Socotra is finally dragged into Yemen's civil war, ripping apart the island's way of life

The Independent presents the second in an exclusive series from Socotra. In the last week, tensions between Yemen and the UAE over the island paradise have finally erupted – and now residents are being forced to choose sides

Lucy Towers
Thursday 10 May 2018 09:27 BST
Socotra island: The Unesco-protected 'Jewel of Arabia' vanishing amid Yemen’s civil war

Women aren’t often seen in public on the Yemeni island of Socotra; their voices certainly don’t carry through the streets.

But everything is changing on the island at the moment. “My blood, my soul, for you, Yemen,” around two dozen women shouted as they marched through the main town of Hadibo on Saturday, carrying Yemeni flags the size of bed sheets.

Since Socotra has become the focus of an unprecedented power struggle between Yemen’s government and its supposed ally, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), the red, white and black of the mainland flag is no longer a given on the isolated Arabian Sea island. Emirati green and Socotran separatist blue flags also shimmer during counter-protests as Egyptian vultures coast on thermal currents overhead.

In the week since The Independent’s eyewitness report from the island lifted the lid on how the UAE is quietly turning this Unesco-protected paradise into a military outpost-cum-holiday resort, the cracks in the relationship between Yemen’s exiled government and Abu Dhabi have fractured completely.

In a rare visit, Yemen’s prime minister Ahmed Obeid bin Daghr has arrived on Socotra with a small delegation, an attempt to reassert Yemeni authority there after rumours of the UAE’s alleged intentions to annex the strategically important island picked up pace.

The Emirates responded a few days after the prime minister’s arrival by kicking out all civilian and Yemeni military personnel from the airstrip and port it controls, according to several witnesses and geolocated photos.

At the same time, four Emirati C-17 military cargo planes landed to unload at least two BMP-3 tanks, armoured vehicles and 100 new troops – the first heavy artillery deployment since it established a Socotra military base two years ago. The Yemeni government says it was not informed of the move beforehand.

“We have historical and family links with the residents of Socotra, and we will back them during Yemen’s ordeal which was sparked by the Houthis,” the UAE’s foreign minister Anwar Gargash, said on Twitter on Friday.

The outraged prime minister, still bristling, says his delegation will remain on the island until the Emirates agree to scale back its presence on Socotra, limiting its activities to humanitarian rather than military projects.

A deal was reportedly reached on Tuesday, but several Socotris have questioned whether this is truly the case. No details of such an agreement have emerged.

Socotra combines both the UAE’s military and economic interests

In reality, many said, Daghr is trapped on the island with no cards to play, unable to leave until the UAE says so. In the interim, he is posing for photo opportunities and inaugurating new development projects.

The clash between allies – on paper united in the Arab coalition fight against Yemen’s Houthi rebels – is changing the balance of power between Aden, Abu Dhabi and Riyadh.

It has also bought Yemen’s three-year-old civil war to Socotra’s shores for the first time, and the island’s 60,000 residents are now caught in the middle.

After millennia of isolation, Socotris are being forced to choose which sides of a war they want to be on in a conflict that up until now has been fought on the mainland, hundreds of kilometres away.

Pro and anti UAE sentiments – as well as growing support for reinstating the old Sultanate – are beginning to rip the island’s social fabric apart.

Friends, enemies, rumours

“The Emiratis were gentle and quiet about their power before,” one Socotran who has since left the island said.

“They bought their tanks in in something that looked like a military show. They are saying, ‘Look at us and what we can do, we are in charge here and don’t forget it.’”

Both summer temperatures and political tensions are currently rising on Socotra.

Every day for the last week has seen some sort of rally or protest, whether in support of Yemeni president Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi’s government or Abu Dhabi’s crown prince – the Emirates’ de facto ruler – Mohammad bin Zayed. Posters bearing both of their faces are brandished around Hadibo.

After millennia of isolation, Socotris are being forced to choose which sides of a war they want to be on

Each side alleges the other is being paid to come out and protest. Pro-Emiratis say Iran, Qatar, the Houthis and the Muslim Brotherhood are trying to stir dissent and friction in the anti-Houthi coalition.

“The Emirates is a generous friend of Socotra ... everything here, the cars, the electricity, the water and the airport and seaport was built with their help,” said Dr Saad Ahmed Kaddoumi, a member of Socotra’s local government.

“This sedition is a conspiracy caused by Iran, Qatar and the Islah party [an Islamist political party] in Yemen, all of them planning to establish their own military base in Socotra.”

The opposition does not necessarily care about such accusations. At one pro-Yemen women’s protest, the demonstrators openly called on Iran – which backs the Houthis in the complicated conflict – to come and kick the UAE out of Socotra.

From the sidelines, Sheikh Abdullah bin Issa al Aafrar, the Oman-based heir of the Mahra Sultanate, is positioning himself as an alternative option for the island’s future.

Funded by the Omanis – he received an Omani passport last year – Sheikh Aafrar’s revitalised campaign appears to be a sign yet another Gulf country is trying to assert itself in Yemen’s complex war.

The Mahra Sultanate on Yemen’s east coast, which included Socotra, was ruled by Sheikh Aafrar’s ancestors until the British created a protectorate in 1886.

Long a sort of unofficial political opposition to the island’s governors, who are chosen by the Yemeni government, Socotra’s separatist movement is gaining traction with people who feel marginalised by Aden and fear the loss of their autonomy at the hands of Abu Dhabi.

The Independent saw the flag of the old Mahra Sultanate flying across the east of the island – as well as the party headquarters on the capital’s main road.

“Socotra is witnessing widespread protests in which everyone is participating,” said Ahmed Bilhaf, a close friend of Sheikh Aafrar.

“Socotra’s sons, together with the people of al Mahra province [on the mainland], have called for the formation of an independent province within a federal Yemen. The Emirates are just exploiting the poverty of some citizens.”

Pro- and anti-UAE sentiments – as well as growing support for reinstating the old sultanate – are beginning to rip the island’s social fabric apart

“It’s sad that in all of the discussions about the island at the moment, the voices of Socotris themselves are being marginalised,” said Adam Baron, a visiting fellow with the European Council for Foreign Relations (ECFR).

“Everyone is talking about what’s best for them or the island without giving them the floor.”

‘This dispute is something that can no longer be hidden’

A major driving factor behind the protests is anger at the fact Socotris are being told very little about the future currently being decided for them inside Hadibo’s lone government building.

Isa Musallim, an anti-UAE activist on the island, pieced together information volunteered from several Socotris and came to the conclusion the current spat was sparked by Prime Minister Daghr’s visit.

It appears that on his arrival on Socotra, Daghr announced the creation of several new humanitarian and social enterprise projects desperately needed by the under-developed island, funded by Arab coalition money.

A plaque erected last Tuesday ahead of an opening ceremony for one such project scheduled for Wednesday in the village of Halaf was destroyed by Emirati troops overnight, Musallim said.

When the Yemeni delegation decided to push ahead and install another the next day, the Emirates retaliated by removing all Yemenis working at the airstrip and port from their posts. The move led to vocal criticism from the prime minister and in turn Yemeni political parties, who in a joint statement called on the UAE to “withdraw from the island unconditionally”.

“The brothers in the UAE have been present on the island in their civil capacity for three years. There is no new situation in the political and military position of the island that requires control of the airport and the port,” the statement read.

“This dispute is clearly harmful and something that can no longer be hidden. Its impact has spread to all military and civilian institutions and negatively impact on the Yemeni street.”

“All of this happens without informing the governor or the legitimate government. It’s a blatant aggression,” Musallim said.

Socotra’s new governor Ramzi Mahrous was appointed by President Hadi barely a month ago. He hasn’t been heard from all week.

The Saudis, the other major partner in the Arab coalition, were quickly drafted in on Friday to mediate in the crisis, but it is not clear how well talks are going.

Daghr walked away from talks on Sunday night, and a general from the Saudi delegation left the island the same evening, according to sources close to the talks.

On Tuesday evening, Arab coalition spokesperson Turki al Maliki delivered a careful statement from Riyadh on al Arabiya TV claiming the dispute had been solved.

“There were some differences in opinions between our brothers the Emiratis and local Yemeni authorities over the way some matters were handled on the island,” he said.

“An agreement has been reached on a comprehensive, joint method of coordination between both parties,” he added.

Many islanders immediately dismissed the claim. More protests from all three main camps are expected on Wednesday regardless.

Daghr’s delegation has not commented.

The UAE has not said anything about the ongoing talks either, but released a statement on Sunday in which it said it was “surprised” at the Yemeni prime minister’s attack on its role in the coalition.

“Such heinous campaigns led by [parties such as the Muslim Brotherhood] and which relates to Socotra island, fits within a long and repeated scenarios to distort the image of the UAE and its efficient contribution to the Arab coalition efforts against the coup perpetrators led by Houthi militias,” the ministry of foreign affairs added.

“The UAE is playing a balanced role in the Yemeni Socotra Island to establish peace and stability and support developmental projects for the Island’s residents… the UAE has no ambitions in sisterly Yemen or any part of it.“

The spat is believed to be fraying tempers in Riyadh, the lynchpin of the Arab coalition and main financier of the war against the Houthis, who view it as an unnecessary sideshow.

“[Riyadh] wants to keep the attention of their coalition ally focused on the fight against the Houthis. That is Saudi’s main priority,” said Dr Elisabeth Kendall of Oxford University’s Pembroke College.

“Saudi will also be concerned about UAE’s growing control across the south of Yemen, especially since the UAE’s newly recruited local security forces have clashed with Saudi-backed Yemeni military forces on several occasions.”

Socotra provides the spark for mainland unrest

While the balance has now tipped into a confrontation with the Yemeni government, until last week, the UAE was bringing Socotra under its sway through a strategic blend of both hard and soft power.

At the same time as sinking millions of dollars into new schools, roads and hospitals, it trains and maintains a local army unit of 5,000 men and pays doctor and police salaries.

Sidelined by the distracted Yemeni government after two huge hurricanes in 2015, some locals welcomed Emirati investment.

In return, the 3,000m airstrip – built in 1999, and at that size, clearly always designed for military use – has become the centre of the UAE’s expansionist geopolitical ambitions.

Jeremy Corbyn accuses UK of 'directing' war in Yemen

Socotra, strategically located at the mouth of the Gulf of Aden, is now a base for Emirati missions against the Houthis and al Qaeda on the Yemeni mainland. It is also one of several foreign ports bought up by the UAE in recent years in the world’s most important oil and gas shipping channel, a strategy designed to protect its economic interests.

Dependent on the UAE’s military power, the Hadi government initially looked the other way when Emirati activity began encroaching on Yemen’s sovereignty in Socotra and southern Yemen.

But the battle over the island has ignited anti-UAE fury on Yemen’s mainland, too.

Yemeni politicians and pundits are now openly calling for more transparency in the UAE’s activities in the country – where it trains and funds militias that only answer to Emirati commanders and operates secret prisons outside of Yemeni oversight and jurisdiction.

Spray painted graffiti messages such as “Socotra is Yemeni not Emirati” have begun popping up on walls in central Aden. In theory, the city has been Yemen’s capital since Emirati forces won it back from the Houthis last year, but in practice, the cabinet operates from Riyadh, and on the ground, the UAE is in control, deciding which Yemeni ministers are allowed access to their own country.

The UAE’s backing last year of the Southern Transitional Council (STC), a militia that wants independence for southern Yemen, has since raised fears that the current status quo – a south characterised by UAE influence – will remain.

The island is finally dragged into Yemen’s war

Despite the fact the row over Socotra marks the first direct diplomatic incident between Aden and Abu Dhabi over the UAE’s role in Yemen’s war, it is not likely much will change.

The Yemeni government has reportedly considered complaining to the United Nations about the breach of its sovereignty, but a spokesperson for the UN’s Yemen envoy Martin Griffiths said no complaint has been made.

“We do call on all the parties to refrain from further escalation and remind everybody that the Socotra Archipelago has been inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List since 2008 ... [The] safety of both its people and its environment need to be secured,” the representative added.

There are fears the current unrest could spill over into violence – particularly if the UAE creates or funds a new fighting force on the island, something activists say has been part of the Emirati game plan all along.

“In the beginning, the people were so happy that the Emirates came with all their money,” said the activist who has since left Socotra.

“But now people are being forced to make allegiances. Socotra can talk as much as it likes about its independence, but it will still depend on foreign investments.

“This week was a test for the Emirates, they were gauging how the local population would react to this showdown. The next step is that they will bring more heavy weapons and tanks.”

The UAE may have capitulated in the statement released by the coalition, but it is “highly unlike it has any intention of leaving Socotra or relinquishing control of southern Yemen”, said Dr Kendall.

“Pumping money into Socotra where development is very much needed is not necessarily bad, but it’s a problem if their reasons for doing so are not transparent.

“Any kind of military takeover always starts with cutting off the airports and ports.”

It’s too early to tell what the future holds for Socotra, but even if it avoids violence, the trajectory does not bode well. “This didn’t happen overnight and it seems the Yemeni government is just playing catch up ... Nonetheless, the developments of the last week are definitely destabilising,” said Baron of the ECFR.

Some Socotris The Independent spoke to are wary that the island will be dragged further into the conflict as the result of this week’s events. One even said she feared the UAE may try to remove the local population from the island altogether. Many islanders have already been lured to the UAE, where they enjoy subsidised education and special work permits.

“This beautiful place, it would be so much easier and cheaper just to get rid of the people,” she said.

“No need to invest or develop anything. Just a strategically perfect military outpost.”

This is the second in a series of articles from Socotra

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