The other side of the Yemeni war: UAE and Saudi Arabia soft-hard power games in Socotra

Socotra Island
An image of Socotra Island in Yemen (Credits: Rod Waddington from Kergunyah, Australia, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

Geopolitical Report ISSN 2785-2598 Volume 19 Issue 1
Author: Laura Pennisi

The Saudi-UAE coalition, launched in 2011 with the initial aim to settle and prevent the effects of the Arab springs, was remarkably noticeable in another conflict, that in Yemen. If initially, the cooperation proved fruitful, as demonstrated by the 2015 Storm operation launched by the Saudi-led coalition, it showed several cracks afterwards. The reasons are several policy divergences regarding the conflict per se and the economic and geopolitical implications that would ensue. The example of Socotra Island is representative of these dynamics.

The U.S. naval officer and historian Alfred Mahan clearly stated that national greatness was inevitably intertwined with sea dominance, both in times of peace and war. Especially in times of peace, a naval state’s real aim should be to increase its naval capabilities and acquire as many overseas possessions as possible, such as canals and straits.[1] Both UAE and Saudi’s overseas policies seem to be well aware of this strategic thinking reflected in their protracted proxy war in Yemen, where the struggle against the anti-Houthis coalition has given place to a race to acquire the country’s most strategic areas.

Several divergences have, in fact, led the two (former) allies to support two different factions, with the United Arab Emirates reducing its forces in 2019 and ultimately withdrawing them in 2020 while increasing its support to the Southern Transitional Movement (STM). The latter, a secessionist movement originated in 2007 and active in South Yemen, seemed to have enjoyed the UAE’s support, particularly concerning establishing the Southern Transitional Council (STC) in 2017. This was immediately declared illegitimate by now-former Yemen president Hadi who openly stated that the UAE was acting like an occupier.[2] What seemed to be an insurmountable problem within the coalition, initially united in fighting the Iran-backed Houthi rebels, were their different perceptions regarding the Arab Spring regional management. Saudi’s pro-Sunni approaches were counterbalanced by the UAE’s more secularist ones that created inevitable frictions on some issues, like in the case of the Muslim Brotherhood and its satellite organisations seen by Abu Dhabi as a threat to the survival of the Gulf monarchies.

Therefore, if the UAE followed a more aggressive approach towards the Mulsim Brotherhood and a softer one toward Iran, Saudi Arabia showed opposite attitudes worsened by the former’s support of the Southern Transitional Council’s secessionist ambitions.[3] Moreover, Abu Dhabi did not accept President Hadi’s support of the Islah Party, seen as an off-shoot of the Muslim Brotherhood.[4] Despite the recent transfer of power from the President to the eight-member Presidential Council occurred in early April this year in the interim capital of Aden and warmly welcomed by both the UAE and Saudi Arabia, their goals remain different. Abu Dhabi strives to retain influence in the coastal area around Aden, and in several Yemenite islands acquired thanks to the Southern Separatists. Riyadh, on the contrary, is focusing mainly on border security, active participation in the political process as well as active economic expansion in other Yemenite provinces.[5]

The geostrategic position of Socotra Island

Accordingly, while Saudi Arabia is focusing on the al-Mahrah province on the border with Oman to ease its access to the Indian Ocean, the UAE is getting hold of the most important Yemenite islands, with the most relevant being Socotra.[6] This choice is not a coincidence since this location is at a crossroads between the Gulf of Aden and the Bab al-Mandab strait, key areas that could be converted into a strong economic UAE hub. The strategic importance can be explained by taking a quick look at any map. The Gulf of Aden is wedged between the Arabian Sea on the east, and Djibouti on the west. It separates Yemen in the south from Somalia, Somaliland and the Yemenite island of Socotra, which is divided from Somalia by the Guardafui Channel. Moreover, in the northwest, Yemen is connected to the Red Sea through the, already mentioned, Bab al-Mandab strait. In this regard, the Gulf of Aden is a gateway to Persian oil, constituting one of the most important sea traits connecting the Suez Canal to the Arabian Sea. Moreover, it must not be forgotten the vicinity of another important area, the Horn of Africa, that offers the UAE, but also Saudi Arabia, the significant possibility of diversifying its economy. States like Djibouti, Eritrea, Somalia and Somaliland are key ports creating a strong bridgehead with Abu Dhabi and Riyadh in different sectors such as real estate, infrastructure and construction but also food production and agriculture.[7]

A soft sector particularly exploited by the UAE is tourism, a trump card allowing the de facto occupation of Socotra, a place where the Emiratis, and to a lesser extent Saudi Arabia, are relentlessly promoting soft power realized through several infrastructural endeavours disguising, nevertheless, geopolitical and military goals. Already since 2015, the UAE has taken advantage of Yemen’s state of war and security vacuum to expand on this strategic location,[8]  although the island is technically under the control of the STC. Once again, geography explains its importance. The island of Socotra, administered by Yemen for at least two centuries and home to at least 60,000 people, is located in the middle of the Indian Ocean about 340 km off the southeast coast of Yemen. It is the largest of several islands extending from the Horn of Africa with species of animals and plants so unique[9] that UNESCO proclaimed the island’s world heritage in 2008.[10] Socotra’s position in between the Gulf of Aden and the Bab al-Mandab strait makes the island a potential strategic military and economic hub and, not coincidentally, the Emirates sought to take hold of the island’s airport and ports. In doing so, Abu Dhabi exploited an alliance with Israel[11] through an agreement to share control of Socotra. This translated into increased control over a piece of the sea seen as a gateway to the Suez Canal and, ultimately, the Mediterranean Sea.

The concealing nature of UAE’s soft power activities is easy to discern as they reveal immediately their limit in covering the country’s economic and military intentions. Soft power activities are several and realized through the construction of schools, hospitals, docks and communication networks that, instead of creating a straight contact between the island and Yemen (which would contribute to the country’s destroyed economy), favour several direct connections with Abu Dhabi. Nevertheless, the UAE’s infrastructures seem not to convince the local population traditionally attached to the richness of their island and supportive of the official government. Several protests have in fact erupted following the Emirate’s decision to deploy military aircraft and several troops on the island to intimidate officials from the officially recognized Yemenite government.[12] Moreover, the encroachment upon Yemen’s sovereignty continues with the relentless tourist activities organized by Abu Dhabi to bring hundreds of thousands of tourists into the area bypassing blatantly the permission of the UN-recognized Yemeni government.[13] It must be noted that the UAE’s takeover of the island of Socotra, through its support of the STM occurred without any Saudis intervention. The latter in fact, despite having circa 1000 soldiers stationed on the island, showed a nonchalant approach defined as a betrayal by the (in theory) Saudi-backed governor of Socotra Ramzi Mahrous. This highlighted a precise policy of divide and rule that instead of restoring unity in Yemen, as officially declared since the very outset by Riyadh, is plunging the country further into utter chaos.


It is obvious that to the civil war that has been tearing Yemen apart for years another more corrosive conflict has been added, a proxy one carried out by two major protagonists and former allies, Saudi Arabia and the Emirates. These two actors are actively parcelling up the country in several zones of influence and are noticeably unconcerned about the perpetuation of the country’s chaotic situation. The persistent focus on military and economic aims seems to reflect the idea of the political and military expert Robert Kaplan about Yemen having “a curse of geography”. The country is seen as an “all important heart” due to its geographical location, which makes it an easy target for the expansionist aims of its more powerful, and apparently allied, neighbours.[14] In the case of Yemen, it seems, therefore, that geography really matters and that if geography cannot predict the future it nevertheless “does set contours on what is achievable and what isn’t”.[15]


[1] Crowl, P.A. (1986). ‘Alfred Thayer Mahan: The Naval Historian’, in Paret, P. (editor), Makers of Modern Strategy, from Machiavelli to the Nuclear Age, Princeton University Press, New Jersey,  p. 467.

[2]Hearst, D. (2017). EXCLUSIVE: Yemen president says UAE acting like occupiers. Middle East Eye.

[3] Quilliam, N. (2021). The Rocky New Era of the Saudi-Emirati Relationship. Foreign Policy.

[4] Faulconbridge, G. (2019). Southern Yemeni separatists tell Saudi Arabia: evict Islah or lose the war. Reuters.

[5]Faruki, Y. (2022). Yemen: Is the war nearing an end?. Ispi.

[6] Riedel, B. (2021). Saudi Arabia and the UAE consolidating strategic positions in Yemen’s east and islands. Brookings.

[7] Calabrese, J. (2022). The “New Normal” in Saudi-UAE Relations — Tying China. Middle East Institute.

[8]Al Jazeera (2018). Anger erupts on Yemen’s Socotra as UAE deploys over 100 troops.

[9]Encyclopaedia Britannica (2022). Socotra.

[10] Al Jazeera (2018).

[11] Werleman, CJ. (2021). UAE-Israeli Annexation of Socotra is Most Significant ME Occupation Since 1967. Inside Arabia.

[12] Al Jazeera (2018). 

[13]Mokdad, A. (2021). What the UAE takeover of Yemen’s islands really means. Responsible Statecraft.

[14] Al Ashwal, A. (2021). Yemen and the Curse of Geography: Bab al-Mandab Disputed by Great Power Rivalries. Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

[15] Kaplan, R. D. (2012). The Revenge of Geography: What the Map Tells Us About Coming Conflicts and the Battle against Fate. New York: Random House, p. 339.

Disclaimer. The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of SpecialEurasia.

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