Features | Security | Central Asia

The Militarization of Paradise?

The Indian Ocean archipelago of Socotra is often described as an alien-looking paradise on earth. It also happens to be of immense strategic value to the U.S. and Asian nations.

J. Berkshire Miller

More than a year on and the verdict on the long-term implications of the Arab Spring continues to be muddied, from the Maghreb to the Indian Ocean. Yemen was hardly a dark horse pick to suffer unrest as a result of the tide of political change ignited by the collapse of decaying regimes in North Africa. Indeed, conflict had been simmering in the troubled state for decades, fuelled by the ghosts of Yemen’s civil wars, tribal factionalism, piracy, gun running and al-Qaeda. And, despite the recent removal from power of strongman Ali Abdullah Saleh and the election of a new leader, the country continues to teeter on the brink of civil war. 

But while the headlines are dominated by incidents such as the claim today that the U.S. military has killed 18 al-Qaeda members in four airstrikes in the country, there’s growing interest from international suitors including China, Russia and the United States over a small Yemeni island chain that is often dubbed a paradise and the most alien-looking place on earth.

Located in the Indian Ocean just east of the Gulf of Aden, and only 80 kilometers from the outstretched arm of the Somali coast, the idyllic archipelago of Socotra – a newly minted UNESCO site – is an integral part of Yemen’s sovereign territory.

Socotra’s relative isolation from the capital of Sana’a has granted it a modest reprieve from the tribal conflicts erupting on the mainland. (Its geographic isolation, interestingly, also means that a third of its plant life is unique to the island). Historically, the archipelago’s geostrategic position ensured that history would lend it many foreign masters, including brief rule under the Portuguese in the 16th century and forced suzerainty by the British in the late 19th century. More recently, Socotra was ruled by the Mahra Sultanate – a quasi-autonomous regime under mandate of the British protectorate. The Sultanate was dissolved in 1967 after Britain determined that its colonial dalliance in Yemen was costing too much royal blood and treasure to merit continued protection. The Yemeni state was subsequently divided between North and South – with Socotra falling under the rule of the latter.

While Socotra has largely avoided much of the unrest of the mainland, it remains a strategic asset for the government in Sana’a – regardless of the outcome of the current crisis. Socotra’s geographic proximity to the Horn of Africa and the Arabian Peninsula has garnered attention from a number of international suitors, and Saleh’s government certainly wasn’t ignorant of Socotra’s value, reportedly holding discussions with senior U.S. officials on enhancing the defensive posture of the archipelago.

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U.S. interest in Socotra isn’t surprising considering the geostrategic shift of the war on terror from South Asia to the Arabian Peninsula and East Africa. While the death of Osama bin Laden undoubtedly advanced this change, it continues to be nuanced, and has been gradually shifting since 2009 when al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) reignited its campaign with a flurry of attacks on U.S. targets. U.S. intelligence officials have tacitly – and sometimes not particularly discreetly – acknowledged that AQAP has been the primary target of American counterterrorism activities in recent months.

Socotra is a vitally important piece of island real estate for deterring terrorist attacks based in Yemen and Somalia. However, it’s also valuable for protecting trade routes to Asia by potentially serving as a maritime hub immunizing international shipping merchants which are vital to the global supply chain. Socotra is positioned as something of a traffic signal between the Gulf of Aden and the Red Sea, and its role in providing maritime security should be a priority not only for the United States and China, but also for regional players Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Israel. Indeed, this is a concern held by other Asian countries considering much of the traffic is in the form of oil tankers bound for Japan and India. As noted by The Diplomat’s Nitin Gokhale recently, these two countries have committed to combine their efforts with China to protect this important maritime trade route.

Ships that pass through the Suez Canal must eventually pass by Socotran waters – fulfilling the most crucial and vulnerable stage of sea commerce from Europe to Asia. The problem is that the Gulf of Aden and the opening of the Indian Ocean are plagued by the piracy problem. While the majority of piracy takes place off the Somali coast, there has also been a spillover to Yemen, and there’s also the issue of the nexus between Yemen’s gun trade and Somalia’s piracy consortium.

Piracy surrounding the Horn of Africa continues to plague sea commerce and threaten the global supply chain. According to the International Maritime Bureau, there have been more than two dozen attacks on merchant vessels off the coast of Somalia within the first two months of this year. Last year, there were well in excess of 300 similar incidents. While the cost of piracy varies by nation, most agree that pirates operating around the Gulf of Aden continue to plunder the international economy of more than $9 billion annually, by some estimates, with hundreds of millions of damage to Asia’s supply chain. The costs aren’t merely ship ransoms, but include macroeconomic factors such as a degradation of the fishing industry in the region, the loss of the region’s prestige as a reliable set of trade partners, and even a drop in tourism.

What’s the way forward? The U.S. approach to the potential militarization of Socotra will largely be dependent on its grander Yemen strategy and premised on the outcome of the current unrest. Now that Saleh has been removed from power, the United States will have to negotiate with a new and surely less acquiescent partner in Sana’a. And the U.S. won’t be the only suitor. There have been reports – unsurprisingly denied by officials on both sides – that Russia is also interested in establishing a naval base on the island. Russian ships are currently docked in Yemeni waters to combat the threat of piracy to their vessels, so it isn’t a stretch to believe that they might be interested in formalizing a presence there.

Similarly, China – which has been investing heavily in an Indian Ocean port in Pakistan – holds a large stake in maintaining a smooth flow of maritime trade to Asia. The People’s Liberation Army Navy has already reallocated resources to protect its interests in the Horn of Africa, and it will continue to remain a player in shaping the strategic landscape of the region. South Korea, which has significant investments in the region, may also look to get more involved post-Saleh. Indeed, Seoul has already demonstrated its commitment to combatting piracy in the region by devoting money and military resources to train soldiers in the United Arab Emirates.

For now, Socotra remains largely a tourist destination for divers and photo journalists. Looking forward, though, the island paradise may well soon become a strategic bargaining chip defining Yemen’s engagement with the United States and Asia.