Socotra, Yemen/Middle East
The Socotra Issue - Middle East

The Socotra Issue

Posted by Aneela Shahzad on

The Arab Spring (2011) had indeed dawned upon the Arabs with a promise of democracy and a better near-future, but it set with a Middle East ravaged in destruction, a complete obliteration of living space and a perpetually wobbling political landscape. The Yemen War (2015), has sadly, only amplified Middle East’s volatility, and has heightened a global alarm. Recent success in UN-led ceasefire in Hodeida is a first sign of long-awaited peace in Yemen – yet the complex web of ‘interests’ of several opposing parties, points to the fragility of the truce reached.

Within the 3years and 8months of the Yemen War, we have seen swift occurrence of events in the Arabian Sea, such as were unprecedented before this war. It seems that the war ‘for’ the Middle East, that had been proxied by several global stakeholders, has now turned into a war ‘within’ the Middle East, where internal players have made a rush to secure an uncertain Middle East, each to their own interests.

In this context, the Saudi-Emirati alliance running opposite to the Turkey-Qatar alliance is of special interest.  Mapping out alliances, in an uncertain Middle East, North Africa and East Africa, however is tricky, as we see states not hesitating in abandoning their age-old allies as their interests change. Like Sudan, who has historically been pitted against Egypt, under Western and Israeli influence, suddenly seems to come closer to Egypt since the event of Ethiopia coming out with its plan of constructing the GERD dam over the Nile.

In this whole scenario, the Saudi-UAE duo has seemingly been untouched by the destructions of the Arab Spring, but in reality, they did lose a victory. The Arab Spring brought out the Shia element more strongly then before, all over, in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon, exactly the opposite of what the Saudis were expecting – this extreme disappointment led to their attack on Yemen. And with the Yemen War was unleashed an unprecedented maritime/naval phenomenon – of construction of naval bases all across the Arabian Sea and the Red Sea.

Before the Yemen War, perhaps it could safely be said that states had a reasonable amount of sovereignty, but now it seems that selling one’s sovereign rights for a ‘rent’ has become the vogue. Only in the last 3years, UAE has established naval bases in Assab (Eritrea), Berbera (Somaliland), Mogadishu (Somalia), is training the maritime police as well as investing in the port of Bosaso – and has made bases in the Yemeni islands of Perim and Socotra. But the irony is that while other bases have been rented out, Yemeni islands have just been taken over like a no-man’s-land. Yet UAE is only one of the contenders, fighting for bases along the Red Sea and the Arabian Sea, all big powers are doing the same. This behavior has triggered a dangerous race for acquiring alliances and open new spaces capable of becoming ports, for sale – with the intent of both tilting the maritime trade and influencing the strategy balance.

Yemen being the poorest country in the Arabian Peninsula, at the verge of the world’s largest food security emergency looming over 7 million people, who have already faced a cholera outbreak that affected a million people, and in a war situation for over 3years, and with mainland Yemen practically divided into two and controlled by several opposing factions – Yemen had hardly any control on the mainland, and the islands were as good as forgotten.

But Socotra was not worth forgetting – home to 700 endemic species, recognized by UNESCO as a world natural heritage site in July 2008, Socotra is located right at the mouth of the Gulf of Aden opening into the Arabian Sea. Though it is not a choke-point, but it can certainly be made into a back-up point, that can become a convenient control-position with direct reach onto targets along the Red Sea, Gulf of Aden and the Horn of Africa.

And it was not that Socotra had not had a history before… in 2011, leaked classified cables referred to the Socotra Islands as a ‘piracy fuel base’, 63 ships had been attacked by pirates near the islands – a piracy often linked to syndicates based in Dubai and other points in the Gulf States. Iran had an eye on the island as soon as 2003, when it constructed an airstrip there. Certainly, the Saudis would not be happy on Iran’s attempt of enveloping them so close to their home, and the later developments mirror that.

In Jan 2017, Iranian General M Bagheri said, “We need distant bases, and it may become possible one day to have bases on the shores of Yemen or Syria, or bases on islands or floating”. Iran had a naval build-up in Assab, in Eritrea, but only until 2015, when the Saudis made a pact with Eritrea to side with them in the Yemen War, and so Iranian effectiveness was decreased there. But at the same time, Djibouti broke-off with UAE, and the Iranians got an edge over there. Yet, overall, since the Yemen War, the Iranians have kept losing contact points around the Arab Peninsula, and the UAE/Saudi have kept gaining.

In Yemen, however, the UAE/Saudi strategy has not been that of rent-seekers – as they were in a war with Yemen, and securing grounds in Yemen is in their eyes, only securing it from an Iranian grab. And in this pursuit, the Emiratis seem to be one step ahead of the Saudis. While the Saudis deterred the Yeminis from the skies, it was the Emiratis that made their boots on ground; they were the ones who seized the Port of Aden from the Hadi-government with the help of the UAE-backed Southern Transitional Council. UAE has set up military bases in the central region of Hadhramaut and trains South Yemeni Forces and have established a parallel security structure in south Yemen, ‘whose local troops solely answer to Abu Dhabi’ – so much so that in May 2017 Hadi accused the Emiratis of ‘behaving like an occupier of Yemen rather than its liberator’.

In this context, taking control of the Perim Island right on the Bab-el-Mandeb Strait and of the Socotra Island in the Arabian Sea, when any Yemeni government has neither access nor any say on the two islands, has become a questionable move – and a dangerous precedence – yet for the Saudi/UAE it was also an imperative – to save it from being grabbed by the Iranians or some other big power.

While establishing a naval/military foothold in the island, to win the hearts of the people of Socotra the UAE landed planeloads filled of supplies and medicine. UAE, along with building the naval/military base, was reportedly setting up communications networks, conducting its own census and even setting its consulate there. Jane’s 360 reported on May 4, of BMP-3 infantry fighting vehicles arriving at Socotra aboard a C-17 transport plane. Combining hard and soft power, UAE has established direct weekly services from Hadibo airport to Abu Dhabi, providing medical treatment, subsidized education and work permits to the UAE, and has organized group weddings for the Socotris.

However, the Saudis immediately intervened and as of May 18th, were able to broker an agreement for withdrawal of Emirati soldiers and military vehicles from Socotra. As a result, Saudi soldiers are de facto replacing the Emiratis ‘to train Yemeni security forces’ in Socotra, with Riyadh announcing its own development plan for the island. While UAE still complies with Saudi wishes but there are signs that its ambitions in the region may be higher than those of the Saudis in future.

The question on Socotra is – should the vital island be left at its own, at a time when the Yemeni government is unable to either secure the welfare or security of its people, or able to protect it from global players, many of whom would love to harbor their navies on the nascent island and become a geostrategic threat for their opponents in the neighborhood – or is it morally correct for the Saudis to temporarily occupy it? Leaving Socotra on its own would also mean that exploiters will continue using it for piracy and the disruption of global maritime trade. In such a void, control of the island by criminals would also endanger its unique habitat and flora.

The Yemen War and China’s Belt and Road Initiative, seem to have catalyzed  the appetite of acquiring control of islands from the South China Sea to the northern tip of the Red Sea – this practice has also put pressure on the build-up of naval forces and facilities around the world – seaborne weapon systems are being multiplied in quantity and quality, and the next wars seem to be setting between naval forces of powerful states placed close to the target states at nearest possible islands and rented naval bases.

Pakistan, being a littoral state of the Arabian Sea, cannot dismiss the potential threats that may emerge from Socotra, especially as its arch-rival India is deepening its relations with UAE. India’s ambition to become a maritime/naval ally with UAE is reflected in its futuristic plans of a subsea pipeline between the two states, and the recent India-UAE deal of using their own currencies for bilateral trade. Ships from the Indian Navy Western Fleet have visited UAE ports in July this year. In addition to other bilateral exercises, the Indian ships also coordinate in combating piracy off the coast of Somalia. India’s excess in the French naval base in Djibouti, its growing presence in the Indian Ocean Region, and ties with UAE, could all mean a possible presence in Socotra too.

Already playing a mediator role between Iran, Yemen and Saudi Arabia, Pakistan is in a good place to offer being part of a joint military naval base with Saudi Arab in Socotra. This could also enable Pakistan to partake in anti-piracy effort that threaten global trade and would bar unwanted intruders from setting their eyes on Socotra. Pakistan being a regular contributor in UN peacekeeping forces around the world and known for its disciplined forces, would also be able to ensure the preservation of the endangered flora of the island.

UAE’s symbolic retreat from Socotra and the UN-led ceasefire in Hodeida are a sign of relief from the war for the people of Yemen and for others in the region. 

For Pakistan, the way forward is to increase both diplomatic and naval ingress in the IOR. A passive, defensive strategy is no longer feasible in a swiftly evolving maritime scenario, wherein once again navies and maritime trade is becoming the primary focus of global powers and emerging states.

Previously Published at Maritime Study Forum