By Jafar Razi Khan
Analysts believe that the measure by the United Arab Emirates (UAE) to occupy the Yemeni island of Socotra is aimed at gaining dominance over major waterways that cross near the southern tip of the Arabian Peninsula and the Horn of Africa.
The area around the island is where major maritime routes crisscross and is used by major shipping lines of the world, including oil tankers, which carry crude oil from major Persian Gulf producers to various European and other destinations, especially along the Mediterranean Sea.
While the UAE’s Jebel Ali port continues to thrive in the Persian Gulf region, a new port on Socotra could uptick maritime commercial business in the Red Sea region.
Socotra, an island 300 kilometers off the coast of Yemen in the Gulf of Aden, was known until recently for its white beaches and unique flora and fauna that earned it the title of the UNESCO world heritage site in 2008.
Today, it is at the center of a power struggle between the former Yemeni president Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi and his ally, the UAE.
There are unconfirmed reports that the former Yemeni government leased the islands of Socotra and Abd al-Kuri to the UAE for 99 years before resigning and fleeing the country to Riyadh in 2014. Socotra is an archipelago of four Islands which is part of Yemen and a subdivision of the Aden governorate.
Yemen’s tourism authorities have asked the UN to prevent 'occupying forces' from destroying the island’s natural beauty.
Hadi loyalists have accused the UAE, which has been part of the Saudi-led coalition pounding Yemen since 2015, of abandoning an initial cause of fighting the Houthi Ansarullah movement, saying Emirati forces are instead providing support to those seeking a separation of southern Yemeni territories from the north of the country.
In recent days, the UAE has increased its military troops on Socotra amid ongoing tensions with Hadi. Emirati cargo flights have unloaded tanks, armored transports and heavy equipment on the scenery island.
The UAE has been vying over Socotra’s inhabitants by first building a military base, an intelligence communications center and even conducting a census. According to media reports, residents were told if they volunteered their names and other details, they may be offered money in the future.
Rumors abound that the UAE is planning to hold a referendum on whether the residents of the island would like to secede from the mainland and officially become part of the UAE in a vote.
Meanwhile, a large majority of some 60,000 Socotra inhabitants have accused the UAE of stealing the island’s natural resources, including plants and seeds to take back to the Emirates.
Locals blame the UAE for using fishing fleets which deplete the fish stocks and push native fishermen out of work. The fish is then allegedly exported on military ships and aircraft to UAE restaurants and supermarkets.
Meanwhile, some of the limestone and granite cliffs along Socotra’s coastal roads have indeed been recently scooped out by Emirati-imported JCBs, and construction work appears to be ongoing.
Local tour operators have been forced to shut up shop and look for other kinds of work.
One self-described Emirati businessman recently told the daily Independent newspaper that he was building luxury five-star hotels above Socotra’s pristine white sand beaches and coral reefs.
Witnesses say parts of the island – 70 percent of which is protected land – have already been bulldozed in preparation for building hotels, pools and other tourist infrastructure for coming Emiratis.
In the past, the UAE government has said Abu Dhabi, part of a Saudi-led coalition “is neither an occupier nor a troublemaker.”
The UAE has not made any future large-scale development or mass tourism plans for Socotra public. Abu Dhabi only admitted last May it sends military recruits to the Yemeni island for intensive battle skills, weapons handling and first aid training. Many of those troops end up posted to the front lines on the mainland.
Critics say the UAE seeks to transform the island into a permanent military outpost-cum-holiday resort, and may even be stealing its UNESCO-protected plants and animals.
The UAE, long overshadowed by Saudi Arabia, has discovered Yemen is an ideal testing ground for ambitions of its de facto ruler, crown prince of Abu Dhabi Mohammad bin Zayed.
Nearly three years since aggression, the Emiratis are still on the island – and they have no intention of leaving any time soon.
“There are no Houthis to free Socotra from,” local Abdul Wahab Al Ameri told the Independent. “Why are they here?”
The green of the Emirati flag has sprung up on official buildings and painted on the sides of mountains, along with messages thanking bin Zayed for his generosity.
The lack of transparency has fuelled fears across Socotra and wider Yemen over the full extent of the UAE’s plans.
Saudi Arabia has been incessantly pounding Yemen since March 2015 in an attempt to bring back power to Hadi and undermine the Houthi Ansarullah movement.
The Riyadh regime has, however, failed to reach its goals despite suffering great expense.
A Persian Gulf country rich in oil, the UAE has initiated similar extraterritorial projects in other areas, including in Eritrea, Djibouti, Somaliland and the Yemeni islet of Perim.