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.June 14, 2021
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.