the United Arab Emirates said Thursday that “any presence of the UAE on Socotra Island is based on humanitarian grounds that is carried out in cooperation with the Yemeni government and local authorities.”

"The UAE remains steadfast in its commitment to all international endeavours aimed at facilitating the resumption of the Yemeni political process, thereby advancing the security, stability, and prosperity sought by the Yemeni populace,” it added without elaborating.

The Yemeni Embassy in Washington and Saudi Arabia, which leads a coalition fighting the Houthis, did not respond to questions.

Inside MENA
Live Story

Abd al-Kuri is about 35 kilometres (21.75 miles) long and about 5 kilometres (3.11 miles) at its widest point. It sits closer to the Horn of Africa than it does to Yemen, the Arab world's poorest nation, which has been at war for years.

Along that widest point sits the airstrip construction. Satellite photos from Planet Labs PBC analysed by the AP showed trucks and other vehicles grading the runway on March 11, turning part of its sandy features a dark brown. Planet Labs images of the site shot for the AP on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday showed vehicles in different positions and active work being done there, possibly including paving the site.

The runway, running north to south, measures about 3 kilometres (1.86 miles). It can accommodate attack, surveillance, and transport aircraft, including some of the heaviest bombers.

According to Planet Labs imagery, Construction could be seen in the area in January 2022, with a diagonal, shorter runway carved out of the sand. The first signs of the more extended north-south runway construction were in July 2022, but work was halted.

This month, there's been increased activity on Abd al-Kuri, including construction at the northern edge of the runway, close to the water, and the movement of heavy vehicles.

That works corresponds with a report last week by Abu Dhabi's state-linked broadcaster Sky News Arabia, which claimed to quote an anonymous US defence official as saying America had “strengthened our missile defences on Socotra Island” in anticipation of the rebels attacking US bases. Socotra is the main island of the Socotra chain, about 130 kilometres (80 miles) from Abd al-Kuri.

The US military told the AP it is not involved in the construction of Abd al-Kuri, nor is there any American “military presence” elsewhere in Yemen. US special forces have launched raids in the past in Yemen, while a two-decade American drone strike campaign has targeted the country’s local al-Qaeda affiliate.

No air defence batteries were immediately discernible in satellite imagery around the Abd al-Kuri Island site. However, what appeared to be piles of dirt at the site had been arranged to spell “I LOVE UAE” just east of the runway.

The island of Socotra, a UNESCO World Heritage site home to the rare Dragon Blood tree, has long been a strategic port given its location on a key East-West trade route for cargo and energy shipments from Asia and the Middle East onward to Europe. The Soviet Union once used Socotra as an anchorage for its surface fleet and submarines when South Yemen, a Communist nation based in Aden, ruled the island from 1967 until 1990.

The island has felt far removed from the chaos that has gripped Yemen in the decades since, from unification to civil war to the Iranian-backed Houthi rebels' sweeping entrance into the capital in 2014. A Saudi-led coalition that includes the UAE entered the Yemen war in 2015 on behalf of the country's exiled government and has been caught in a grinding, nearly decadelong conflict since.

In 2018, the UAE deployed troops to Socotra Island, sparking a dispute with Yemen's exiled government. Two years later, clashes broke out between Yemeni separatists backed by the UAE and other forces there.

Meanwhile, Iranian-linked media and the Houthis have alleged without providing evidence that the Emiratis allowed Israel to operate from Socotra as well. Israel has not acknowledged any presence there, and the Israeli prime minister’s office declined to comment.

Since November, the Houthis have attacked ships, saying they want to force Israel to end its war on Gaza. The vessels targeted by the rebels, however, largely have had little or no connection to Israel, the US or other nations involved in the war. The insurgents also have fired missiles toward Israel, though they have largely fallen short or been intercepted.

When President Joe Biden entered office in 2021, he pulled support from the Saudi-led coalition, declaring: “This war has to end.” But in January, the US began launching airstrikes targeting the Houthis over their attacks on shipping, a near-daily campaign of attacks that continues today.

The airfield on Abd el-Kuri isn't the first mysterious airstrip to begin construction amid Yemen's war. In 2021, the AP reported that an airfield was being built on Mayun Island, also known as Perim Island. This island sits in the narrow Bab el-Mandeb Strait, which links the Gulf of Aden to the Red Sea.

Then, military officials with Yemen’s internationally recognised government, which the Saudi-led coalition has backed since 2015, said the UAE was building the runway. The Saudi-led coalition battling the Houthis later acknowledged having “equipment” on the island, while a militia leader and nephew of Yemen’s late strongman president Ali Abdullah Saleh acknowledged that his Emirati-backed troops were stationed there.