Residents and authorities on Yemen’s Socotra island say the UAE is boosting its military presence in the world heritage site as divisions widen among a Saudi-led war “coalition”.
Security officials in southern Yemen said UAE forces had landed in Socotra along with tanks, armored transports and heavy equipment earlier this week, in what is being billed as a new-colonial takeover.
The deployment comes amid widening divisions between forces loyal to the UAE and those supporting the former Yemeni president Abd Rabbuh Mansour Hadi.
Both camps are based in southern Yemen and mostly in Aden as the capital Sana’a still remains under the control of the Houthi Ansarullah movement.
Hadi loyalists have accused the UAE of abandoning an initial cause of fighting the Houthis, saying Emirati forces are instead providing support to those seeking a separation of southern Yemen territories from the north of the country.
The occupation of Socotra also comes against the backdrop of previous reports showing the UAE was seeking to illegally exploit the natural resources of the island and turn the place into a permanent military outpost-cum-holiday resort.
Socotra, located near Somalia in the Gulf of Aden, is protected by the United Nations cultural agency UNESCO, meaning that even the Yemeni government is unable to interfere in the natural habitats and places of natural beauty.
Reports have suggested that the UAE has been actively cementing its presence in Socotra since the very beginning of the Saudi-led war on Yemen in March 2015. A Persian Gulf country rich in oil, the UAE has initiated similar extraterritorial projects in other areas including in Eritrea, Djibouti, Somaliland and the Yemeni islet of Perim.
To win public support among Socotra’s population of 60,000 people, UAE authorities have arranged free tours for residents to Abu Dhabi, while offering free healthcare and special work permits.
Critics say UAE’s tourism ambitions in Socotra are simply superficial and the country is seeking a permanent military presence there while trying to steal UNESCO-protected species of plants and animals from the island.
Residents of Socotra have angrily reacted to the mid-week deployment of around 100 troops to the island. Videos posted on the social media showed that people had taken to the streets to protest the increasing presence of the UAE forces. Crowds were also angry about reports that Emirati forces had expelled Hadi’s forces assigned to protect the main airport in the island.
The UAE was the first country to accept Saudi Arabia’s offer to join the war against Yemen three years ago. Dozens of Emirati soldiers have been killed in the military operation. The tiny Persian Gulf country has also suffered considerable losses to its military equipment.
More than 14,000 people have been killed and tens of thousands have been injured in the Saudi-led war on Yemen. The operation has also left hundreds of thousands in the impoverished Arab country in urgent need of humanitarian aid.