Why is UAE 'occupying' Yemen's Socotra island?

Why is UAE 'occupying' Yemen's Socotra island?
Comment: The UAE's quest for greater political and economic regional influence has taken it to the Yemeni island of Socotra, writes Jonathan Fenton-Harvey.
5 min read
10 May, 2019
UAE has already installed communications networks and has a strong military presence in Socotra [Getty]
The United Arab Emirates' latest attempt to secure the Yemeni island of Socotra are evidence it is seeking to reinforce its political clout in Yemen and ultimately further afield.

Yemen's four-year-long war has not devastated Socotra, as it has elsewhere in the country. The island is relatively peaceful - 220 miles away from mainland Yemen, and is a UNESCO-protected site. It's often called the Galapagos of the Indian Ocean, and hosts around 800 rare animal and plant species.

Yet this unique island is now part of the ongoing struggle for influence between the government of Abedrabbo Mansour Hadi and southern separatists, and ultimately their backers Saudi Arabia and the UAE.

A previous controversial Emirati military build-up took place a year ago, as the Gulf state deployed its tanks and troops there. Now Yemeni officials report the UAE has sent hundreds more troops to Socotra in recent weeks, largely from Aden where its militias have significant control.

The UAE is seeking greater influence in Socotra, having built a military base there, installing communications networks, and carrying out other development projects - similar to its policies elsewhere in Yemen such as Aden and Mukalla.

It has also tried to win support there by offering healthcare and work permits in Abu Dhabi to Socotri islanders, while failing to do the same for other Yemenis.

Strategic access to Socotra would help the UAE expand its global trade routes to states such as India, with whom it has growing ties. The Emirate has already seized control of the islands' ports, and forged links between Abu Dhabi and the Horn of Africa, another region in which it seeks greater military and economic hegemony.

This unique island is now part of the ongoing struggle for influence

Following protests from civilians and political figures there, Saudi Arabia negotiated a deal for a partial UAE withdrawal last year. Yet Abu Dhabi retained many of its links, which it is now trying to consolidate and conceivably expand, alongside its pursuits elsewhere in Yemen.

Yemeni officials have since condemned unrelenting Emirati attempts to control Socotra, including the governor warning against a "dangerous" UAE military build-up, while President Hadi reportedly dubbed the UAE an "occupying force".

Though Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Anwar Gargash dismissed the Emirati escalation in Socotra as "fake news", UAE-backed separatists and militias say they want an independent south Yemen, highlighting Abu Dhabi's distinct political ambitions.

A view of Hadiboh, the capital city of Socotra in the Arabian Sea [AFP]

Prior to its increasing military escalations in Socotra, the UAE previously focused on aid projects in the country, and Gargash last year insisted its presence is "purely humanitarian". Yet Abu Dhabi often uses the pretext of humanitarianism to seek greater regional influence elsewhere, such as Libya, Sudan, and East Africa.

Seeking greater influence in Yemen

The UAE has used its leading position in Riyadh's anti-Houthi coalition as justification to expand its influence in Yemen's South, though its backing of southern separatists and independent militias threatens Saudi Arabia's attempts to reinforce the Hadi government's unified legitimacy over Yemen.

Much of the international spotlight is over the clashes between the Hadi regime and the Houthi rebels, and the visible carnage caused by Saudi Arabia. This gives the UAE essential cover to embark on its quest to empower itself regionally and globally, with Yemen being a central target and stepping-stone for this.

Abu Dhabi often uses the pretext of humanitarianism to seek greater regional influence elsewhere

Elsewhere in Yemen, the UAE may face challenges. In the city of Taiz, in which there is Muslim Brotherhood influence, the UAE-backed brigade of Salafi warlord Abu al-Abbas struggles to gain a foothold, having been forced to retreat from parts of the city in April. There, it is unable to dislodge neither the Houthis nor the Brotherhood, both of whom it opposes in Yemen.

Furthermore, as Yemen's parliament convened in April with President Hadi making a rare appearance for the first time since the 2015 war broke out, further parliamentary authority could challenge the UAE's political ambitions.

Pushing towards Socotra at a time when it faces obstacles to its influence in Yemen is potentially an attempt to shore up its development and trade ties in the country.

Yemen's political landscape remains extremely fragile, and the UN is desperately trying to revive peace talks, meaning that the UAE's expansion into Socotra and south Yemen creates further complications. Already Emirati-backed separatists clashed with Hadi government forces in February last year.

Yet from Abu Dhabi's perspective, a protracted conflict is of little concern. The focus on Hodeida and the Houthi conflict, as well as the presence of Al-Qaeda, all divert attention from UAE political ambitions, and help it justify its continued occupation.

Read more: Ye
meni government accuses UAE of landing separatist troops on island of Socotra

If Yemen's government remains fragile, there is little unified domestic opposition to the UAE's expanding influence.

Riyadh will hope to curtail an Emirati presence on Socotra; yet the UAE's latest escalation, as well as its actions in Aden and elsewhere, will probably not significantly worsen Riyadh-Abu Dhabi relations.

Both countries have almost identical foreign policy aims elsewhere, and at a time when regional transformations in Sudan and Libya threaten their geopolitical hegemonies, they will seek to preserve their otherwise strong alliance.

This could force Saudi Arabia to concede some economic and development rights in Socotra, Aden and elsewhere in Yemen to the UAE, despite seeking such hegemony in Yemen itself. After all, despite the UAE's blatant moves to occupy south Yemen, Riyadh has avoided directly criticising them.

Meanwhile the UAE will likely avoid officially annexing Socotra, also to prevent a fall-out with Saudi Arabia, while still seeking to covertly increase its influence as much as possible.

Yet ultimately it is still Yemen that will suffer as a result if these policies continue. These Emirati-backed groups and militias risk prolonging instability, while making peace a further distant prospect.

The UAE must de-escalate its militia and secessionist support and join the international community's consensus on ending the Yemen war, in order to revive hopes for peace.

If Yemeni officials and civilians can raise further awareness of Emirati actions in Yemen, this could also pressure Abu Dhabi to scale back its influence.

Jonathan Fenton-Harvey is a journalist and researcher who focuses on conflict, geopolitics and humanitarian issues in the Middle East and North Africa. 

Follow him on Twitter: @jfentonharvey 

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, al-Araby al-Jadeed, its editorial board or staff.