Tyranny on the waters: The UAE-Israeli occupation of Yemen’s Socotra Island
Karim Shami, The Cradle, March 24 2023 —
The transformation of Yemen’s strategically-located Socotra Island into an Emirati-Israeli military intelligence hub has raised concerns for the Ansarallah movement and its allies, significantly increasing the geopolitical stakes of the Yemen war.
Located off the southern coast of Yemen in the Arabian Sea, the Socotra archipelago has become a focal point of regional and international interest because of its strategic proximity to one of the world’s busiest shipping lanes.
On 21 June, 2020, the Yemeni island was militarily occupied by Saudi Arabia’s Emirati coalition partner, which has aggressively pursued a policy of establishing and controlling ports throughout West Asia and the Horn of Africa since 1999.
The archipelago consists of four large islands: Socotra (3,796km2), Abd al-Kuri (130.2km2), Samhah (39.6km2), and Darsah (7.5km2), as well as three small islets.
Socotra, the biggest of the islands, lies 350 km south of the Arabian Peninsula and 95 km from Somalia. It is surrounded by the Gulf of Aden, the Indian Ocean, and the Arabian Sea, and faces the Horn of Africa from the west. Around 20,000 shipping vessels pass around Socotra each year, including 9 percent of the world’s annual global petroleum supply.
The War on Yemen
The assault on Yemen was launched on 26 March, 2015, in an announcement by Saudi Ambassador Adel al-Jubeir from Washington DC, in which he stated that a coalition of ten countries, led by Saudi Arabia and the UAE, would take military action to reinstate the government of Yemeni President Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi.
Hadi had been ousted in popular protests in 2014, after losing the capital city, Sanaa, to the joint forces of the Ansarallah movement and their allies in the country’s armed forces. Based in northern Yemen, the Ansarallah movement had been advocating for fair representation in the government for a long time.
With US-backing, Saudi Arabia launched “Operation Decisive Storm,” and the air strikes began. Initially expected to last only a few weeks or months – and according to MbS himself, just “a few days” – the Yemeni war has now entered its eighth year and taken on a markedly different shape than the coalition initially contended.
Two years into the war, the Emiratis began pursuing their own hidden agenda of establishing a “self-styled maritime empire” in Yemen, which veered sharply from Riyadh’s objectives. To achieve this goal, Abu Dhabi sought to control the country’s southern coastline and its ports and enlisted the help of a local Yemeni proxy called the Southern Movement.
The Southern Movement was formed by secessionist tribes and groups seeking to divide Yemen along the old partition lines of 1967–1990. However, the movement had to be restructured to match the UAE’s aspirations, and in 2017 it was transformed into the Southern Transitional Council (STC).
The significance of Socotra
Socotra Island falls under the territorial jurisdiction of the exiled Hadi government, which to this day – despite his physical absence and the replacement of the “presidency” with an 8-member, Saudi-sponsored Presidential Leadership Council (PLC) – remains Yemen’s internationally-recognized government.
However, on 30 April, 2018, the UAE deployed hundreds of troops with artillery and armored vehicles on the island, which is located 350 km away from the mainland conflict, without any prior coordination with Yemeni authorities.
The Riyadh-backed Yemeni government condemned the Emirati aggression, backed by local islanders protesting against the occupation of their territory. The Saudis were forced to intervene by sending troops and training locals to deter the UAE from seizing the island.
But later that year, UAE General Khalfan al-Mazrouei arrived on Socotra Island and has since been considered its de facto ruler. Under his leadership, the Emiratis gained the loyalty of local tribes by using bribery under the guise of “humanitarian aid.” They offered Socotra residents UAE passports and promised them an improved quality of life.
The STC seizes Socotra
On the morning of 21 June, 2020, the UAE-backed STC separatists forcibly seized control of Socotra and ousted the Saudi-backed, pro-Hadi forces.
The UAE had been planning and preparing for this operation for two years, using its Yemeni proxies to gain full control over the Socotra archipelago. The Emirati flag was raised across the territory, and UAE telecommunication companies replaced Yemeni ones. Consequently, all phone calls from Socotra now register Emirati phone networks.
Three months after the seizure of Socotra, the highly-controversial Abraham Accords was signed in Washington DC between Israel and the UAE, along with Bahrain, Morocco, and Sudan. On the Arab side, the normalization thrust was led by Abu Dhabi, which quickly moved to expand its diplomatic, military, and economic ties with Tel Aviv.
Shortly after the signing of the Abraham Accords, reports and images of Israeli “tourists” visiting Socotra began to emerge. According to an Al-Mayadeen report, however, the Israeli visitors were not tourists, but rather, military experts.
Abd al-Kuri Island
In February 2023, Ansarallah released a statement condemning the UAE’s eviction of residents from Abd al-Kuri, the archipelago’s second-largest island. The resistance movement accused Abu Dhabi of carrying out a long-planned operation to transform Socotra into an Israeli-Emirati military and intelligence hub.
These actions by the UAE are not isolated incidents. In another 2022 episode, Ansarallah accused Abu Dhabi of transferring fishermen from the small island of Perim (13 km2) to other parts of the Taiz Governorate. Several months later, satellite imagery revealed the construction of a military base runway on the volcanic Island. Perim is now empty of its original inhabitants, according to media reports.
Perim Island has historically divided the Bab al-Mandab Strait into two waterways – whoever controls the island holds strategic influence over the strait. While Ansarallah’s statement about Emirati designs on Socotra was not entirely new, it raised hackles throughout the Arab world by confirming Israel’s military and intelligence presence on this key Yemeni island.
The UAE’s maritime ambitions
Many have questioned Abu Dhabi’s motivation for seizing Socotra and risking its relationships with Saudi Arabia and neighboring Oman (virtually overnight surrounded by UAE ports and bases). The UAE’s actions may be entirely attributed to the strategic vision of its President Mohammed bin Zayed (MbZ) and his no-longer secret desire to establish an Emirati maritime empire –from the Persian Gulf to the Red Sea – by controlling the region’s key waterways.
The UAE’s economic reliance on these waterways is a clear driver of MbZ’s plans: non-petroleum commodity re-exports make up almost half of Abu Dhabi’s total exports. As such, maritime security is a top priority in the country’s foreign policy calculations.
The UAE currently controls 12 ports off the coast of Yemen, including Aden, Makha, Mukalla, Al-Dabba, Bir Ali, Belhaf, Rudum, Zoubab, Al-Khawkhah, Al-Khouba, Qena, and Al-Nashima. The country is also building a new port in Al-Mahra that will cost an estimated $100 million.
By controlling these ports and the Bab al-Mandab Strait, the UAE can dominate one of the busiest shipping lanes in the world, elevating its position in global and regional trade to a strategic player.
In addition to its aggressive accumulation of Yemeni ports, the UAE also has a significant presence in the Horn of Africa, where it currently controls two ports in Eritrea and one in Somalia. It previously owned a port in Djibouti, but this became a point of territorial friction between the two countries. The UAE’s control over these ports and their strategic location in the region allow it to project its power and expand its influence in East Africa.
Why is Socotra important to Israel?
The UAE and Israel share mutual security concerns over Iran’s regional ascension over the past decade. The Islamic Republic’s naval presence is expanding into many new waterways, and its seaborne activities from the Persian Gulf to the Red Sea alarm both nations. Given Washington’s growing reluctance to engage its armed forces in West Asia, MbZ turned to the region’s military behemoth and main Iranian rival to help him execute his vision. Unlike Israel, no other regional state has the ability to garner unconditional US support – nor the willingness to cavalierly defy international law and territorial integrity.
Abu Dhabi has calculated that it stands to benefit from Israel’s intelligence network and early warning systems, particularly after its cities were subject to unprecedented Ansarallah missile and drone strikes in January 2022.
For Tel Aviv, its physical presence in any Arab state is perceived as a victory, which aligns with its ambitions for regional expansion. By establishing a base on Abd al-Kuri Island, Israel can reinforce its maritime security – around 25 percent of its trade passes through the Bab al-Mandab Strait. Another objective of the Israeli-Emirati military and intelligence hub could be to gather data or engage in espionage activities in the southern Arabian Peninsula and the Horn of Africa.
During the 1973 Arab-Israeli war, Yemen – in partnership with Egypt – blocked the passage of Israeli ships and tankers from accessing the strategic strait, leading to disastrous consequences for Israel.
The tactic could be replicated under Ansarallah Chief Abdel Malak al-Houthi’s leadership, since the movement considers Israel one of its main regional adversaries. While it may seem like a distant possibility, if the war concludes under current Riyadh-Sanaa peace efforts and Ansarallah gains control of Yemen’s south, the movement will enjoy unusual leverage to obstruct Israeli shipments whenever Tel Aviv launches regional aggressions. It should be noted that Ansarallah has already publicly threatened, on several occasions, to strike sensitive Israeli sites with its new missile capabilities.
Moreover, there has been an ongoing “ghost ship war” between Israel and Iran for several years, with occasional reports of Iranian or Israeli ships being attacked in these waterways. Israel’s presence on Socotra Island could provide it with leverage over Iran in their waterway stand-off and enable Tel Aviv to counter Ansarallah inside Yemeni territory.
NATO’s Combined Maritime Forces
It is important to note that the involvement of the US in the Israeli-Emirati collaboration and actions in Yemeni waters is not confirmed. However, it is true that the US has been a maritime security provider for the Persian Gulf monarchies for decades, and its NATO-led Combined Maritime Forces (CMF) have been present in West Asian waters since 1983 – including leading hostile actions against Iraq and Somalia.
The CMF alliance has assumed responsibility for the security of four bodies of water: The Red Sea, Persian Gulf, Arabian Sea, and the Gulf of Aden.
But with China’s rapid rise as a global economic competitor, US policy pivoted further eastward, and Washington has sought to subcontract out its West Asian security policies to its regional allies.
As such, last December, the CMF assigned command of its Red Sea task force to the Egyptian Navy, who took over from US naval forces. In this regard, the UAE, backed by Israel, may be another candidate to lead a NATO-backed naval security operation in the region.
Implications for Iran and Saudi Arabia
Any Israeli expansion is likely to alarm Iran and vice versa, potentially leading direct or proxy clashes in various regional theaters. However, the presence of the UAE – Iran’s second-largest trading partner – in southern Yemen may limit Tehran’s options. Unless Iran perceives a serious security threat from the new “Arab-Israeli alliance,” it is unlikely to take any significant actions that could harm its trade relations with Abu Dhabi.
The war against Yemen has severely damaged Saudi Arabia’s image as a regional powerhouse. During the last few years, all major Saudi cities have been the subject of Ansarallah missile and drone strikes – including the country’s key oil infrastructure.
It has been humiliating for the Persian Gulf’s wealthiest and most heavily militarized state to have its vulnerabilities so completely exposed by West Asia’s poorest nation. In contrast, the UAE has thus far only benefited from the Yemen war and expanded its influence in the region.
Recently, there have been reports of a possible breakthrough in negotiations between Riyadh and Ansarallah, and observers are hoping for an early roadmap to end the conflict during the holy month of Ramadan. Obstacles are aplenty: The UAE is notably absent from the discussions, the Emirati-backed Yemeni separatists – the STC – reject any solution that doesn’t leave them in control of the south, and the US has sought to scuttle any final solution that undermines Washington’s regional leverage.
Liberating the island
Of all the stakeholders with interest in Socotra Island, none are ultimately as important as the Yemeni ones, primarily the UAE-backed STC, the Saudi-backed PLC, and Iran-backed Ansarallah.
In his most recent televised appearance, Ansarallah’s Abdel Malik al-Houthi stated: “We seek to defeat the aggression, whether on the islands, on land or at sea, and from anyone who violates our independence and the sovereignty of our country.” Unlike other leaders, al-Houthi’s threats are usually translated into action and Ansarallah will not hesitate to strike the Israeli-Emirati bases or seize their ships if the aggression continues.
Ansarallah is currently the strongest player in Yemen, controlling more than 80 percent of the country in terms of population density. On the other hand, the PLC is the most vulnerable of the three main Yemeni players, and Riyadh’s recent rapprochement agreement with Tehran has further weakened the group. If an agreement is reached between Riyadh and Sanaa, the PLC will have one of two options: to hand over their weapons or merge into Ansarallah’s armed forces.
On the other side of the spectrum, the UAE-backed STC is worried about ongoing peace talks and fears being left alone to fight head-to-head with Ansarallah-aligned armed forces.
The question now is whether there will be a peace deal between Saudi Arabia and Ansarallah that excludes the UAE and its Yemeni proxies. If that happens, Sanaa’s armed forces will almost certainly turn their big guns on the Emiratis and their Yemeni interests. The Saudis will have already calculated this outcome as they seek to advance a deal with Ansarallah. In this event, it is unlikely that Riyadh will come to Abu Dhabi’s assistance. Their common goals in Yemen ended years ago.