Date: Thursday, 17 May 2018
A crisis has begun over the Yemeni Socotra Islands after the UAE moved its troops onto the strategically placed Archipelago, writes Haitham Nouri
A crisis began over the Yemeni islands of Socotra on 1 May, when the UAE deployed its troops on the Island in what the internationally recognised government of Yemen said was an infringement of its sovereignty in the ecologically-fragile Archipelago.
The UAE move coincided with a visit by Yemeni Prime Minister Ahmed bin Daghr to Socotra to inaugurate development projects. Yemen’s government said the UAE actions were “unjustified” and the dispute was about sovereignty over the Islands and who exercises it.
The Yemeni government demanded that the UAE coordinate its actions with it and rejected the UAE’s taking control of Socotra’s airport, seaport and seat of government. A statement said the UAE forces had moved tanks and soldiers to Socotra. The UAE described Bin Daghr’s visit to the Islands as “provocative” and not coordinated with the Arab Coalition in Yemen.
In a statement, the UAE Foreign Ministry said its military presence in all the liberated Yemeni provinces, including Socotra, was “part of the efforts of the Arab Coalition to support legitimacy at this sensitive time in Yemen’s history.”
It said that the Islands’ residents had been given work permits to find jobs in the rich Gulf state and that it had provided them with healthcare in the UAE.
UAE State Minister for Foreign Affairs Anwar Qarqash described the criticisms of the UAS as “a smear campaign by the Muslim Brotherhood to sabotage the UAE role in the region”.
Saudi Arabia then intervened in the quarrel by sending a delegation to the Islands, but there have not been reports about the outcome of any three-way meetings.
The UAE is the primary partner with Saudi Arabia in the war in Yemen, and its role has been expanding in the region between Yemen and the Horn of Africa, making it an influential player and vulnerable to smear campaigns by rivals.
The UAE has a strong presence in Eritrea through its lease of the inactive port of Asab, and it controls a military airport close to this historic city which it uses as a logistics base in the Saudi-led Arab Coalition against Houthi rebel forces in Yemen.
Since March 2015, Saudi Arabia has spearheaded a war against the Houthis (Yazidi Shiites), which it and its Gulf allies accuse of receiving support from Iran, though this is denied by Tehran.
The UAE presence in Eritrea has ended Asmara’s isolation since the 1990s. Although the UAE company Dubai Ports World left Djibouti after a dispute with the government in the tiny country, Abu Dhabi’s presence is strong in the unilaterally declared and unrecognised territory of Somaliland.
DP World is developing the Berbera Port in the region in partnership with Ethiopia, Somalia’s larger neighbour. Ethiopia heavily relies on Djibouti for port facilities, and it is seeking to diversify its sea outlets through its neighbours since it is the largest landlocked country in the world in terms of population.
Ethiopia is cooperating with Sudan to use the latter’s ports on the Red Sea as a way of decreasing Addis Ababa’s reliance on Djibouti. Ethiopia and Sudan have built a highway connecting East Sudan with Ethiopia in order to increase trade over the past decade.
Addis Ababa needs to diversify its access to sea outlets due to its growth of nearly ten per cent between 2004 and 2015. The country, which has the second-largest population in Africa, also saw vast growth in direct foreign investment from $1 billion to $4 billion in six years under the leadership of former prime minister Hailemariam Desalgn.
UAE companies are also developing the Mukalla Port on the Indian Ocean in Yemen, giving Abu Dhabi a strong presence on a key world trade. Ali Al-Zubaidi, a Yemeni journalist, said the UAE had asked to lease Socotra from the Yemeni government, and though this had been approved, it had been rejected by the Yemeni parliament.
“No one knows why the UAE is so interested in the Islands,” Al-Zubaidi said. “Some say it wants to transform them into a tourist destination or use them for mineral and oil exploration, while others argue it wants to have a presence on a global trade route.”
The Socotra Archipelago is composed of six islands 300 km from Mukalla on the southern coast of Yemen, with the distance between them and Somalia being less than 280 km. By adding Socotra, the UAE, along with its investments in Berbera and its ability to transform its military presence in Asab into an economic role, could benefit from transforming the four ports of Mukalla, Socotra, Berbera and Asab into logistics centres for international shipping through the Red Sea.
Zayd Hassan, a researcher in Aden, said “it would be too expensive to transform Socotra into a tourist destination, and the UAE already has millions of foreign tourists,” however.
“The UAE already has a trade and economic presence in the Horn of Africa, which means it does not need to take control of Socotra. However, Yemen and the UAE would both benefit if the Islands became a logistics station.”
The Reform Party (the political front of the Muslim Brotherhood in Yemen) has not led the campaign against UAE, and it has been the Houthis who have tried to manipulate the incident to attract pro-government forces to their side. Yemeni players from the tribal network of late Yemeni president Ali Abdullah Saleh have begun talks with the Houthis.
Hassan believes the Muslim Brotherhood and the Houthis will take this opportunity to close ranks, especially since the Transitional Council for the South, backed by the UAE, defeated the Reform Party and removed its forces from Aden a few months ago.
Coalition leader Saudi Arabia is suffering from the disputes among its allies. Like the UAE, it wants to end the war, but it could suffer more from doing so as it shares a border with Yemen and has been attacked by the Houthis using Iranian-made missiles.
It will be difficult to unite the Yemeni front because too much blood has now been spilled, and each side views the other as a traitor or an agent of foreign powers.
The Saudis cannot quarrel with their UAE ally because Abu Dhabi is footing the political, military and economic bill of the war. They also do not want the legitimate Yemeni government to lose because the standoff with Iran is now at its peak, especially after US President Donald Trump withdrew the US from the Iran nuclear deal.