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What the UAE takeover of Yemen’s islands really means

Far from withdrawing from the war in Yemen, the Emirates is pursuing a hard-line and establishing itself as a military power for the long haul.

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Although the United Arab Emirates militarily withdrew from Yemen in 2019, it never truly left. To this day, the UAE remains a major influence in the impoverished country, and now it is exploiting Yemen’s vulnerabilities by establishing a hold in Mayun Island and UNESCO protected Socotra Island. This encroachment threatens to lengthen the devastating conflict in Yemen.

Initially, the UAE was directly involved in the war as a partner to the Saudi-led coalition. In 2019, they withdrew their soldiers from Yemen, with some suspecting that this move was partly motivated by international criticism related to the impact of the war on civilians and the humanitarian crisis. However, the UAE maintains multiple non-state armed groups and supports around 90,000 soldiers that undermine the U.N.-recognized Yemeni government. Moreover, the UAE controls several key ports and airports in Yemen.

Currently, a military base is being built on Yemen’s Mayun Island — a volcanic island off Yemen situated in a maritime choke point for crucial energy shipments and commercial cargo. The island itself can provide a base for any operation into the Red Sea, the Gulf of Aden, and East Africa. Furthermore, it is easy to launch airstrikes into mainland Yemen from the island. The construction of the base violates Yemen’s sovereignty as the U.N.-recognized Yemeni government was not informed about the construction. While no country has claimed the air base, there are clear links to the UAE.

The UAE is also in control of Socotra Island. While Socotra is technically under the rule of the Southern Transitional Council — separatists who call for an independent South Yemen — the UAE is in de facto control. The island is located between the Red Sea, the Gulf of Aden, and East Africa. Due to its strategic location near major shipping routes, the UAE has built military bases on the island which it uses to collect intelligence on maritime traffic and monitor oil trading channels.

UAE military bases and other influences are dramatically changing the rhythms of everyday life in Socotra. The 60,000 inhabitants have lived on the island for thousands of years with limited contact with the outside world, if any.

Now, the UAE is funding major infrastructure projects on the island. These include docks, hospitals, and communication networks that link Socotris to the UAE — not Yemen. It is conducting its own census and inviting influential Socotris to Abu Dhabi for free healthcare and special work permits. There are even rumors that the UAE is planning to hold a referendum on seceding from the mainland and officially becoming part of the Emirates.

The UAE is also bringing tourists to the island without the permission of the U.N.-recognized Yemeni government. To ensure the protection of the island, Yemeni officials and island authorities established eco-tourism procedures, which the UAE does not follow. Current entry visas to the island are delinked from the Yemeni immigration system and do not subject visitors to applicable legal requirements. To build tourism and military infrastructure, the UAE has accelerated construction on parts of the island despite the fragile ecosystems. Tourists from the Gulf and Israel arrive weekly on two-hour flights from Abu Dhabi. Meanwhile, Yemeni citizens are denied access to the island by the UAE.

This is especially worrying as Socotra is one of the most biodiversity rich islands in the world. It supports globally significant populations of animals, including a number of endangered species. Seventy percent of the island is protected land and it hosts 700 endemic species. The Yemeni website “Green Dream” published a report on UAE policies that harm Socotra’s environment. The report describes a wide array of environmental malpractices including overfishing, illegal trade in endemic species, increased waste, and infringing on the island’s cultural fabric.

Multiple international organizations have expressed concerns over the UAE’s actions in Socotra and its harmful effects on the population and environment. The UNESCO World Heritage Committee has cited concerns over environmental degradation on the island. These concerns include uncontrolled development, unsustainable use of natural resources, the introduction of alien and invasive species, and habitat degradation. Recently, the International Union for Conservation of Nature classified Socotra as an area of significant concern. While Socotra was relatively well-protected prior to the war, rapid development on the island is increasingly coming at the expense of its unique environment. Given the importance of the island, the UAE must be held accountable for the destruction of the diverse ecosystems that Socotra hosts — ecosystems that Socotris have coexisted with for centuries.

As Farea al-Muslimi, a non-resident fellow at Chatham House, notes: “The UAE has surprised everyone, even themselves, with how well they’ve done militarily in Yemen. They have almost had free rein as a result to control and have presence in whatever they want in the country, including Yemen’s ports, which is a prize for them.” But Socotra is not a prize. It is a rich ecosystem with an indigenous population. The prime location of the island has created a unique culture influenced by the Middle East, Africa, and India. Socotris value their heritage and environment, which are now both under threat.

Not only is Socotra under threat, but the entirety of Yemen. Through building military bases both in Socotra and Mayun Island, the UAE is aggressively pursuing a hard-line stance in Yemen. It is establishing itself as a military power for the long haul.

Despite the UAE’s belligerent actions in Yemen, the Biden administration decided to resume a $23 billion arms sales deal with the country. This is disastrous given the UAE’s continued involvement in the war within mainland Yemen, but also its military infringement on Yemen’s islands that threaten to prolong the war.

The UAE has proven itself to be a hostile actor within Yemen. The more Yemeni land it controls, the larger impediment it poses to peace efforts within the country. The international community cannot allow the UAE to build illegal military bases on Yemeni land, especially at the cost of local ways of life and environmental degradation. Socotra is a UNESCO world heritage site— not Dubai 2.0.

This article was first published on the Responsible Statecraft

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