UNESCO World Heritage Site Under Fire in Yemen

Earlier this month, The Southern Transitional Council (STC) captured the remote Island of Socotra, 350 miles east of Somalia. The ancient island is the largest of four islands in the archipelago corridor of Yemen, famed for  unparalleled biodiversity and mystical landscape. Socotra is referenced in several historical texts – including the Periplus of the Erythraean Sea, a first-century AD Greek navigation aid. According to some accounts, Socotra is the alleged location of the Garden of the Eden as described in the Quran and Old Testament. Others claim that the land mass is the long lost island of Atlantis.  The remote island has a population of less than 50,000 and most people who live there speak the ancient unwritten language of Soqotri. In order to protect the island’s unique landscape and cultural heritage, UNESCO recognized Socotra as a World Heritage site in 2008. Experts worry the increasing foreign influence edged on by Yemen’s five-year civil war will erode the island’s fragile ecosystem and unique way of life, which is based around fishing and indigenous tradition.

According to The Guardian, immediately following STC’s seizure of the Socotra’s principal city of Hadibu, the internationally recognized government of Yemen led by President Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi condemned the aggression, calling it “full-fledged” coup and accused STC forces of attacking government buildings in “gang-style.” Seven days later, President Hadi pleaded with the STC to re-enter negotiation on the Riyadh agreement – a 2019 Saudi-brokered power-sharing deal that fell through soon after its initial signing in November according to a report by Bloomberg

 At one point in time, the STC and Hadi’s forces were allies in a military coalition led by Saudi Arabia to free Yemen of a Shiite Houthi insurgency in the country’s north region. However, recent developments in the multifaceted conflict led the STC to break its loyalty with Hadi, and start a campaign for the renewal of an independent Southern Yemen state. Armed confrontations between the two forces have surged on mainland Yemen since April of this year, when the southern separatist group first seized the port city of Aden. Currently, ACLED reports the STC has declared self-rule over several provinces in south Yemen, including Aden, Lahj, Al-Dhale, and part of Abyan.

The United Arab Emirates (UAE) was formerly the financial backbone of the STC, but pulled funding for the group last year. Socotra has been previously captured by the STC (in May 2019) and has seen increasing influence from the UAE, who took over the commercial airport and allegedly built a secret military base on the island in the year prior. According to reporting by the Independent, the Jurist, the Middle East Monitor, and Al Jazeera, Auba Dhabi began funding infrastructure projects and bolstering Emirates military presence in Socotra soon after the island was hit by a series of devastating cyclones in 2015. 

The island of Socotra is seen as an asset to most competing parties in Yemen due to its abundance of natural resources, biodiversity, and strategic geographic location on the Bab el Mandeb strait. This strait links the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden and one of the world’s most active shipping lanes according to Global Edge. The island is most famed for its oil reserves and rare Red Dragon Tree species, which grows nowhere else in the world but Socotra. According to National Geographic, the whimsical umbrella-like shrub is endemic to the island, and has been harvested for centuries to produce a bright red homeopathic sap – which was once worth its weight in gold during the Middle Ages. At one time traces of the Red Dragon’s homeopathic sap could be found in medicine cabinets of the world’s most powerful emperors from Rome to China. The alien-looking tree is the island’s namesake and most prized export.

Since Yemen’s civil war broke out in 2015, scientists and conservationists have not been able to continue their research on the archipelagos islands. Experts worry some of the island’s ancient species will not survive the reduced rainfall in the region if more aggressive conservation missions are not undertaken. UNESCO’s world heritage report cites that 37% of Socotra’s plant species, 90% of its reptile species, and 95% of its land snail species do not occur anywhere else in the world. The island is also a crucial stopping point for migratory birds and other endangered marine life crucial to the African horn’s fragile ecosystem.

According to the government-controlled news agency, Saba, President Hadi continues to urge the STC forces to commit to the ceasefire in response to efforts by Saudi Arabia to help “end the armed rebellion against the state and its institutions and resumption of the implementation of Riyadh agreement.” Neither the UAE nor Saudi Arabia, both who have asserted military presence on Socotra since 2018, have released public comment in response to STC’s most recent occupation of the island. 

Isabel Cuddyer