Trapped Between Two Kingdoms

The Yemeni island has been spared the horrors of war, but that has already begun to change.

Socotra, a Yemeni island designated as a UNESCO world heritage site for its unique ecosystem, has become an unlikely center of a proxy conflict in Yemen. No it is not Saudi Arabia and Iran, instead, it is between Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), two nations that once considered each other loyal allies fighting with “a spirit of brotherhood” in Yemen. At least, that was the common perception.

A restaurant in the capital of Socotra.
Credit: Lucy Towers

On February 28, two regiments rebelled against the government of Yemen, which is led by President Hadi and backed by Saudi Arabia. The two regiments defected to the Southern Transitional Council (STC), a group seeking southern independence, and is backed by the UAE. However, this wasn’t exactly an “Earth shattering” moment that exposed the two sides as enemies rather than allies. Fighting between Hadi and the STC had occurred before, with the UAE even backing their forces with airstrikes resulting in casualties on both sides. But this recent escalation between Hadi and the STC, and by extension Saudi Arabia and the UAE which both back them financially and militarily, on Socotra raises the question – why are they on the island in the first place? Whilst both sides have stated their own legal reasons, what is on paper quickly runs against the reality on the ground and exposes more cynical reasons that undermine the sovereignty of Yemen and the freedom of thousands living on the island.

According to the official “Operation of Hope” website, run by the Saudi-led Coalition and named after its latest operation in Yemen, the coalition operates in Yemen “Based on the appeal from Yemen President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi” and has “launched military operations in support of the people of Yemen and the legitimate government of Yemen.” This relates to the Houthi insurgency that deposed Hadi which originates in the Northwest of Yemen. However, Socotra island is nowhere near the frontlines of the war and has demonstrated popular support for Hadi’s government. In fact, the primary opposition to Hadi’s governance occured only when he showed failure in his ability to protect the island and the province of Al-Mahra, which is culturally and historically strongly connected to the island. There is not even the excuse of securing water ways to perhaps “enhance” coalition forces against the Houthis as most Houthi naval attacks are small in scale, relatively rare, and most importantly are focused in the Red Sea which is on the opposite side of Yemen’s coast.

Yemen War Map – Houthi Rebels in Green / Socotra Far Right in Yellow

There is another angle that the Saudis and Emiratis use to justify their continued entrenchment in Socotra, economic and humanitarian aid. The use of aid has been a tool to shore up a positive international image to counter accusations of imperial and colonial tactics on the island. While aid is needed in nearly all areas in Yemen, its use typically translates to an expression of power rather than an expression of goodwill. For example, both Saudi Arabia and the UAE have constructed educational facilities on the island. However, they build on different parts of the island to promote their own interests in their own enclaves. The UAE for its part has been even bolder granting work permits for island residents to work in their country and even giving local elites UAE citizenship. In turn Saudi Arabia has offered humanitarian development plans in different sectors of Socotra’s infrastructure from health to transportation. Coupled with their support of Hadi’s government, the Saudis have effectively portrayed themselves as an alternative to the UAE and as having Yemen’s territorial integrity in mind. However, their actions in other Southern provinces, particularly in Al-Mahra, displays their hypocrisy and the danger Yemenis under their control face.

In Al-Mahra for example, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE before they were largely kicked out of the province by Saudi Arabia, has manipulated local elites by providing them with resources to turn them against one another and promote Saudi policies. They have also taken over Al-Mahra’s border crossings, built military bases in the province despite no frontline with the Houthis, and raised import taxes to cripple trade from neighboring Oman, who is perceived as a threat to Saudi interests, thus hurting the local economy and making it rely on more aid. Tensions in Al-Mahra have increased to the point of violent clashes between Saudi forces and local Mahari tribes, yet Saudi Arabia remains active in the province. Meanwhile, the UAE openly supports the STC and holds thousands of Yemenis in secret torture prisons across Southern Yemen wrecking havoc across the South.

[Socotra protest against the STC, July 2019 / Twitter]

These examples of human rights abuses by Saudi Arabia and the UAE are critical as they demonstrate the strategies they employ to control Yemenis in Southern Yemen that have little to do with assisting Hadi’s government retake cities from the Houthis. In Socotra, the UAE has already been accused of creating a man-made fuel shortage to increase dependency on UAE oil and has backed rebellions within Hadi’s ranks. This has led to officials in the government ranging from the Minister of State to Hadi himself calling the UAE an occupying force, making it once again obvious the UAE is in Yemen for its own interests. Hadi does refrain from calling Saudi Arabia an occupying force but that is largely because, as his primary backer, it is the only reason his government still has weapons and money. However, Saudi actions in Al-Mahra indicate the danger of trusting Saudi Arabia to govern Yemeni land and people. Coupled with the island’s strategic location both for trade and naval activities, which is what drew these powers to it in the first place, both the UAE and Saudi Arabia will likely remain staunch in their entrenchment. With their track record, Socotra is heading towards a geopolitical collision course that the fragile island cannot handle.

What do you want from Socotra, where there is no Houthi, there is no ISIS or any subversive elements at all?

Major General Abdul Ghani Jamil in a leaflet he published on Facebook

Like the rest of Yemen, Socotra and its people are extremely vulnerable to outside pressures and internal fragmentation. But what makes the situation potentially even worse than other areas in the conflict is its remoteness. To compare, there are nearly 30 million people in Yemen and nearly 80% of them are in desperate need of humanitarian aid. Yet, despite the magnitude of this conflict, it has failed to garner enough attention to put pressure for ending widespread human rights violations. Now, within this conflict there are the 60,000 people of Socotra, located on an island that most people ignore on a map, and its digital and physical connections with the outside are extremely limited.  It is a matter of when not if the vulnerabilities of Socotra are fully exploited to coerce the people, and with its remoteness the international community may only find out once it is too late.