Yemen. The Socotra Archipelago Threatened by the Civil War

Cut off from the rest of the world for many years and preserved from the turmoil in Yemen, the Socotra Archipelago is gradually losing its peaceful reputation. As in all the Southern provinces, the separatist movement has split the population. It finds favour among some of the islanders who have the support of the United Arab Emirates and are in open conflict with those who reject any and every outside interference.

Hadiboh, main town of the Socotra archipelago
Quentin Müller

In Hadiboh, the daily routine remains unchanged. The SUVs and worn-out pick-ups still raise dust parading along the main street. Passers-by greet one another, shout abuse and converse as noisily as ever beneath a blazing sky. Goats and huge vultures dispute the market refuse. Life goes on as usual on Socotra, or so it seems. For since the Southern Transitional Council (STC) carried out its coup here in April 2020, the portrait of Abd Rabbo Mansur Hadi vies on the facades of public buildings with that of Aidraus Al-Zoubaidi, former governor of Aden, notably over the doorway to the governor’s office. Here, on plastic chairs, teenagers armed with Kalashnikovs sit screening visitors: “Before the coup, no child carried weapons,” Ali Saad deplores. He is chief of staff to Sheikh Essa Bin Yaqoot, tribal chief of all the archipelago’s sheikhs.

Ali Saad, Chief of Staff of Sheikh Essa Salim Ben Yaqoot

Raft Al-Taqlee, head of the Southern separatist movement on Socotra, is in a meeting I am told by a man on the ground floor. The building seems empty of civil officials. More heavily armed teenagers are slouching on tables in the offices. On the top floor, two of them are guarding a locked door which they open for me. In this waiting room, once a meeting room, gazes are wandering, pupils dilated by the khat, Kalashnikovs within easy reach. A large flag of the former People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen is hanging proudly on one wall. Finally, the doors open. A man with a full beard and a cold stare, wearing a dark dishdasha, beckons to me. Seated beneath the emblem of the STC pasted on his office wall, Raft Al-Taqlee claims to have overthrown the governor of Socotra, Ramzi Mahrus, “because he had fired many honest and qualified civil servants and military officers to replace them with Muslim Brotherhood activists from the Al-Islah party”. Speaking slowly, the archipelago’s new political ruler continues: “The authorities, under the aegis of the Muslim Brotherhood, did all they could to disunite the community of Socotra. They gaoled 70 human rights activists. That kind of thing brought the people of Socotra out into the streets, there were several protests demanding the governor’s destitution. But no attention was paid to their demands. So there was no alternative but to take control of the archipelago.”

A military coup

One night, at the end of April 2020, two boatloads of armed TCS soldiers from the mainland put an end to peace in the archipelago. The checkpoints, the police stations, the military port, the airport and the governor’s office were taken after a few skirmishes, especially in Haybak, soon followed by Hadiboh, the governor, Ramzi Mahrus, decamped. The coup was a success. “Three hundred mercenaries, who were not from Socotra, gathered on a Friday in Hadiboh with their heavy weapons and armoured vehicles. They fired into the air for three straight hours in order to frighten the people. Everybody was scared. This was the first time anything of the sort had happened here. It was Socotra’s saddest day,” says Ali Saad, who works with Essa Bin Yaqoot. Henry Thomson, a member of a group of UN experts, himself specialising in armed groups, bears him out. “I have heard from several sources that those TCS troops came from Aden, from Ad Dali or from Lahij. They landed from fishing boats in the middle of the night.” But according to Raft Al-Taqlee, this is a lie. “Those are fake news spread by the Muslim Brotherhood. No soldier from any other province came to help us [take power].”

From left to right: Mohamed Al-Daksmee, Raft Al-Taqlee, Head of CTS in Socotra, Ali Omar Kfain, Head of CTS Security in Socotra and Mubarak Ali

Historic ties with the Emirates

The Southern Movement was not supported only by the other southern provinces favourable to the TCS. Since it joined the war on the side of the Saudi-led coalition fighting the Houthi rebels, the United Arab Emirates have been supporting the separatist entity in South Yemen and this in spite of its commitment to the central government and its proclamations in support of a stable, unified Yemen. Moreover, the Emirates enjoy huge popularity on the island province. The ties between the archipelago and the oil-rich emirates go back a long way. A community of Socotra expatriates settled in Ajman and Sharjah thanks to the doings of ... sorceresses. Until the 1960s, Socotra women accused of black magic were deported against their will to the Sultanates of Sharjah and Ajman, which would later join the United Arab Emirates. The marriages of Emirati merchants, come to sell dates and ghee to the local women, established historic ties with the Gulf countries. At the time, Socotra had few connections with Yemen, except with Mahra Province.

Culturally and linguistically, the former sultanate is closer to Dhofar (Oman). When the sultanate fell in 1967, Socotra was attached to Southern Yemen, but the archipelago could as easily have gone to Oman or to the Emirates. “There is no reason more natural for Socotra’s belonging to South Yemen than to Oman or the Emirates,” Nathalie Peutz corroborates. She is an anthropologist with NYU in Abu Dhabi and author of Islands of Heritage: Conservation and Transformation in Yemen (Stanford University Press, 2018). In 1967, at the time of the fall of the Mahri Sultanate of Qishn and Socotra, overthrown by the Marxists of the new People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen, many Socotris also sought asylum in the Emirates. Against the advice of the British—terrified at the idea of accepting in their midst probable revolutionary Marxist spies—the tribal leaders of the Emirates welcomed their island brothers with open arms.

These ties would be strengthened after the archipelago was hit by two cyclones, Megh and Chapala (November 2015). The United Arab Emirates sent emergency equipment and food, getting the jump on the Yemeni central government. “The United Arab Emirates had to extend the airport runway and the harbour [in order to unload more quickly their humanitarian aid] People began talking about occupation, but many were grateful for this aid.” Already, since the nineties, the UAE had built primary schools for the elite—with some twenty pupils at most per class—housing, highways and a hospital, in particular via the Red Crescent and its own humanitarian body, the Khalifa Bin Zayed Nahyan Foundation. For a long time now, the UAE has been intervening officially when the State to which Socotra actually belongs has had a reputation, since the 1990 reunification, for corruption and resource theft.

South Yemeni flag painted on a rock on the road to Hadiboh

In May 2018, under pretext of building a staging ground for its war against the Houthis and terrorism in Yemen, Abu Dhabi landed four warplanes and a hundred soldiers on the island. Islanders in Hadiboh were shocked by this military display and organised street protests demanding their immediate departure. The Yemeni President in exile and local authorities called upon Saudi Arabia to act as mediator. After a few weeks, the Emirati troops finally withdrew. But the pattern was set. Inhabited by lowly fishermen, livestock breeders and small shopkeepers, a part of the island is sympathetic to the CTS promises of investment, backed by the Emirates. These Socotris welcome the idea of a separation between the South and the North, for the latter is seen as responsible for all the civil wars, the generalised corruption, the island’s underdevelopment and above all the total cessation of tourism. Until 2010, the Archipelago was visited each year by 4 to 5,000 tourists. At that time, Socotra was a regular stopover on the Yemeni tour operators’ schedules. However, the government’s war against the Houthis and Al- Qaida’s attacks on foreigners disrupted this growing sector of activity, before it was definitely destroyed after the 2011 Arab Spring: the end of a financial windfall which had provided a livelihood for many island families.

Gradually, the island became split three ways, between pro-TCS and pro-Emirates and those who would like to see Socotra remain under the authority of the central government, at the same time hoping that when the war is over, it would gain more autonomy in a federal system. Thus, frequent street protests break out in Hadiboh demanding the departure of Ramzi Mahrus, the governor of Socotra whose openly distrustful attitude towards the Emirati humanitarian aid has quickly made him the symbol of a corrupt and inefficient government administered by Al-Islah, accused of fronting for the Muslim Brother—hood. A narrative adopted by many pro-TCS activists, quite in line with the Emirati policy of opposing the Brotherhood throughout the Middle East.

On 3 November 2019, a procession of women in black niqabs surrounded the governor’s offices. They demanded Mahrus’ resignation, accusing him of having made a deal with the Brotherhood. The governor is not a member of the organisation, but he does belong to the Hadi government which is influenced by the Al-Islah party. “The separatists claim that their opponents belong to the Muslim Brotherhood or to terrorist organisations in order to discredit them,” is the more nuanced opinion of Nabeel Nowairah, an analyst with the Gulf International Forum in the USA. Mahrus has taken refuge in the Sultanate of Oman and refutes these accusations; “I am a socialist. The accusation of belonging to Islah and hence to the Muslim Brotherhood is brought against all government officials [by the TCS].”

On the other hand, protests also take place on Socotra demanding the end of all Emirati political interference. “I was no fan of Mahrus, but he was our governor, appointed by the legitimate government. At least with him you could have a discussion and exchange your opinions. Today that is not possible,” Ali Saad tells me.

“They have got two Presidents here”

Asked by the central government to send in reinforcements to prevent an outright conflict between separatists and pro-governmentals, Saudi Arabia has established several military bases on the island. Several hundred soldiers are now stationed on Socotra. A supply plane flying non-stop from Saudi Arabia lands every week on the island. A stay on the archipelago has become a routine part of Saudi military service. Some young recruits come here to train or finish their training.

While a few charitable initiatives are organised occasionally, the Saudis deployed on Socotra scarcely affect the present tensions in the archipelago. “They have two presidents here, Hadi, the head of the central government, and Aidarus al-Zubaidi, the head of TCS,” I am told by a Saudi soldier, out to stretch his legs. The base where he is stationed is just across from the central police station where a huge portrait of the island’s new boss has been added next to one of the politically fragile chiefs of the Yemeni State. It was precisely here, a year ago, that the TCS soldiers attacked and captured this strategic building. Just twenty metres away from that Saudi base, and yet their soldiers did not lift a finger.

The former Governor Ramzi Mahrus claims to have warned them of an imminent coup. In vain. “We had learned from the authorities of other provinces that the mercenaries [Southerners] had arrived. The Saudi generals, supposed to be allied with the Yemeni government, promised us to prevent any coup d’état but they did nothing.” A Saudi officer who wishes to remain anonymous, told me the truth of the matter: “We control the TCS here. We have even supplied them with weapons and combat vehicles.” Ramzi Mahrus revealed that he had asked his followers not to fight back: “I was in office as the legal authority, but I decided to withdraw in order to avoid a blood-bath.”

It seems quite unlikely that the TCS coup could have taken place without the prior approval of Riyadh. Did the Emirates make a deal with their allies whereby the separatists could take over Socotra? In any case, this is the belief of the Committee elected by the peaceful sit-in on the Socotra Archipelago, assembling the island’s tribal dignitaries. The movement held a meeting on 25 March 2021 at Halaa Deedom in a cave in the range of coastal mountains. Huge rugs were laid on the ground for the event. Elders and younger men greeted one another rubbing noses. In whispers they spoke of “the occupation, outside interferences and the militias.” A banner was unfurled: “Socotra is part of Yemen and will be forever”. On the beach below, kettles of cooking meat attracted a sky full of big vultures. Ali Saad finally arrived, wearing his red turban. The engineer got a warm welcome. After making the rounds of the guests, he stood up and gazed at the horizon with a worried look on his face. Several men in fatigues, carrying Kalashnikovs, were coming towards the cave. Down below, several police pick-ups were waiting. “They want to prevent us from holding this meeting”, Ali said in a worried whisper.

The cops’ boots burst into the Halaa Deedom cave, trampling the carpets, stepping over several men seated there, stoney-faced, flabbergasted. The Yemeni flags at the back of the cave were torn down furiously. Shouts were heard, tempers flared, all beneath the frozen gaze of President Abd Rabbo Mansur Hadi’s portrait.

Reinforcements arrived, this time in army lorries full of helmeted soldiers carrying heavy weapons. Several tribal chiefs were arrested. Later, in the middle of the night Ali Saad, sitting in his car, discreetly parked at the foot of the mountains, confided in me: “The TCS officers from Aden ordered the Socotra police who are pto-TCS, to come and arrest us and they gave them permission to open fire. That is what one of the cops told us as they came into the cave. Someone answered him:‘ So you are going to shoot me, your Socotri brother?’ He did not do it but that is what the Southern leaders are trying to do, tear the island apart. They certainly hoped something bad would happen that day.”

Meeting of tribal chiefs in Halaa Deedom

In the months that followed, activists or ordinary citizens having criticised the TCS leadership or UAE interference on WhatsApp were arrested and clapped into gaol. Activist Abdullah Badhan is the latest of these. After posting on Facebook snapshots revealing the existence of an Emirati heliport on the island, he had been arrested and gaoled but released a few days later.

However, while the military invasion by TCS would not have been possible without the political and logistic backing of the United Arab Emirates, it remains to be seen whether Abu Dhabi has taken control of the archipelago. What the Emirates are after on Socotra remains very unclear. Many rumours, spread by Qatari and Turkish media or by Yemeni personalities hostile to the UAE, have either denounced the construction of an Israeli base on Socotra or claimed that foreign tourists were arriving from Abu Dhabi without the approval of the Yemeni government. There has even been talk of the illegal entrance of Israeli holidaymakers. Fake news galore, aimed at criticising Emirati meddling.

Several days after the coup staged by TCS in April 2020, Mohammed Abdullah Amer, Ramzi Mahrus’ right-hand man, declared to Orient XXI: “We are worried about Socotra falling into the hands of a third party. The island is a strategic zone on account of its geographical location on an international sea lane. Many countries dream of getting a foothold on Socotra.”

But despite these fears, there is no Emirati military, seaport or tourist construction project under way on Socotra. Emirati military presence appears negligible, and the financial backing of the UAE promised TCS a year ago, has never arrived. On 20 May 2021, Yahya Mubarak bin Hamdyeen, former leader of the Southern Movement on Socotra, posted a Facebook message expressing his disappointment: "What we were expecting after TCS had ousted the Muslim Brotherhood on Socotra has not come to pass. [...] Many ongoing projects have been stopped. Important worksites like the Zayed ibn Sultan coast road which the UAE had promised to go ahead with, the enlargement of the harbour and the airport and the construction of a new service station. We wonder a lot about all that. Why have all these projects been stopped?” I got in touch with Yahya Mubarak who does not deny being disappointed by the new archipelago authorities but reminds me of his support for the Southern Movement’s project: “My viewpoint is merely the expression of what everybody thinks,” he claims.

Having lost the financial support of the Emirates, the TCS on Socotra has to deal with the discontentment of part of its grass-roots constituency. For the past year, civil servants’ wages are no longer paid regularly while under the governorship of Ramzi Mahrus they were. Consequently, the island’s trash collectors are staging a slow-down and the archipelago is littered with refuse. Will Socotra remain under the sway of TCS? At the end of May, TCS leader, Aidarus Al-Zubaidi, stressed “the special importance of Socotra in the formation of the Southern State in the offing. It is the jewel of the South and considered an historic tourist destination.” On the archipelago itself, there is less enthusiasm. Raft Al-Taqlee, head of the Southern separatist movement on Socotra, made a confession: “We are faced with many difficulties. Such as the arrears in the wages of the military and security personnel and civil service workers. The government does not assume its responsibilities. And there is an administrative vacuum on Socotra. A new governor ought to be appointed very soon. But we refuse to accept the idea of Socotra being governed by radical or extremist groups like the Muslim Brotherhood. Consequently, we appeal to our brothers in the Arab Coalition and the international community to respect our wishes.