The occupation of historic Socotra archipelago by forces of the United Arab Emirates was denounced on Monday as an “unjustified” attack on “national sovereignty.”
Remarkably, it was the exiled legitimate government of Yemen that leveled these accusations, not the Houthi insurgents battling the UAE-Saudi coalition. The UAE was castigated by the very same government it has been fighting on behalf of.
Socotra has been designated a World Heritage Site by the United Nations due to the remarkable diversity of its plant, avian, and marine life. As UNESCO observes, “37% of Socotra’s 825 plant species, 90% of its reptile species and 95% of its land snail species do not occur anywhere else in the world.”
Visitors to the little cluster of islands and islets often shorthand this description by saying Socotra looks like an alien planet:
On April 30, the UAE sent a small force of 50 to 100 soldiers to displace personnel managing the seaport and airport in Socotra, effectively taking control of the archipelago and its 60,000 residents. The Jerusalem Post explains why control of the islands is important:
Socotra is strategically significant because it sits at the entrance to the Gulf of Aden. Shipping traffic on the way to the Bab al-Mandab Strait and Suez passes next to it. The problem is that Yemen, north of Socotra, and Somalia to its west, are failed states, and both have problems with extremists gaining a foothold. This includes al-Shabaab in Somalia and al-Qaeda in Yemen. In 2011, leaked classified cables referred to the islands as a “piracy fuel base” and 63 ships were attacked by pirates near the islands. Before Yemen sank into civil war, it tried to invest in infrastructure on the island, including efforts to preserve its ecological diversity.
Concerned that Iran and Qatar were making inroads into controlling the archipelago, the UAE and Saudi Arabia looked at investment possibilities on the islands, and the UAE began shipping a substantial quantity of supplies there. For the past year, there have been rumors the Emirates was paving the way to occupy Socotra.
The Jerusalem Post cites reporters who paid quiet visits to the archipelago and said the UAE has effectively annexed it by building military facilities, developing communications infrastructure, and “inviting Socotra residents to Abu Dhabi by the planeload for free health care.”
The UAE seems taken aback by the intensity of criticism from the internationally-recognized Yemeni government.
Yemen Prime Minister Ahmed Bin Dagr said the arrival of Emirati troops on the islands was “unjustified” and “reflects the disagreement between the legitimate government and our brothers in the UAE, and at its core is a dispute over national sovereignty and who has the right to practice it.”
Another Yemeni official denounced the UAE’s move as an “act of aggression” in an interview with the Qatar-based Al-Jazeera network, which added eyewitness accounts of UAE flags fluttering above government buildings on the island along with numerous posters of Emirati Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan.
The Yemeni government of President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi is reportedly uneasy with the UAE’s growing influence across all of southern Yemen, not just the Socotra islands.
The UAE Ministry of Foreign Affairs responded by saying Dagr’s comments were an insult to “the monumental efforts the UAE is making within the Saudi-led Arab Coalition in support of Yemen, and its stability and security.”
The Ministry of Foreign Affairs accused the Muslim Brotherhood and the government of Qatar, working through its media organization Al-Jazeera, of waging “heinous campaigns” of slander and fearmongering against the Emirates and seeking to use “unrealistic side tensions” to distract from the core mission of reversing the Houthi coup in Yemen.
UAE Minister for Foreign Affairs Anwar Gargash spoke of “historic and family links with the residents of Socotra” and vowed to “back them during Yemen’s ordeal which was sparked by the Houthis.” He essentially accused the UAE’s critics of forgetting all about the archipelago until it suddenly became a convenient excuse for bashing the Emirates.
Saudi Arabia sent a delegation to Socotra over the weekend to meet with Yemeni Prime Minister Dagr on Friday and determine exactly what is happening on the archipelago. There has been little news from Riyadh about the diplomatic outcome of this mission. A source within the Yemeni government said on Monday that the Saudi mission did not defuse the crisis, and Hadi’s government may ask the United Nations to eject the UAE from Socotra.
There have been conflicting accounts of how residents of Socotra reacted to the UAE deployment. Officials of Hadi’s government reported protests against the Emirati presence, but Gulf News reported a sizable demonstration in favor of the UAE in the capital city on Sunday, with locals expressing thanks to the Emirates for building hospitals and distributing humanitarian aid.
The Saudi coalition continued its military effort to dislodge the Houthis from control of Yemen with a Monday airstrike on the presidential palace in Sanaa. Senior Houthi leaders were said to be in the building when the strike occurred. Houthi sources claim six civilians were killed and 30 injured during the attack.