The Yemeni islands of Mayun and the Socotra Archipelago have central locations in some of the world’s most important waterways. That puts them in the middle of numerous political, economic, and security competitions with regional and global ramifications.
By Jon Hoffman
Ravaged by over seven years of war, Yemen continues to witness escalating violence as 2022 begins.
Last week, pro-government forces fighting on behalf of Yemeni President Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi and backed by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates seized the energy-rich Shabwah province. After successfully pushing out fighters loyal to the Houthi movement from Shabwah, the loose coalition of pro-government forces continues its campaign in the neighboring Marib province.
Largely overshadowed by these rapid developments on the ground were reports of Houthi fighters seizing a UAE vessel traveling through the Red Sea.
The pro-government coalition stated that the vessel was carrying medical supplies from Yemen’s Socotra Island to the Saudi city of Jazan, while the Houthis claim the vessel was a military cargo ship transporting weapons, vehicles, and other equipment.
Regardless of what cargo this particular vessel was actually carrying, the incident underscores the strategic centrality of the waterways off Yemen’s shores and the islands located in them, namely Mayun — also known as Perim — and the Socotra Archipelago.
In addition to being located in one of the world’s most critical maritime routes, these islands are also at the crossroads of numerous political, economic, and security competitions within the region and globally. Control over them will be a significant geopolitical flashpoint in the Middle East in 2022 and beyond, with both regional and global ramifications.
Mayun is a small volcanic island, just 5 square miles in size, in the Bab El Mandeb Strait, dividing this chokepoint between the Gulf of Aden and the Red Sea into two channels.
That makes it a crucial strategic outpost on the maritime route connecting the Mediterranean Sea and the Indian Ocean via the Suez Canal, the Red Sea, the Gulf of Aden, and the Arabian Sea. Currently occupied by UAE-backed forces, Mayun hosts a recently constructed airbase assumed to be operated by the Emirates.
A UNESCO World Heritage Site, the Socotra Archipelago consists of four islands off the coast of Yemen and the Horn of Africa where the Gulf of Aden opens onto the Arabian Sea, the largest of which, Socotra, is roughly 1,500 square miles in size and home to approximately 60,000 inhabitants.
The archipelago is currently controlled by the UAE-backed Southern Transitional Council, or STC, after clashes over it between the STC and forces loyal to President Hadi. Though both the STC and the pro-Hadi forces are actively fighting against the Houthis, the STC is a separatist movement seeking an independent South Yemen, putting it at odds with the agenda of Hadi’s government.
Despite the UAE’s claims that it withdrew its forces from Yemen in 2019, Abu Dhabi continues to exert its influence through the STC — and by consolidating its grasp on these islands. In response, Yemen’s permanent mission to the United Nations has protested what it called the unlawful “military deployment by the United Arab Emirates of troops and armored vehicles, including tanks,” to Socotra.
Beyond their location at the junction of several strategic maritime routes, Mayun and the Socotra Archipelago also offer whoever controls them a valuable platform for power projection in several equally strategic terrestrial theaters.
First, they are directly adjacent to the Horn of Africa, the site of ongoing competition in the broader regional rivalry pitting Saudi Arabia and the UAE against Qatar and Turkey. (Iran is also involved in the Horn, albeit to a far lesser extent.)
All of these countries have dramatically expanded economic, diplomatic, and security engagement in the region, with Riyadh and Abu Dhabi throwing their weight behind Eritrea, Ethiopia, Somaliland, and — following the removal of Omar al-Bashir — Sudan, while Turkey and Qatar primarily support Somalia’s central government.
Given their location at the entrance to the Red Sea and, through it, the Suez Canal, Mayun and the Socotra Archipelago also offer whoever controls them leverage over another theater of intense regional competition: the Eastern Mediterranean.
The UAE, Israel, and Greece have considerably increased their cooperation in the Eastern Mediterranean in an effort to push back against Turkey’s assertive behavior. This has included numerous joint military exercises, raising tensions between NATO members Turkey and Greece. Competition between these actors in the Eastern Mediterranean not only jeopardizes global trade but risks dragging the United States into a conflict between allies.
Another quickly evolving theater of competition in which Mayun and the Socotra Archipelago could figure prominently involves Saudi Arabia and the UAE. Though Riyadh and Abu Dhabi have worked together on several different fronts, their relationship has recently been roiled by a number of foreign policy disagreements and increasing economic competition, particularly when it comes to ports, logistics, and transport.
Saudi commentators have increasingly criticized the UAE’s actions in Yemen, and the two OPEC countries recently clashed publicly over whether or not to increase oil production levels. As the UAE pushes to solidify its influence over Yemen’s strategic islands and waterways located in Saudi Arabia’s backyard, Mayun and the Socotra Archipelago could become another source of tension.
In addition to their regional ramifications, the status of these islands will have considerable repercussions for great power competition between the United States, China, and — to a lesser degree — Russia.
With the United States seeking to draw down its military presence in the Middle East in order to concentrate on its rivalry with China, it has increasingly sought to offshore its interests to regional partners.
The desire for a more formalized coalition through which Washington could advance its interests served as one driver — among many others— behind the so-called Abraham Accords ratified under the Trump administration and embraced by the Biden administration, establishing or normalizing Israel’s ties with the UAE, as well as with Bahrain, Morocco and Sudan.
As Yasmine Farouk, a Middle East specialist at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, explains, “By encouraging regional partners to normalize relations, Washington hopes to redistribute its defense burden among a more integrated defense network of regional allies.”
Each of the normalization deals has its own multi-vectored logic. But the one between Israel and the UAE in particular, whether by design or happy coincidence, facilitates domination by the US coalition of critically important maritime routes that make up the three sides of what Islamabad-based journalist and Pakistan affairs analyst Tom Hussain refers to as a “strategic triangle” in the Middle East: the Persian Gulf and the Strait of Hormuz; the Arabian Sea and the Gulf of Aden; and the Red Sea and Suez Canal.
In addition to being a vital maritime route for global trade, one leg of this triangle also sits on the shipping lanes through which China — now the Middle East’s largest oil consumer — receives the majority of its oil. Another sits on the maritime route proposed in Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative, China’s global infrastructure development scheme, while the third dominates both China’s sole regional military facility in Djibouti and Russia’s proposed naval base in Sudan.
Should tensions continue to rise between the United States and China or Russia, Washington’s views its ability to control these waterways via its regional partners as a strategic advantage. However, this calculus is rooted in the assumption that these partners are committed to advancing US interests in the region.
That assumption has been increasingly challenged recently, particularly with regard to the UAE, which has pursued policies at odds with US interests and preferences on everything from supporting authoritarian counterrevolutions in the Middle East and manipulating the return of great power competition to the region, to illegally interfering in US domestic politics.
The future of Yemen’s islands will have considerable repercussions for strategic competitions within the Middle East and beyond. Continued outside control over them will prolong the fragmentation of Yemen’s territorial integrity and obstruct any hopes of genuinely resolving its civil war, adding to the plight of the Yemeni people.
And should the current round of diplomatic engagement to ease regional rivalries fail, and any of the currently “frozen” conflicts across the Middle East erupt again, control and influence over these islands could be a determining factor.
Likewise, as great power competition between the United States and China, in particular, continues to escalate, Yemen’s islands could find themselves in the middle of a broader struggle for global influence. What is clear is that Mayun and the Socotra Archipelago will remain in the crosshairs of regional and global competitors for the foreseeable future.
Jon Hoffman is a doctoral candidate in political science at George Mason University. His research focuses on political Islam and Middle Eastern geopolitics, and his writing has been featured in a variety of academic and policy-oriented platforms. Follow him on Twitter @Hoffman8Jon.
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