Anyone who has been to the Socotra Archipelago will appreciate its beauty and splendor, especially now after being declared a UNESCO World Heritage site back in 2008. The islands, located just off Somalia’s coast, boasts exotic trees, white sandy beaches, and a unique habitat – quite an experience to imagine for anyone wanting a refreshing break from life. Today, however, Socotra is at the forefront of a controversy that has plagued it, courtesy of the Yemeni civil war. Despite efforts of the United Arab Emirates to invest in security and infrastructure on Socotra, allies of the Houthi rebels in Yemen such as Qatar have not been too supportive of this action.
The Basics: What Is Socotra?
Socotra serves as the largest island of the archipelago, with 60,000 people living in its 80-mile or 130-kilometer long area. Socotra was a British protectorate and part of a Yemeni mainland sultanate until 1967, when it had become a part of South Yemen. It was eventually integrated into becoming a part of the unified Yemen when it was formed in 1990. Those familiar with the island will be familiar with its exotic fauna and flora, which unfortunately changed in the advent of the civil war in Yemen.
It can be remembered that Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have participated in an intervention against the Houthi rebels back in 2015. Groups supporting Houthi such as Hezbollah and Iran have retaliated by firing ballistic missiles towards Riyadh, with Saudi Arabia being accused of bombing raids and harming civilians.
Strategic Significance, Modern Controversy
Socotra’s significance in the Yemeni civil war may have come from various perspectives. Geographically speaking, Socotra is located near the Gulf of Aden, the very area that the UAE and Saudi fought the Houthi rebels for back in 2015. Shipping traffic on the way to the Suez and the Bab al-Mandab Strait will have to pass Socotra – and this puts it in a political crossroads.
Somalia to the west and Yemen to the north are close to Socotra, and both currently have concerns on extremists forming a significant influence on their respective countries. In fact groups such as al-Qaeda and al-Shabaab in Yemen and Somalia, respectively, have posed significant threats to the safety of people and industry in the nations.
Back in 2011, for instance, Socotra’s islands were identified as a fuel base for “pirates,” and 63 ships near the islands were assaulted by pirates. Even before the Yemeni civil war, Yemen had tried to invest on the island in terms of infrastructure, in an effort to at least try and preserve its known diverse ecology.
Newer controversies have not escaped Socotra, however, especially now that a lot of things have been happening in mainland Yemen. For instance, Iran has now developed a significant influence in Yemen while Houthi rebels are slowly being pushed away from Aden. This has caused a stir from the UAE, Saudi Arabia, and other member sof the international community – particularly because Iran has had an investment to Socotra from what appears to be as early as 2003, courtesy of projects such as an airport strip.
New Parties In The Mix
Aside from Iranian influence on the island, other parties have also expressed wanting to provide support to people caught in the crossfires. For instance, The Kalifa bin Zayed Al-Nahyan Foundation have put up efforts to support a Socotra-based UAE hospital, and the Emirates Red Crescent has also funded the construction of a residential community in the region.
UAE support of as much as $2-billion have also been brought to Yemen, some of which have gone to Socotra. Others also saw the efforts as the UAE’s attempts to make a move to occupy Socotra as well, though some do insist the UAE is only aiming to achieve stability in the region.
Last 2017, Socotra’s governor also supported the Southern Traditional Council (STC), a new Yemeni organization that had recently took control of Aden last year. Its leader, Aidarus al-Zoubaidi, has been in meetings with the UAE to discuss the situation in Aden and Yemen. This may explain how the UAE has begun deploying assets to Socotra early May 2018, where various media organizations on the scene such as Al-Jazeera and The Independent mentioned things such as communications networks, a private census, and a military base in the region.
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