Located in the Gulf of Aden 150 miles off the Horn of Africa, the archipelago of Socotra still officially belongs to Yemen. Yet the United Arab Emirates has exercised control over it for several years now. Socotra has become an Emirati possession in all but name, with the UAE seeking to systematically separate it from Yemen and run it as its own territory—part of its expansive agenda in Yemen following its intervention against Houthi rebels in 2015.
In May 2017, officials in the UAE acknowledged that their country's military recruits were engaged in "intensive" training on Socotra following years of rumors about such Emirati activities on the islands. The UAE also built the Emirates Red Crescent-funded Zayed Residential City on Socotra, which Emirati media reported gave "hope to hundreds of families who lost their homes" during a cyclone in November 2015. But the UAE's increased presence there contributed to the deterioration of ties between Abu Dhabi and the Yemeni government that the Emiratis supposedly intervened to support, after President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi was ousted from Sanaa by the Houthis. In February 2017, Hadi referred to the UAE as an "occupation power in Yemen rather than a force of liberation."
By 2018, the Emiratis had set up a military base on Socotra. In June 2020, Hadi's U.N.-recognized government accused the UAE-backed Southern Transitional Council, or STC, of "a full-fledged coup that undermined state institutions" on Socotra "with various medium and heavy weapons, targeting state institutions and citizens' properties, and storm[ing] government camps and headquarters as well."
The UAE's claims on Socotra have not only angered many Yemenis but also the Saudis, their coalition partners, fueling some tension between Abu Dhabi and Riyadh.
- Giorgio Cafiero
Largely spared from the kind of violence plaguing Yemen since 2015, and known for its caves, lagoons, ancient plant life, dragon blood trees, untouched beaches with white sands and crystal-clear waters, Socotra is a remote, otherworldly destination for adventurous tourists. The Emiratis have tried to expand its ecotourism potential, permitting tourists to fly to Socotra directly from Abu Dhabi on an Emirati airline, Air Arabia, and even on visas granted by the UAE itself, completely undermining Yemeni sovereignty.
The UAE's claims on Socotra have not only angered many Yemenis but also the Saudis, their coalition partners, fueling some tension between Abu Dhabi and Riyadh, especially after the establishment of the Emirati military base on Socotra. Since their intervention in 2015, Saudi Arabia's focus in Yemen has been squarely on its war against Houthi rebels, aiming to drive them out of Sanaa and other parts of northern Yemen—while the Emiratis have been pursuing their own geostrategic interests across Yemen's southern coastal areas, such as Aden, as well as Socotra.
"The UAE position on Socotra provides yet another indication that the UAE has shifted policy in Yemen away from the original goals of the Saudi-led coalition to focus instead on its own commercial, strategic and security interests," says Elisabeth Kendall, a leading Yemen expert and a senior research fellow in Arabic and Islamic Studies at Pembroke College at the University of Oxford. "Socotra is the jewel in Yemen's crown. The UAE's exertion of influence over Socotra, which is located across the ocean hundreds of kilometers from any frontlines [on the Yemeni mainland], suggests it is cherry-picking its involvement in Yemen to serve its own agenda."
The UAE has worked to establish various networks of influence near critical chokepoints for global trade around Yemen, from the Gulf of Aden to the vital Bab el-Mandeb Strait that connects it with the Red Sea. The UAE has reportedly built an airbase on Mayun, a small volcanic island that commands a key position in the Bab el-Mandeb Strait. Exerting influence via Socotra is critical to this grander agenda.
"For the UAE, it's absolutely instrumental that they control chokepoints," says Andreas Krieg, an assistant professor at the School of Security Studies at King's College London. That means having DP World, the Dubai-based multinational logistics company, "controlling container terminals in Aden, or a variety of other ports in this part of the world," Krieg adds—"or having a military or maritime base, as the UAE has done in Assab [in Eritrea], in Socotra, and a variety of places in southern Yemen, like Aden, [and in] northern Somaliland and Puntland," on the other side of the Gulf of Aden. "You have this string of pearls that supports UAE interests."
China factors into Abu Dhabi's thinking, too, as shipping lanes around southern Yemen and Socotra are a center of gravity in global trade. Long term, the Emiratis are determined to position themselves as a partner that China must work with to advance its massive Belt and Road Initiative in and around the Horn of Africa. As China's huge infrastructure projects are "crossing this part of the world into Europe, the UAE is basically the key go-to partner," according to Krieg. "The Chinese are forced to work with the UAE."
"It is dangerous to ignore one state's takeover of select regions of another sovereign state. Socotra belongs to Yemen."
- Elisabeth Kendall, senior research fellow, University of Oxford
"There's the idea of creating a bit of a co-dependency where the superpower, China, needs to work with the small or middle power, the UAE," he adds. "These networks have become a means to augment the status of the UAE."
Israel has also come into the picture, with unverified reports of Israeli intelligence units coming to the archipelago and apparent plans for a joint Emirati-Israeli intelligence base on Socotra. It may be another unexpected outcome of the Abraham Accords, as Israeli and Emirati interests align in the Gulf of Aden.
So Much for an Emirati Withdrawal
Although there is much talk about the UAE's foreign policy moving away from some of its military adventures and in a more diplomatic direction, the situation in southern Yemen and Socotra tells a more nuanced story. Put simply, it is inaccurate to claim that there has been an Emirati retreat from Yemen—despite the UAE's own claims that it has withdrawn its forces—or a wider drawdown of its presence in the Horn of Africa, even if the UAE's posturing in this part of the world may appear less aggressive or perhaps somewhat benign to some observers.
Yemeni factions, such as the pro-government Giants Brigade and armed groups serving under the umbrella of the secessionist STC, receive training, equipment and money from Abu Dhabi. These militias are the UAE's Yemeni proxies, proof that it has not at all abandoned Yemen or withdrawn from the war. The Emiratis are using proxy warfare and various forms of diplomacy to advance their interests in southern Yemen and on Socotra, where the presence of STC forces underscores this reality.
"While the UAE drew down some of its forces in Yemen in 2019 in response to pressure from the international community, they have remained active in Yemen, through a small number of remaining Emirati forces as well as via their backing of southern militias," says Alexandra Stark, a senior researcher at New America.
"There are still UAE forces in Yemen on the ground—special forces, advisers, trainers," according to Krieg. "But for the most part, the UAE's military lever has been reduced for now to surrogate warfare."
'Socotra Belongs to Yemen'
With the U.S. heavily focused on Russia's invasion of Ukraine, Socotra is barely an afterthought in Washington. But the war in Ukraine should remind the U.S. of lessons that apply to the UAE's control of Socotra.
"International toleration of Putin's takeover of Crimea in 2014 encouraged him to believe there would be no consequences for taking over further parts of Ukraine," says Kendall. "It is dangerous to ignore one state's takeover of select regions of another sovereign state. Socotra belongs to Yemen."
There are also strategic implications in the region. Washington might be keener to pay attention to Socotra if the UAE later facilitates China's access to the archipelago. "When it comes to building these maritime and mercantile networks, for the most part, the UAE has supported Chinese interests," says Krieg. "That's probably the main concern that the Americans are having at this point. But the U.S. is not, at the moment, looking too far ahead. Everything they do is in two- to four-year cycles. The Americans are not looking at the next 10 to 20 years, which is what the UAE is doing. They are playing the long game."
If the UAE eventually uses its leverage over Socotra to open it up to China and perhaps Russia, which has its own ties to the STC and a strong partnership with Abu Dhabi, such an outcome would be of Washington's own making. The U.S. has largely outsourced its foreign policy in Yemen to the Saudis and Emiratis, while continuing to arm both of them. Going back to Barack Obama's presidency, Washington has done much to embolden the Emiratis, not just to intervene in Yemen but to essentially annex these Yemeni islands for themselves.