The United Arab Emirates (UAE) has landed its forces on the Yemeni island of Socotra, situated some 240 km. (150 mi.) from the Horn of Africa and roughly 350 kilometres (220 mi) off the Arabian Peninsula.
The surprise operation was launched on May 2. The troops are accompanied by armored vehicles. This military presence is growing. The soldiers have taken control of key elements of the island’s infrastructure, including the sea and airports.
The landing was conducted without the approval of either the Yemeni government or the local authorities. The move is clearly an affront to Yemeni President Abed Hadi, who is officially a UAE ally in the ongoing war against Yemen's Houthi rebels. Abu Dhabi is a key partner in the Saudi Arabia-led coalition that has been fighting Houthi rebels since 2015. Hadi’s government, which officially controls Socotra, views the landing as an act of aggression. The deployment could mark the end of Yemen's alliance with the Arab Emirates.
The UAE has established a zone of influence in southern Yemen, which includes the port of Aden, known as the southern gate of the Red Sea. There have been reports that Abu Dhabi is building a military airstrip on Yemen’s Mayun (Perim) island, which is also located near the strait. It controls Aden’s airport as well. The UAE is forming militias that will operate under its control on Yemeni territory.
Uncorroborated reports have surfaced claiming that Abu Dhabi plans to force Socotra to secede from Yemen and join the UAE. Recently the federation has been investing heavily in southern Yemen in order to garner popular support.
No Houthi military units have ever been sighted on the island that would justify this deployment by the Emirates. One must surmise that expansion is the real goal of the operation. Once it has annexed Socotra and southern Yemen, the UAE will become much bigger and more important, thus boosting its regional and global clout. Yemen is rich in oil and gas reserves and the reason for Abu Dhabi’s interest is obvious. Previously the federation had made attempts to gain control of oil and gas fields in the provinces of Shabwah, Ma’rib, and Hadhramaut.
This military presence in Socotra will make it possible to establish control over the shipping lanes that connect the Mediterranean Sea and the Indian Ocean. It brings to mind the famous phrase of Alfred Thayer Mahan “Whoever attains maritime supremacy in the Indian Ocean would be a prominent player on the international scene.” Socotra is crucial for controlling the shipping to and from Iran, the sworn enemy of Washington and Abu Dhabi. And war appears to be on the horizon.
A year ago, Washington and Abu Dhabi signed a landmark defense cooperation agreement to expand their military partnership. The deal includes provisions for moving US forces to Emirati territory and patrolling vital sea lanes in the Arabian Gulf and along the African coast. The UAE is the second-largest buyer of American weapons in the world and lately has been getting more frequent green lights to purchase the most sophisticated systems the US has to offer.
Both nations have a long history of participating in joint military operations. It will be no surprise if one day the news of a US military presence on Socotra were to hit the media’s headlines. In March 2017, the commander of the UAE navy visited the US to discuss a range of issues, including the creation of the Emirati shipbuilding industry. It’s hard to imagine that the impending landing operation on Socotra was not an issue on that agenda.
Evidently the deployment is part of a broader plan to force the rollback of Iran and reshape the region. And that’s not limited to Yemen. A military base is being constructed in Berbera, Somaliland by the UAE, to the chagrin of Somalia’s government in Mogadishu. Somaliland is a self-proclaimed state that has separated from Somalia. It is not recognized internationally, but the UAE provides training for its military. The federation has also been increasing its naval presence in Eritrea.
The Socotra operation coincides with other signs of a wider looming conflict. For instance, the USS Harry S. Truman carrier strike group commenced combat operations in Syria on May 3. Fighting the Islamic State? Not at all. It doesn’t take an aircraft carrier to get rid of the jihadists’ token presence that still remains in Syria. The military operations are being combined with diplomatic efforts to diminish Russia’s influence in Syria and the Middle East.
Hadi’s government in Yemen is recognized internationally. This deployment of military forces took place without Yemen’s approval, which means that the UAE has flagrantly violated international law. And the US will be flouting it too, if it sends troops. Yemen is going to complain to the United Nations about the occupation of Socotra. Washington has slammed Crimea’s unification with Russia despite the fact that a referendum was held there in which the people were allowed to express their own will. Will it likewise strongly condemn the UAE for occupying Yemeni territory and attempting to annex it to the Emirates without any legal grounds to do so? Hopefully it won’t be long before this issue makes it onto the agenda of the UN Security Council.