Summary: UAE deploys troops in Socotra provoking local protests and anger from Hadi government officials; Saudi Arabia intervenes, solves the dispute and deploys its own troops.

Socotra is a large island (82 miles long, 31 miles wide) in the Arabian Sea at the entrance to the Gulf of Aden, 150 miles east of the Horn of Africa and 240 miles south of the coast of Yemen. It is physically inhospitable, mountainous and with no good harbour. The rainfall is light but spread throughout the year, and the island has an extraordinary range of unique fauna and especially flora, recognised by UNESCO as a world natural heritage site in 2008. It has about 50,000 inhabitants, and a unique language, Socotran, akin to the Mahri language spoken in eastern Yemen across the water.

Lacking harbours it has never been of great strategic importance, despite its location. In 1876 the Times of India wrote that Socotra’s “importance to England can only be as one of the links in the chain by which her highway to India is guarded.” An airstrip was built for anti-submarine operations during the Second World War and, according to leaked US diplomatic cables, developed by Iran in 2003. During the 1960s and 1970s there were rumours that Socotra was being developed into a secret Soviet naval base. Since the 16th century it has been Yemeni territory under the control of the sultans of Mahra and then of the South Yemeni and Yemeni governments.

UAE forces deploy on Socotra

The recent crisis in Socotra, which we last mentioned in Arab Digest on 8 May, began on 30 April when 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 UAE already runs a number of other small military bases in southern Yemen, from the volcanic island of Perim at the mouth of the Red Sea to the dunes of Rumah near the Omani border.

On 3 May photographs began circulating on social media showing UAE soldiers, BMP-3 infantry fighting vehicles, and military trucks being unloaded from C-17 transport aircraft at the airport. Al-Jazeera reported that four Emirati aircraft and 100 troops had arrived on the island to intimidate visiting officials from Yemen’s internationally recognised government and angry protests had erupted in protest. Demonstrators were shown marching through the streets of the capital, Hadibu, and local leaders urged the withdrawal of Emirati forces from the island. Yemen Prime Minister Ahmed Bin Dagr called the arrival of Emirati troops “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.”

In response the UAE Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation issued a statement expressing surprise over the prime minister’s remarks and accusing the Muslim Brotherhood and the government of Qatar, working through Al-Jazeera, of waging “heinous campaigns” of slander against the UAE.

On May 15 UK Foreign Minister Alistair Burt said in response to a question in Parliament: “I would advise the House to be a little cautious about some of the reports coming out in relation to Socotra. I spoke just this week to the Foreign Affairs Deputy Minister of the United Arab Emirates, and the circumstances on the allegations being made are not particularly clear at present.”

The row over Socotra continued. Reports circulated that Hadi officials were planning to resort to the UN Security Council to put an end to the UAE military presence . The Turkish foreign ministry issued a statement, without explicitly referring to the UAE, expressing its concern “about these developments that pose a new threat to the territorial integrity and sovereignty of Yemen”.

Rumours about the UAE’s activities on Socotra have been circulating for the last year, but on 2 May the Independent became the first media outlet to report from the island since the start of the war three years ago:  “We found the UAE has all but annexed this sovereign piece of Yemen, building a military base, setting up communications networks, conducting its own census and inviting Socotra residents to Abu Dhabi by the planeload for free healthcare and special work permits.”

The UAE maintains that its interest in Socotra is humanitarian, driven by concern for its population of around 50,000 who risk real isolation. It has always been hard to land ships in Socotra and with few flights from Yemen, flights from the UAE are now the main link to the outside world. Pro-UAE Arab media reported a sizable demonstration in favour of the UAE in Socotra and residents rallying in support of the UAE in response to false media reports.

On 5 May a Saudi delegation was deployed to the island to defuse tensions and two days later a Saudi military spokesman said the differences between the UAE and the local government had now been resolved. On Monday Yemeni Prime Minister Ahmed Obeid bin Daghr posted on Facebook “the crisis on the island is over”, the dispute had “almost divided” the Saudi-led coalition but the Yemeni flag was “flying above our sea and airports again”.

Despite the agreement it seems Socotra will not be permitted to sink back into obscurity just yet. Last Sunday a military spokesman said the Kingdom had started deploying troops on the island on a training and support mission with Yemeni forces and yesterday Saudi media reported that the coalition reconstruction program for Yemen will begin soon from Socotra.

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