In late April the United Arab Emirates (UAE) deployed forces to the Yemeni island of Socotra, situated 380 kilometres south of the Yemeni mainland. The move prompted strong criticism from the country’s government in exile. A statement from Prime-Minister, Ahmed Bin Dagr, referred to it as an “unjustified assault on Yemen’s sovereignty.” So, what exactly is the UAE doing on Socotra and what objectives does it seek to achieve?
On April 30th, 50 personnel were deployed to the island, accompanied by aircraft carrying tanks, and later followed on May 5th by over 100 additional personnel. Reports allege that Emirati forces expelled local authorities, seized control of Socotra’s airport and seaports, and suspended UAE flags. This vested the UAE with de-facto control of the island, a position that was not withdrawn despite protest by the internationally-recognized government of Yemen.
This account of events is contrasted by an official statement elucidating that Emirati presence is aimed solely at promulgating peace, security and development. The pronouncement is highly inconsistent with the reality on the ground, and does not provide adequate justification for the extent of the UAE measures. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation expressly rebutted claims that Yemen’s sovereignty was being violated, attributing such claims to attempts by the Muslim brotherhood to undermine the role played by the UAE in promulgating peace and stability in the region.
In addition, Abu Dhabi’s stated objectives strongly downplay the true extent of the nation’s involvement and the attribution of allegations against the UAE to the Muslim Brotherhood could not be substantiated. They may function as a rhetorical distraction from the reality that Emirati presence on the island is vital to their mandate to conduct operations on Yemeni territory.
Since 2015, the UAE has intervened in Yemen in support of the government’s fight against the Houthi rebels, who control vast swathes of territory. The mandate for such action is provided by the 2014 request by then President Mansour Hadi, for assistance in defending Yemen against territorial advances by the Houthi rebels. The actions of the UAE on Socotra extend beyond this mandate as, by virtue of its geographic isolation, has avoided embroilment in the conflict to which Hadi’s request pertained.
Moreover, a basis for the operations may possibly be found in the existence of a lease over the island. As early as February 2016 unsubstantiated reports emerged stating Hadi had signed a 99 year lease over Socotra. If such a contract does exist it is possibly tainted by duress. Most reports point to a lease being agreed upon before the UAE entered the coalition, suggesting that it may have been a condition of Emirati involvement.
As a consequence, the recent events on Socotra evidence the UAE’s ambitious strategic policy for the Red Sea region. The UAE secured a deal with the government of the de-facto independent territory of Somaliland to build a military base in the port city of Berbera, and also have a similar project underway in Eritrea that was “almost complete” in late 2017. In addition, an agreement was previously made for control of a port in Djibouti, however this was seized by the local government in February 2018 due to sentiments that it was in violation of the country’s sovereignty. The UAE has had a military base on Socotra since 2017, however, control over the island in its entirety allows for unfettered development in an important strategic location.
It is worth noting as well that the UAE is also pursuing economic objectives on Socotra. Local tourism operators have complained that they are no longer getting clients, due to the only flights to the island being tied to the purchase of a tour package from an Emirati operator. Following cyclone Megh in 2015, approximately 1.6 billion in aid was given to the Socotran government, serving as a soft power device facilitating development by building good will with government officials. This has been utilized to gain approval for development of Socotra’s main port, Zayed, suggesting that the UAE may intend to monopolize it similarly to their former project in Djibouti.
Despite claiming that recent incursions on Socotra are aimed at ensuring peace and security in conformity with the Yemeni government mandate, these operations likely form part of a far larger regional military and economic strategy. In deploying forces to the island and taking control of vital infrastructure, the UAE government has shown disregard for both the sovereignty of Yemen and international law, demonstrating a new coercive and self-interested foreign policy.