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Socotra Archipelago, in the northwest Indian Ocean near the Gulf of Aden, is 250 km long and comprises four islands and two rocky islets which appear as a prolongation of the Horn of Africa. Local media report that the UAE leased Socotra and the nearby Abd al-Kuri island for 99 years. The flag of the UAE and images of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan adorn official buildings and busy thoroughfares. In early 2018, Yemen's tourism ministry warned that the UAE had tried to convince islanders "to vote on a referendum of self-determination", calling it a "dangerous step." Emiratis have occupied all the vital institutions in the island, including the airport, the seaport and the government headquarters, and have kicked out Yemeni forces.

Critics say UAE's tourism ambitions in Socotra are 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.

Socotra Island, located in the Arabian Sea and sometimes referred to as the "Galapagos of the Indian Ocean" and the "most alien-looking place on Earth" is listed by UNESCO as a world heritage site. Socotra, a small archipelago of four Indian Ocean islands, lies about 240 kilometers east of the Horn of Africa and 380 kilometers south of the Arabian Peninsula. The island was part of Yemen's Hadhramaut Province but was introduced as an independent governorate in a 2013 decree by Hadi. Located due east of the Horn of Africa in the Arabian Sea, the island of 60,000 people, which is known for its unique flora and fauna, has been administered by Yemen for much of the last two centuries.

In August 2015 it was reported that Saudi Arabia had started building up a major naval base on the Yemeni island of Socotra, which it invaded and occupied during the recent military conflict between the countries. "Hundreds of workers from Asian countries have been deployed by the Saudi navy to construct the kingdom's naval base on the island," FNA wrote, citing Arabic-language Al-Ittihad news’ website. Saudi Arabia started building up a major naval base on the Yemeni island of Socotra, which it occupied during the military conflict between the countries, FNA reported. "Hundreds of workers from Asian countries have been deployed by the Saudi navy to construct the kingdom's naval base on the island," FNA wrote, citing Arabic-language Al-Ittihad news’ website.

Emirati forces and aid organizations have been stationed on Socotra Island since November 2015. Since the UAE entered Yemen's war in March 2015 as part of a Saudi-led coalition seeking to remove Houthi rebels, Abu Dhabi had exploited the security vacuum and tried to gain a foothold in the strategically placed island. The UAE found an island that is very strategically located, acts as a quasi-aircraft carrier in the middle of the Indian ocean and where they can control traffic while giving favorable access to countries that are related to them.

In April 2017 an Emirati airline reportedly launched flights between Abu Dhabi and Socotra. On 16 May 2017 the United Arab Emirates (UAE) said it had deployed military recruits to Yemen's strategic Socotra Island for training purposes. The UAE's official WAM news agency reported that the "intensive" training program included exercises to enhance battle skills, weapons' use, and first aid.

On 02 May 2018 hundreds of Yemenis came out to welcome Ahmed bin Daghr, Yemeni prime minister, and 10 of his ministers and to denounced the UAE's presence on the island. Angry protests erupted on Socotra after the United Arab Emirates deployed four military aircraft and more than 100 troops to the famed UNESCO World Heritage Site. The four Emirati aircraft arrived on the island in an attempt to intimidate officials from the internationally recognised government who were making a rare visit to the archipelago. The crowds were angry after reports emerged that Emirati forces had expelled Yemeni soldiers assigned to protect the main island's airport. Tensions heightened between the Yemeni government and the UAE after Abu Dhabi deployed some 300 soldiers, along with tanks and artillery, to Socotra.

The UAE had been a key partner in a Saudi-led coalition fighting Houthis in northern Yemen since 2015, under the banner of restoring Hadi's authority. However, by 2018 it had distanced itself from the government-in-exile of President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi – who was reportedly under house arrest in Riyadh – and carved out an area of influence in southern Yemen. Residents and activists said that the UAE was building a factory and a prison, recruiting the island's residents, and creating a new militia, as well as buying land and clearing it for construction.

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.

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Socotra - Background

In ancient times, Socotra was famed for frankincense, myrrh, dragon's blood and spices. It is the universal belief of the Eastern churches that St. Thomas preached in Arabia Felix and Socotra on his way to India (about AD 50), where he suffered martyrdom. Cosmas Indicopleustes, a traveller, geographer, merchant and monk of the 6th century reported that the people of Socotra spoke Greek and that they were largely Christian, having received their bishop from Persia.

The famous Arab traveller and geographer of the 12tn century, Idrisi Abu Abdallah Muhammed, al Sherif al Idrisi, better known simply as El Edrisi, also related a curious tradition, which was current in Eastern countries as early as the 4th century. When Alexander the Great had conquered Persia, India and the adjoining islands, his tutor Aristotle, the former apothecary of Athens, advised him to seek the island that produced aloes. Therefore when he had turned back from his conquests in India, he set sail for Socotra, the climate and fertility of which he admired. Following the advice of Aristotle, he removed the original inhabitants and put Greeks in their place, enjoining the latter to preserve carefully the plant yielding aloes, on account of its utility and the necessity of using it as an ingredient in certain soverign remedies. The colony of Ionian Greeks which he established, remained under his protection and that of his successors, acquiring great riches, in course of time.

When the religion of the Messiah appeared, the European colonists embraced the Christian faith, which they retained up to the time of Edrisi's visit in 1154. The Socotrans remained Nestorian Christians throughout the Middle Ages, but since then they have gradually lost all traces of Christianity, except a reverence for the cross. By the 19th Century they were said to practice South Arabian moon worship, at which time the population was estimated at 13,000.

As no Greek or Roman writer confirms Edrisi's story, it is probably merely a fable invented to account for facts that were found to exist. Still it is somewhat strange, that this same legend is also alluded to by Mohammedan voyagers of the 9th century. Masudi of the 10th century says that at that time aloes was produced only in Socotra by a colony of Greeks, who had been sent there by Alexander the Great, and who had improved on the primitive methods of the natives.

The records of the East India Company in the early part of the 17th century contain many notices of aloes being bought of the King of Socotra. Wellstead, who visited Socotra in 1833 says that the cultivation of aloes had then declined, but that the walls which had enclosed the old plantations were still to be seen. At that time, the production of the drug was a monopoly of the Sultan.

The Russian Navy started showing its flag in the Indian Ocean in the 1970s, partly to fill the naval vacuum, partly to counter the American Navy and partly to demonstrate to the littoral states that the Russian Navy was a force to contend with. Since Russia lacked naval bases in the Indian Ocean, an anchorage was developed off Socotra near the Gulf of Aden. Overall, there was a steady increase in the presence of American and Russian naval ships. In 2009 Russian media reported that Russia was planning to set up naval facilities in Yemen (Socotra), Syria (Tartus), Libya (Tripoli), Vietnam (Cam Ranh), among other countries, in the next few years as an alternative to the Sevastopol base in Ukraine's Crimea.

The island of Socotra lies of the north-east corner of Africa, in lat. 12°19’ to 12°42', and long. 53°20' to 54°30’. Its extreme length from east to west is about 72 miles, and its breadth about 22 miles. From Cape Guardafui 140 miles, it is a little more distant from the Arabian coast (about 500 miles from Aden), and still further away from the Indian Peninsula. It is the most easterly elevation of land on a coral bank lying to the north-east of Africa, upon which, between it and Cape Guardafui, other islands (Abd-al-Kuri, Kal Farun, Samneh and Darzi - known commonly as The Brothers — and Saboynea) of smaller size occur. On no part of this bank is the depth of water over 200 fathoms, but between it and the African coast is a channel reaching 500 fathoms. Around Socotra is a narrow coral reef.

The surface features of Socotra are those of a mountainous island. The shore line on its southern aspect is a tolerably continuous one, unbroken by deep inlets or bays. On the northern side occur a few shallow bays at the mouths of the streams, which afford the only anchorage to be obtained around the island, but no one of them is safe at all seasons of the year. On all sides the hills rise with considerable abruptness over a wide area, forming bold perpendicular cliffs of several hundred feet in height, whose base is washed by the waters of the Indian Ocean ; but at other places they leave plains varying in breadth up to as much as five miles between their base and the shore. On the south side of the island is the largest of these shore plains — Nogad — which, extending nearly the whole length of the island, is for miles covered with dunes of blown sand. On the north, plains occur chiefly at the mouths of the streams, and were the sites of the only places which can be called villages.

The internal hilly part of the island may be roughly and shortly described as a wide undulating and intersected limestone plateau of an altitude averaging 1000 feet, which flanks on the west, south, and cast a nucleus of granite peaks over 4000 feet high. The whole of this hilly region is deeply cut into by ravines and valleys. These in the rainy season are occupied by roaring torrents, but the majority of them remain empty during the dry season. There are, however, many perennial streams on the island, especially in the central granitic region, where among the hills the most charming bubbling burns dashing over boulders in a series of cascades, or purling gently over a pebbly shingle, make it hard to believe that one is in such proximity to the desert region of Arabia.

Though at so short a distance from the parched plains of the neighbouring continents of Africa and Arabia, the climate is remarkably temperate and cool, owing to both the monsoons blowing over a great expanse of water. In its climate Socotra contrasts favourably with the adjacent shores of Arabia and Africa. During the N .E. monsoon, from October to April, it is cool. January and February are the most pleasant months. Rain falls twice in the year, at the changes of the monsoons, at which time the stream-courses are filled with mighty torrents. The temperature, of course, varies much with the altitude, and one may pass in the course of a few hours from the tropical heat of the shore-plains to the cool temperate air of the mountain-ranges. The average temperature on the plains in January is said to be about 70°, but in the hotter months is as much as 86°. On the plateaux the temperature often goes down at night to 52°. The higher peaks are, at least in the cold season, frequently enshrouded in mists, and at night heavy dews fall.

Socotra was, from a very early period, subject to the kings of the incense country, on the adjacent shores of Arabia; it afterwards fell into the hands of the Portuguese, who held it for some years, but gradually lost their ascendancy, and the island once again lapsed into its former dependence. Since the late 18th century it hds been entirely subject to the sultan of Kishna, on the Arabian coast, who paid the island an annual visit for the purpose of collecting his revenue, and to listen to all complaints or disputes, which are invariably referred to him for adjustment.

In December 1833, Lieuts. Haines and Wellsted, while employed surveying the south-east coast of Arabia, with a view of connecting the late surveys of the Red Sea, and the Persian Gulf, received orders from the Bombay government to proceed to Socotra, for the purpose of making a minute survey of that island, it being contemplated to purchase it as a coal depot for steam vessels navigating to and from India by way of the Red Sea. Although the island was in the direct steamer route from Aden to Colombo, it was isolated principally on account of the absence of protected harbors. During the monsoon season, vessels were compelled to give Socotra a wide berth. Even in the mildest weather, ships of larger size than the native Arab dhow were compelled to anchor some miles from shore.

dragon’s blood tree One species that apparently thrives in the Hajhir Mountains is the dragon’s blood tree (Dracaena cinnabari). Considered the symbol of the island, it looks a bit like an umbrella ruined by wind, but the tree uses its upturned branches to collect moisture from fog. Expansive stands of dragon’s blood trees occur in Firmihin, in the southern foothills of the Hajhir Mountains. Dracaena cinnabari, or “dragon’s blood trees,” so named for their red sap, evolved on the ancient continent, and later thrived throughout the Mediterranean and Middle East. Although isolated stands remain elsewhere, the largest stands are now confined to Socotra. Suited to the long droughts that can strike this island, the trees are more vulnerable to introduced livestock species, such as grazing goats.

The ruby red exudation of the dragon's blood tree is valued among Orientals as a dye. The Socotrans call the tree A'aree-ib and the dragon's blood resin Mu'soi'lo. Like the incense, these trees stand in thousands on the Haghier hills and a large source of revenue could be obtained from their milky juices. By the late 19th Century, fifteen fraselas, or about 48 lbs. of dragon's blood is considered to be worth 5 goats, which the Arab trader value at 10 Maria Theresa dollars or about $4.46. According to this somewhat complicated calculation, the dragon's blood was worth about 10c. per lb. in Socotra.

Socotra is a landmass of continental, rather than volcanic, origin. It broke free from the ancient landmass of Gondwana and carried with it some unusual—and now rare—organisms. The site is of universal importance because of its biodiversity with rich and distinct flora and fauna: 37% of Socotra’s 825 plant species, 90% of its reptile species and 95% of its land snail species do not occur anywhere else in the world. The site also supports globally significant populations of land and sea birds (192 bird species, 44 of which breed on the islands while 85 are regular migrants), including a number of threatened species. The marine life of Socotra is also very diverse, with 253 species of reef-building corals, 730 species of coastal fish and 300 species of crab, lobster and shrimp.

Socotra is globally important for biodiversity conservation because of its exceptionally rich and distinct flora and fauna. 37% of Socotra’s plant species, 90% of its reptile species and 95% of its land snail species do not occur anywhere else in the world. Socotra is of particular importance to the Horn of Africa’s biodiversity hotspot and, as one of the most biodiversity rich and distinct islands in the world, has been termed the “Galápagos of the Indian Ocean”.

In November 2012, IUCN conducted a mission in follow up to the property’s inscription on the World Heritage List in 2008 (Decision 32 COM 8B.5), and assessed the progress achieved by the State Party in the implementation of the recommendations of the World Heritage Committee. Llittle evidence was found of a systematic management planning framework geared towards long term protection and sustainability. Socotra seems to have been subject to a period of stagnancy which started soon after the inscription. No concrete progress has been made towards establishment of an independent authority for Socotra mandated to oversee the Archipelago’s management and protection.

Most of the 450km of roads constructed in the Archipelago were constructed with minimal environmental or social safeguards and precautions. However, it reported that road construction had ceased since late 2010 due to political instability and economic constraints. Visitor numbers were increasing between 2008 and 2010 but declined upon the political crisis in Yemen.

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Page last modified: 05-06-2018 19:01:41 ZULU