Occupied Yemeni island could host part of US-led missile defense system
There’s no place on Earth like Socotra. With its dragon’s blood trees and white sandy beaches, the Yemeni island looks like it was pulled straight from a sequel to James Cameron’s Avatar. But the island’s unique ecology is threatened by another of its quirks: it is situated squarely at the mouth of the Gulf of Aden, through which ships bound for the West must pass on their way to the Suez Canal.
As Yemen’s civil war raged, the United Arab Emirates arrived on Socotra in 2015 and, despite protests from nearly all warring factions, have slowly expanded their influence since. Today, calls to the island are made using the UAE’s country code, and tourists fly from Abu Dhabi without a Yemeni visa — a situation that some argue amounts to annexation.
The Emiratis have also established a military presence on Socotra. And, according to a recent article in Breaking Defense, they are considering expanding that presence by putting missile defense sensors on the island, which would support a nascent, U.S.-led alliance made up of Israel and several Arab states.
Critics of this proposal worry that increased militarization of Socotra would entrench Abu Dhabi’s influence in the archipelago and damage its local wildlife, much of which cannot be found anywhere else. They also argue that U.S. endorsement of such a move would contradict the position that it is illegal to take territory in war, a stance that underpins the West’s response to Russia’s ongoing war in Ukraine.
“It just makes any work that [U.S. officials] do about Ukraine seem not honest and not true,” said Aisha Jumaan of the Yemen Relief and Reconstruction Foundation. “Whatever reasons that they are saying in response to the Russian aggression against Ukraine just seems one-sided.”
Jumaan contends that this contradictory stance led to the international split over how to deal with the war in Ukraine. “A lot of countries in the world actually are not supporting the U.S. position because they see that the U.S. picks and chooses the causes that it wants to support,” she said.
Some experts also invoke Western Sahara, a territory that nearly all of the international community says is illegally occupied by Morocco. The United States held that position until President Donald Trump recognized Rabat’s rule over the region as legitimate, a move widely seen as a sweetener for Moroccan normalization with Israel.
As Peter Beinart pointed out in the Guardian, Biden has maintained this policy toward Western Sahara despite opposition from advocates of international law and human rights. “The Biden administration has also boosted arms sales to Morocco even though the US-based democracy watchdog Freedom House reports that people in Western Sahara enjoy fewer freedoms than people in China or Iran,” Beinart wrote.
The White House declined to comment on the story. Responsible Statecraft also reached out to the UAE’s embassy in Washington, D.C., the Department of Defense, and four members of Congress who support the idea of a Middle East air defense alliance, none of whom responded.
Abu Dhabi first began to militarize Socotra around 2018, when it established a military base on the island. The move came with the imprimatur of the Southern Transitional Council, a UAE-backed faction that seeks independence for South Yemen.
This policy also earned implicit support from the United States. Unlike Yemen’s internationally recognized government, Washington has never condemned Abu Dhabi’s presence on the island, and the U.S. continues to sell billions of dollars worth of weapons to the UAE.
And concerns about the proposed missile sensors go beyond international law. Experts worry the growing military alignment could inflame tensions with Iran and damage chances for diplomacy between Tehran and its Arab counterparts. And former intelligence officer Paul Pillar recently argued in Responsible Statecraft that such a security agreement “would risk dragging the United States into conflicts that stem from the ambitions and objectives of regional players and not from U.S. national interests.”
Some also wonder whether the placement makes strategic sense when it comes to countering Iranian missiles. “[T]here are other locations inside Yemen that can best serve this purpose since drones are launched from mainland Yemen toward Riyadh,” said Fernando Carvajal, a former member of the UN’s Yemen Panel of Experts, in an email to Responsible Statecraft.
As Carvajal noted, the people of Socotra largely do not consider the island to be occupied. This situation is in some ways similar to Russia’s de facto annexation of Crimea prior to the current war, which earned some praise among the region’s residents despite its illegality under international law. And this local ambivalence will no doubt complicate any talks aimed at ending the war in Yemen and returning Socotra to Sanaa’s control.
But what is clear is that Abu Dhabi has significant influence over the archipelago and little interest in changing that anytime soon. Highlighting this influence, Jumaan pointed to a recent tweet from Abdulkhaleq Abdulla, a prominent Emirati academic considered close to the UAE’s rulers. “Good morning from Socotra,” Abdulla wrote under a picture of him in flip flops on a beach. “Some of the wonderful people I’ve talked to here hope [the island] becomes the eighth emirate of the UAE.”
“It’s just so blatant,” Jumaan said. “Without the U.S. this would not be possible.”