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Socotra (or Soqotra) is an archipelago, consisting of several small and large islands, of the Republic of Yemen in the Indian Ocean. This archipelago is famous for its natural diversity, which has always attracted tourists, as well as researchers. The political importance of Socotra, too, is significant; as the archipelago plays a major role in international politics. A number of Asian nations and the US have been planning to take control of Socotra for a long time. The length of this archipelago is just 132km, as indigenous people live on the main island of Socotra. The population of Socotra is around 60,000, and about 50% of them are Shia Muslims, while the remaining 50% are Sunni Muslims.
Geographical location makes Socotra an important place in West Asia, as the archipelago is located 500km from Yemen, and at the entrance of the Gulf of Aden. It is one of the major waterways of commercial communication between Asia and Europe. Nearly 30% of the global commercial goods pass through Socotra before reaching their destinations. Also, about three million oil tankers travel from the Persian Gulf to the Indian Ocean on a daily basis, before crossing the Arabian Sea on their way to the Gulf of Aden. From the Gulf of Aden, those tankers enter Europe through the Red Sea. Hence, Socotra, considered as the gateway to the Gulf of Aden, has become an important place for the seafarers. Experts are of the opinion that the occupation of Socotra would certainly help a country expand its influence in global trade, apart from playing a decisive role in the socio-political events of West Asia.
Several countries, including Iran, Saudi Arabia, the US and India, are trying hard to take control of Socotra archipelago because of its geographical location. So far, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) have managed to influence this archipelago a lot. Although Socotra is a part of Yemen, its society and culture are different from that of the second-largest sovereign state in the Arabian Peninsula. The ongoing Civil War in Yemen has left Socotra in dire straits, apart from isolating the islanders from the Yemenis.
The Houthi Movement, named after a religious leader from the Houthi clan and officially known as Ansar Allah, triggered a coup d’état on September 24, 2014 against the Government of Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi, the then President, prompting both the President and former Prime Minister Mohammed Basindawa to resign. The Shia rebels also took control of the Yemeni capital of Sana’a. The US, Iran and some other countries still back the Houthi rebels. Saudi Arabia and the UAE, the two Sunni-majority countries, want to stamp their authority over the archipelago mainly to monitor the Houthis. It shall be possible only if they can manage to take full political control of Socotra. A couple of months ago, the Houthis claimed responsibility for firing several missiles at the UAE.
Extremely severe cyclonic storm Megh, formed on November 5, 2015 in the eastern Arabian Sea, rocked Socotra on November 7 (2015), claiming thousands of lives. Riyadh and Abu Dhabi used this opportunity to influence the archipelago by providing humanitarian aid. The two Arab nations constructed hospitals and launched various developmental projects, apart from making arrangements for rehabilitation and relief of the cyclone victims. The UAE also deployed 5,000 troops in Socotra under the pretext of security, and greatly increased its military presence there by the end of 2018. Abu Dhabi further invested a lot of money to construct roads, build schools and colleges in the archipelago. The UAE, even, started paying salaries of local Police personnel, administrators and bureaucrats. The people of the island were satisfied with these initiatives of Abu Dhabi. The UAE has recently built its own airport in Socotra. According to unconfirmed sources, Israel has helped the UAE implement various projects in the archipelago.
As expected, Saudi Arabia and other countries are not at all happy with increasing activities of the UAE in Socotra. Experts have opined that Abu Dhabi is eager to spread its influence in the Gulf of Aden region, in spite of its rivalry with Riyadh and other regional powers. They believe that the UAE wants to capitalise on Socotra’s natural diversity in order to turn the archipelago into a tourism hub.
Although the local administration of Socotra does not support the venture of Abu Dhabi, the islanders still back development projects initiated by the UAE. One shall have to wait to see whether the UAE’s hegemony in Socotra will be beneficial for the people living in the archipelago. However, the geopolitical importance of Socotra shall certainly have an impact on Asian Politics in the coming years. It is also possible that the West Asian nations will get involved in a war over gaining control of this archipelago.
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