Sana’a (GPA) – In a sign of deepening military ties, the United Arab Emirates has reportedly invited Israel to join its secretive occupation of Yemen’s remote Socotra island. The move is foremost a clear violation of Yemen’s sovereignty. Yet, the decision also signals a new era of polarization across the Persian Gulf and beyond.
  • On August 13, the United Arab Emirates and Israel officially announced normalization through the Abraham Accords.
  • The two powerhouses already forged deeper military ties through a maritime surveillance base on Yemen’s Socotra island.
  • Socotra is Yemen and the UAE’s actions amount to illegal annexation, something Israel knows all too well.
  • A UAE-Israel Socotra base further undermines Saudi influence both in Yemen and among geopolitical powers.
  • Blossoming UAE-Israeli military cooperation also demonstrates deeper geopolitical polarization beyond the Persian Gulf.
UAE-Israel Establish Socotra Maritime Spy Base
The Socotra archipelago (Google Maps)

UAE and Israel establish joint naval intelligence base on Yemen’s Socotra island

It’s quite a bold move for the two regional powers.

On August 26, the Hebrew intelligence analysis website Navitz said it received information that the UAE and Israel have expanded cooperation via a maritime intelligence base on Yemen’s Socotra island.

Yemeni military sources corroborate the claim, stating the UAE has already established a joint underground naval base with Israel in Socotra’s southwest area of Ras Qattainan. Yemeni sources also reported in August that the Israelis and Emiratis have already launched joint naval maneuvers in the Red Sea.

UAE-Israeli intelligence cooperation is nothing new.

Abu Dhabi has regularly purchased sophisticated Israeli spyware technology dating back at least to 2016.

The UAE-Israel Socotra compound will serve as a base to monitor the Red Sea, the Horn of Africa, and the Bab el-Mandeb Strait.

It’s entirely possible the UAE and Israel have already expanded cooperation throughout Africa as well.

Both Abu Dhabi and Tel Aviv have military bases in Eritrea, for example. Here, the UAE operates one of its infamous torture prisons at a military base.

Many people don’t realize that the UAE is setting up its own little empire by establishing bases throughout Africa in Djibouti, Eritrea, Libya, and the unrecognized Somaliland region. It wouldn’t be shocking to hear that Abu Dhabi has established a base in Sudan as well after collaborating with Saudi Arabia and Israel last year to install a new Sudanese government.

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Why Socotra specifically?

Bab el-Mandeb is only 18 miles wide at its tightest point between Yemen and Djibouti.

But most importantly, an estimated 6.1 million barrels of oil pass through the Bab el-Mandeb each day as they travel from the Persian Gulf countries through the Suez Canal and up through Europe.

The Socotra island chain in red and Bab el-Mandeb in green (Google Maps)

It’s easy to see why the United States and its allies demand control of Bab el-Mandeb looking at history.

In 1956, Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser nationalized the Suez Canal. Israel responded by invading Egypt and occupying the Sinai Penninsula with support from Western powers. Since Nasser’s death, the US and Israel have smashed any type of resistance government from taking root in Egypt or along the Red Sea coastlines.

Then Yemen happened.

Far from the ragtag rebels media outlets portray, the Ansarullah movement controls Yemen’s most populated areas — and valuable coastline.

It’s no surprise that the US-backed Saudi coalition has prioritized occupying Yemen’s islands throughout the Red Sea instead of battling for swaths of mainland territory.

Socotra is also in a valuable location, geopolitically.

From Socotra, the UAE and Israelis can monitor the Gulf of Aden, the Arabian Sea, the Indian Ocean, and the entire Horn of Africa.

UAE-Israel Establish Socotra Maritime Spy Base
Crucial shipping chokepoints: the Straits of Hormuz, the Bab el-Mandeb Strait, and the Suez Canal. Millions of barrels of oil pass through these chokepoints as they travel from the Gulf monarchies to Western countries.

Yemen’s Crimea: Where’s the international outrage over the UAE and Israel annexing Socotra?

In Yemen, the United Arab Emirates seems to be following the typical Israeli strategy: If you hide your illegal activity in plain sight and ignore accusations, you won’t be held accountable.

The UAE has spent the last five years occupying Yemen and building alliances. Most of such alliances include groups, militias, and politicians supporting South Yemen Separatism. This is all part of Abu Dhabi’s larger strategy to annex a future South Yemen, bringing it into the Emirates fold.

Abu Dhabi has the same idea up its sleeve for Socotra.

If a country like Iran or Russia had done what the UAE is doing in Socotra, there would be international outrage, UN troops, and foreign intervention.

Take Crimea for example.

In 2014, Crimeans voted to join the Russian Federation instead of Ukraine overwhelmingly: 97% supported joining Russia with a whopping 83% voter turnout. However, the referendum’s cut-and-dry nature didn’t stop the United States and European Union from declaring the vote illegal, refusing to recognize the results, and sanctioning Russia into oblivion.

The Yemeni people of Socotra have had no such election. In fact, they’ve had absolutely no say in the matter and aren’t happy with the UAE’s presence.

UAE has “all but annexed” Socotra already

Reportedly, Abu Dhabi started planning an annexation referendum in 2018 when its success in Yemen against Riyadh seemed all but guaranteed.

Local Socotra residents told journalists from The Independent that the UAE was trying to drum up support for a referendum and had sent census takers door-to-door. The Independent found that Abu Dhabi had “all but annexed” Socotra already:

We found the UAE has all but annexed this sovereign piece of Yemen, building a military base, setting up communications networks, conducting its own census and inviting Socotra residents to Abu Dhabi by the planeload for free healthcare and special work permits.

Beyond building military bases in Socotra, the UAE:

  • Owns the only functioning mobile network
  • Filled store shelves with expensive Emirati products unaffordable for most Yemenis
  • Bulldozed over 70% of the island to make way for hotels and resorts
  • Extracted Socotra’s limestone cliffs for exporting
  • Uprooted hundreds of Socotra’s ancient dragon’s blood trees for sale in landscaping
  • Operates weekly flights between the UAE and Socotra
  • Expanded Socotora’s port
  • Granted Emirati citizenship to hundreds of Yemenis living in Socotra

It appears the UAE abandoned its referendum idea after realizing the vote wouldn’t pass. Instead, Abu Dhabi just kept moving forward with its annexation plans.

The story is almost too familiar. Abu Dhabi and Tel Aviv make perfect friends in that respect.

Socotra’s distinct dragon’s blood trees. Rod Waddington (Flickr)

UAE and Israel asking for war with Socotra cooperation

Yemenis will not remain silent about the UAE-Israel Socotra occupation.

Ansarullah spokesman, Mohammed Abdulsalam, mocked the UAE for signing so-called “peace” agreements with Tel Aviv while it wages war against Yemen:

It is false and misleading that they are promoting an agreement with the enemy for the sake of ‘peace’ and ‘stability’ in the region at a time when they are fighting wars in the region, most notably the aggression on Yemen, in which they are united with the Zionist enemy.

Leader of the Ansarullah movement, Sayed Abdulmalik al-Houthi called UAE-Israeli cooperation in Yemen “a great danger” and “threatening.” Al-Houthi also called on Yemenis to remain vigilant of propaganda promoting normalization with Israel.

Yemen’s outrage over the UAE occupation and apparent annexation of Socotra has fallen on deaf ears for years.

Back in 2018, Yemen’s Ministry of Tourism demanded the UAE end its entire occupation of Socotra and stop destroying the island’s natural resources:

In an unprecedented event, the UAE has called the people of the island to vote on a referendum of self-determination to join them, and this is the most dangerous step.

Socotra is a UNESCO World Heritage site filled with unique plants and wildlife and important to Yemen’s tourism economy. The UAE has demolished and stolen much of Socotra’s natural treasures.

Yemen filed an official complaint with the United Nations Security Council at the time and urged members to adopt a resolution preventing the UAE from destroying the island’s resources.

Just last week, Protests erupted across Socotra in response to the UAE-Israel Socotra occupation plan:

How will Yemen respond?

It’s foolish for the United Arab Emirates to believe that Yemenis will accept Israeli presence on their land.

Yemen’s defacto Sana’a government led by Ansarullah has advanced weapons systems capable of reaching UAE landmarks.

In 2018, Yemen unveiled a new domestically produced drone dubbed Sammad 3 by striking the Abu Dhabi international airport. The attack came as the UAE accelerated its occupation of Socotra and talk of a potential annexation referendum grew.

Mohammed Abdulsalam told Al Jazeera at the time:

We don’t understand the hype when it comes to our attacks. We are in a state of war. We are being attacked every day. Our people are being slaughtered every single day. Our cities, our airports are being targeted by the Saudi-UAE coalition. So, why are they are surprised by us attacking their positions?

It remains to be seen how Sana’a will respond to the UAE-Israel Socotra plan and when — but rest assured they will.

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What about Saudi Arabia?

Socotra is a hot point of contention between Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.

War nearly erupted in 2018 when rumors swirled of an annexation referendum. Fast-forward to June of 2020, South Yemen separatists loyal to the United Arab Emirates grabbed full control of Socotra in a coup.

The Southern Transitional Council (STC) seized government buildings and military sites across the island. Indeed, across all of southern Yemen Riyadh has lost all semblance of diplomatic and military control.

It’s interesting that the UAE chose to invite Israel to cooperate in Socotra rather than its ally Saudi Arabia.

Many people may not realize that the UAE and Saudi Arabia aren’t as friendly as they let on.

Throughout the course of the war against Yemen, Abu Dhabi and Riyadh have remained at war with each other — mainly in Yemen’s south.

The United Arab Emirates supports the STC and affiliated separatist militants and politicians. The Emiratis have also bribed scores Yemenis for support by offering infrastructure development, healthcare, and other necessities.

Saudi Arabia, on the other hand, threw its weight behind the so-called internationally recognized government of Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi which has absolutely no public support in Yemen. Riyadh’s other ragtag actors on the ground include al-Qaeda, ISIS, paid foreign mercenaries, and al-Islah (Yemeni offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood) — all fairweather friends. On a particularly bad day, Saudi Arabia might even launch airstrikes against hundreds of its own mercenaries.

It begs the question, why is Saudi Arabia still waging war against Yemen?

Saudi Arabia spends $200 million on the war every day.

With oil prices at record lows due to the pandemic, an economy reliant on oil exports, and no end in sight to the slump, Riyadh can’t possibly be in good financial standing.

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Will Saudi Arabia respond with normalization or aggression?

Is Saudi Arabia really spending millions just to keep up with the Joneses? Or does Riyadh have something bigger up its sleeve?

Strategic planning isn’t exactly Saudi Arabia’s forte, evidenced in Riyadh tripping over its own feet with the Kashoggi murder and complete failure in Yemen. However, it wouldn’t be out of the question for Riyadh to wage a protracted war against Abu Dhabi in Yemen and Africa.

Will Riyadh back down now that it has no leverage anywhere or will it step up its aggression?

Like Yemen, the UAE has reduced Saudi Arabia to a subordinate ally on the Libyan scene as well. The UAE has used Yemen as a launchpad to expand its empire throughout Africa’s eastern coast and horn.

Riyadh’s own allies in Abu Dhabi pushed Saudi influence out of Yemeni territory it once controlled. Meanwhile, the Ansarullah government and its allies are on track to retake oil-rich Marib province: the final frontier of the war in many ways.

Now, Saudi Arabia must face facts: It was snubbed out of Socotra by its friends for Israel no less.

It’s hard to see a situation where Saudi Arabia is eager to normalize relations with Israel after this betrayal. Unless however, Israel is crafting a situation where Riyadh and Abu Dhabi compete with each other for loyalty.

Saudi Arabia must certainly feel uncomfortable with Israel and the UAE bonding so close to Saudi territory.

In that case, will Saudi Arabia normalize relations with Israel in an attempt to level the playing field with the UAE? Or will they instead start building a diplomatic wall? It seems any case is possible right now.

UAE and Israel using Socotra to counter China in Africa and West Asia

The UAE-Israel Socotra project isn’t only about monitoring capital throughout the Red Sea and Bab el-Mandeb. It’s also about constructing a major intelligence apparatus to monitor China in Africa and West Asia.

Although China and the Gulf kingdoms cooperate in some ways, that doesn’t mean they’re allies.

At the end of the day, Saudi Arabia, Israel, and the UAE are friends of Washington before anyone else.

The United States and its allies consider China a major threat to their imperialist project throughout Africa. Meanwhile, China just signed a long-term economic cooperation agreement with Iran.

Some of the existing economic partnership agreements China already established. Chinese cooperation with Iran is sure to ruffle some feathers in Washington.

China’s Belt and Road initiative poses an existential threat to the United States and its allies

Over the next US administration — whether Trump, Biden (as evidenced by the DNC platform) or the next guy — expect to see polarization solidify:

China, Iran, Pakistan, and resistance countries

United States, Saudi Arabia, UAE, Israel, India, and subordinate allies

More conflicts and crises will erupt in regions where the Belt and Road project is expected to pass through, as Washington and its allies resort to violence to maintain their imperialist power. Some ongoing or potential examples include:

  • Continuous sabotage of peace agreements in Afghanistan by Washington
  • Calls for international intervention and independence in Xinjiang under the guise of protecting Uyghurs
  • Clashes in Kashmir, West Bengal, and along the China-India border
  • Scuffles in the South China Sea
  • Continuous sabotage of peace agreements in Yemen by Washington
  • Cold wars along the East African coast
  • More calls for an independent Kurdistan in northern Iraq and Syria
  • Washington-backed coups in central Asia
  • Surges of US troops in southeast Asia
  • A fickle Turkey pitting both sides against each other and potential Washington-backed coup attempt
  • Renewed civil war in Lebanon: one side pulling east and another west

All current conflicts playing out today involve Washington winding down its focus on the so-called Middle East region. China is the new enemy number one.

The UAE-Israel Socotra project is one of the first major steps towards deeper polarization and shifting conflicts.

No hope in sight for Yemenis

For Yemen, the UAE-Israel project in Socotra is yet another stab in the back from neighbors and the international community.

The Saudi-backed war in Yemen has killed over 100 thousand people and injured thousands more. Airstrikes routinely target civilian infrastructure and large civilian gatherings. One of the most gruesome attacks involved bombing a large wedding, killing and injuring over 600 people. Another particularly disturbing Saudi airstrike targeted a bus full of children on their way to summer camp.

A special panel of experts from the UN investigated Saudi war crimes in Yemen. They determined that since Riyadh uses US-made precision-guided smart missiles, the attacks on civilians and children are absolutely intentional.

Despite this, Riyadh, Abu Dhabi, and Washington have yet to face any accountability for their crimes against humanity. For that matter, there’s been absolutely no effort to stop their crimes either. The UN even removed Saudi Arabia from its blacklist of child killers over the summer.

If the scorched earth bombings and violent mercenaries on the ground weren’t enough, Yemen also suffers under a crippling siege.

The Saudi-coalition’s deadly blockade turned Yemen into an open-air prison akin to Gaza. 22 million Yemenis out of a population of 29 million face famine and food insecurity. Millions more require medication or healthcare. Speaking to Geopolitics Alert last year, Yemen’s Ministry of Health spokesman, Dr. Yousuf Haidari, said the last hospitals were preparing to close due to the blockade.

Sadly, with Socotra functioning as a catalyst for new cooperation and polarization, Yemen seems poised to remain in the imperialist crosshairs.

Featured photo: Valerian Guillot (Flickr)