Socotra is the main island of the homonymous archipelago located in the Arabian sea, 300km off the coast of Somalia, but officially part of the Republic of Yemen, from which it is 350km far. With an area of less than 4 thousand square kilometres and a population of about 60 thousand inhabitants, the island and its archipelago were designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2008 because of their natural wonders. Indeed, the island, thanks to its continuous isolation, was able to preserve a striking biodiversity, consisting of many autochthonous floral and animal species, whose peculiarities made the island famous as an ‘alien-looking natural paradise’.
Being part of Yemen, however, Socotra is fully affected by the ongoing civil war in the country, which started in 2014 and whose end does not appear to be close. One year after the outbreak of the war, the island was also devastated by two consecutive cyclones, after which it received aid from many Arab countries. In particular, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) sent food and other emergency goods in that occasion, continuing to sustain the island’s economy also in the following years. The UAE continued to play a major role on the island, and in 2018 they sent troops to occupy the airport and harbour as part of their pro-government military activities in the country alongside the Saudi-led coalition. However, from that year, the UAE also started to support the Southern Transitional Council (STC), a secessionist Yemenite movement and one of the actors of the civil war, thus deteriorating the relations with the Yemenite internationally recognised government and the whole Saudi-led coalition.
Socotra occupies indeed a strategic position in the region, being at the centre of the narrow maritime area separating the Red Sea – and thus the Mediterranean – from the Arabic Sea and the outer Indian Ocean. In the last years, the UAE is conducting intensive neo-mercantile policies in the Middle Eastern region and the control of Socotra’s strategic position represents a major achievement in this direction. The definitive occupation of the island by the UAE-backed STC in 2020 marked the crowning of the process of intensification of Emirati control over the archipelago and its surrounding sea areas. Despite Yemenite complaints over this occupation of part of its sovereign territory, the situation of the country makes it impossible for its official government to be able to take definitive actions against a regional power such as the UAE. Indeed, in 2021 even more Emirati military personnel was deployed on the island.
The question of Socotra is however not only limited to the relations between Yemen and the UAE, and the latter’s ambitions in the area. The central position in global maritime trade that the island possesses makes its status an interesting topic for other countries, such as Israel and China. Regarding the latter, Socotra perfectly lies on the maritime routes designed by the Chinese government in its plans for the Belt and Road Initiative, also known as the ‘New Silk Road’. The Horn of Africa and the Red Sea represent central areas for this project, aiming at connecting China and Europe as its terminal points. The Chinese government is forced to work with the UAE in this regional context, both because of the role of the UAE itself and its harbours and of the Emirati occupation of Socotra. Regarding Israel, in the context of the relaxation of the bilateral relations between Tel Aviv and Abu Dhabi, culminated in the 2020 Abraham Accords and the opening of the respective embassies in the following year, joint Israeli-Emirati operations are being conducted on the island of Socotra. The interests of the two regional powers seem indeed to be becoming more and more aligned in maritime policies regarding the connection between the Red Sea and the Indian Ocean. Israeli intelligence units are undoubtedly active on the island, and the implementation of plans for an intelligence base controlled jointly by both parties seems very likely in the near future. Thus, through the occupation of the island, the UAE have been able to establish themselves as an essential partner for powers willing to expand their influence in the region.
The ties with China and the major role that Socotra plays in this context can represent a very important stimulus for the action of the UAE in the area, but these same ties could also become a problem in the framework of the always more apparent rivalry between China and the West, the US in particular. The focus of the US administration is now on Ukraine, but a possible further advancement of Chinese activities in the Red Sea and Socotra may lead Washington to pay closer attention to the situation. In such a case, also the fact that Socotra can be seen as a somewhat similar case to what happened in Ukraine (i.e., invasion of sovereign territory by a foreign power) would be an additional problem for the UAE. Furthermore, the partnership of Moscow both with Abu Dhabi and with the STC would only be an additional reason for an eventual enhanced involvement of the West.
Nowadays, Socotra is in any case de facto administered by the UAE, with other forces on the island ascribable to Israeli intelligence or STC militia. The UAE is also implementing international tourism to the island with flights transiting through Emirati mainland airports and issuing visas completely disregarding the rights and duties of Yemenite authorities. The important economic and military activities on the island that are taking place at the moment and that are predicted to continue in the near future could also represent a threat for the natural characteristics that are so typical of the archipelago. The destiny of the island is in any case indissolubly linked to the ongoing civil war in Yemen. Indeed, as long as the Yemenite government will not be able to take again control of the whole national territory, it is difficult to imagine that the interests that much more powerful countries have on the island will be challenged, unless Socotra enters in the larger non-military conflict between China and the US.
A cura di Francesco Di Nardo