Jamestown Analyst Predicted Wider UAE Involvement in Yemeni Island of Socotra

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Yesterday, Reuters reported hundreds of troops backed by the United Arab Emirates (UAE) landed on the strategic Yemeni island of Socotra. The troops are reportedly South Yemeni separatists dressed in civilian clothing, transported to the island by UAE naval vessels from Aden. The Interior Minister of the internationally recognized Yemeni government, led by President Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi, has reacted by criticizing the UAE and saying they should focus on fighting the Houthis. The UAE has officially denied their involvement in transporting these separatist fighters to Socotra. This breaking news is the latest in a series of tactical moves by Abu Dhabi to extend Emirati influence to a strategically-located island off the coast of the Horn of Africa, and overseeing the Gulf of Aden.

Two days before the UAE-backed troops landed, Jamestown published an analysis of the Emiratis’ growing presence in Socotra. This article, written by Jamestown Fellow Rafid Jaboori, is below. The prescient piece underscores Jamestown’s ability to often predict events before they happen thanks to its global network of analytical expertise.

Governor of Socotra Vows to Confront UAE Allies

Rafid Jaboori

In April, the governor of the Yemeni governorate of Socotra, Ramzi Mahroos, announced his vehement rejection to the formation of any militias in Socotra. He vowed to work against any such move, stating that it would create divisions and more conflict between Yemenis. Despite official denial, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), which is a member of the Saudi-led coalition, supports the formation of local militias in Socotra. Local militias were formed in other southern Yemeni governorates by UAE-backed South Yemeni secessionists, which have gained more power during the war (al-Mahrah Post, April 29).

The UAE has also backed the most organized secessionist political group, the Southern Transitional Council (STC). [1] Although Socotra has not witnessed fighting during the Yemen war, it has been at the center of a different power struggle. Governor Mahroos’s announcement indicates the most recent public clash between Yemeni officials and the UAE and its Yemeni allies over Socotra.

Yemeni President Abed Rabu Mansour Hadi invited the coalition to help his government resist and push back against the Houthi rebels in 2015. However, many in the Yemeni government and public were antagonized by UAE policies that aimed to dominate South Yemen in particular. In May 2017, President Hadi even stated that the UAE was acting like an occupying power in Yemen (al-Mashhad, May 3, 2017).

Yemenis frequently raise concerns that the UAE wants to dominate shipping routes by controlling Aden and the Bab al-Mandab strait. In 2012, Yemen canceled a deal for the UAE-based port operator DP World to run Aden’s port. [2] Corruption was given as a reason, but many in Yemen believe that the UAE wished to undermine Aden in order to prevent the city from emerging as a competitor to Dubai (al-Jazeera, August 8, 2012).

With the development of the Yemen war and the UAE’s strong ties with southern secessionists, the city and port of Aden have come under the de facto control of the UAE. Controlling Socotra, which is an archipelago of four islands located 240 miles from the southern Yemen coastline and 150 miles off Somalia and the Horn of Africa, would provide further maritime superiority to the UAE. [3]

The main flashpoint in the course of the Yemeni-UAE struggle in Socotra took place in April 2018. During a visit by then Yemeni Prime Minister Ahmed Obeid Bin Daghar, dozens of UAE troops landed in the local airport in Socotra’s capital Hadibo and the main port. Bin Daghar condemned the move and called for public opposition, which resulted in rallies that stressed that Socotra was part of Yemen in the face of perceived UAE efforts to annex the archipelago. The Yemeni government took the issue to the UN Security Council. The UAE had to back down and announced that it recognized Yemen’s sovereignty in Socotra. Saudi troops were brought in through an ambiguous settlement that saw the end of the UAE’s deployment (Masrawy, May 14, 2018).

UAE troops are still in Socotra, but they are operating less visibly under the coalition umbrella. Khalfan al-Mazroe, the UAE representative in Socotra, is believed to have control of the airport, the main port and many other positions in Socotra.

President Hadi is walking a fine line in his relations with the UAE. Hadi has had rocky relationships with previous governors of Socotra, who were willing to partner with the UAE. In June 2017, he expelled the governor of Socotra, along with two other governors in the mainland, in a move that aimed to curtail Emirati influence on local leaders in South Yemen (Makkah Newspaper, June 29, 2017).

While his strategy in Aden and Hadramawt largely failed—as the people he fired were instead further empowered and became more aligned to the UAE—he appears to be in a better position in Socotra with Governor Mahroos on his side. Unlike many parts of South Yemen, where secessionist groups are in control and secession flags are more apparent than the Yemeni flag, in Socotra Hadi seems to be consolidating his position as a unifying national symbol (Makkah Newspaper, May 7, 2018).

Governor Mahroos’s recent statement against UAE-backed groups was not the first time he dealt with the issue. Last year he took a series of actions to abort a UAE-supported coup attempt (al-Sharq, August 19, 2018). However, there were expectations that relations would improve when he made a two-week visit to the UAE but that seems to have faded away.

The controversy about the UAE’s goals in Socotra was renewed earlier this year. A video of the prominent Emirati historian Hamad al-Matrooshi promising Socotrans would be granted Emirati citizenship for their historical ties with the UAE, went viral. Families of the leaders of the UAE-backed Yemeni groups live in the UAE away from the hard life in Yemen. Buying the loyalty of the whole local population of Socotra will be a difficult and largely unrealistic way of annexing Socotra.

The UAE’s policy to exert ultimate influence on Socotra is not only facing difficulties from Governor Mahroos. The UAE has also failed to win over key tribal leaders like Sheikh Abdullah Bin Afrar, whose family ruled the Sultanate of al-Mahra and Socotra for hundreds of years before the formation of the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen (PDRY). He has been increasingly vocal in his opposition to the UAE’s policy in Socotra (al-Mahrah Post, March 24). Bin Afrar and his family are no longer the rulers of Socotra, but his influence over the population is still significant, especially when it comes to deciding the fundamental question of remaining a part of Yemen or seceding from it.

Conclusion

Socotra is far from the heart of the Yemeni conflict, but a distinct power struggle has taken shape there. The Yemeni nationalist sentiment has been on the rise on the island in the face of the UAE’s moves. However, if the situation in Yemen keeps deteriorating and the county disintegrates further, some Socotrans might eventually prefer to join the UAE. That scenario has the potential of starting a new chapter in the Yemen war—this time between nationalists and pro-UAE groups, while causing more regional disputes over the UAE’s expansion.

The power struggle continues in Socotra with the possibility of escalation. The UAE seems to have abandoned the direct military deployment approach in favor of forming allied local militias. In other parts of South Yemen, similar militias eventually prevailed and became dominant. Governor Mahroos is defending his own position, and his allegiance to President Hadi seems unequivocal now despite previous rumors he called for joining the UAE.

The UAE will continue to work towards empowering its allies on the island. Socotra, and al-Mahra, represent a challenge to the South Yemeni secessionist movement. Large sections of the populations in both governorates do not support the secessionist movements for economic and historical reasons. The formation of militias by the secessionists could bring about the possibility of internal conflict. On the regional level, other parties will likely be interested in exploiting the possible chaos. Not long ago, Somali pirates used Socotra as a station to get fuel and food. If a separate chapter of civil war broke out between pro- and anti-UAE groups, the Yemeni conflict would grow even more complicated, and the Iran-backed Houthi rebels would most likely benefit. Meanwhile, militant groups that operate nearby, such as al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and al-Shabaab, might also develop interests in Socotra’s strategic position and potential.

Notes

[1] Socotra was part of the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen (PDRY) between its inception as a state in 1967 and the unification of South and North Yemen in 1990

[2] The deal was signed by the government of former Yemeni president Ali Abdullah Saleh who was deposed after the 2011 mass uprising.

[3] A main factor behind the UAE’s support for the STC and the secessionists in South Yemen is the grand strategy in the Middle East which prioritize confronting the Muslim Brotherhood branches. In Yemen the UAE has been skeptical about the power and influence that the Muslim Brotherhood and their political arm, al-Islah Party, enjoy within president Hadi’s government and military. That was one of the bases that led to the UAE support for the southern secessionists as a power to confront the Muslim Brotherhood.

Featured Analyst

Rafid Jaboori is a journalist, writer and researcher. He is a former BBC World Service Reporter. He covered The Iraq War and its aftermath, the conflict in Syria, and several other events. He is an expert on militant groups in the Middle East.

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Jamestown’s analysts are available for comment and interviews. To contact one of our experts on this or other related topics, please e-mail pubs(at)jamestown.org or call (202) 483-8888.

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