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Dragon blood trees on the island of Socotra, in the Indian Ocean, some 400km off Yemen's coast. Photo: EPA

Anger in Yemen after UAE troops take over island of Socotra, famed as ‘most alien-looking place on Earth’

The UAE has deployed tanks and about 50 soldiers to Yemen’s remote World Heritage site


Yemen’s government-in-exile slammed the United Arab Emirates’ takeover of Socotra, a remote heritage-listed Yemeni island in the Arabian Sea sometimes described as the “most alien-looking place on Earth.”

The UAE military’s seizure of the seaport and airport on Socotra is an “unjustified” assault on Yemen’s sovereignty, its exiled government said in a statement from Prime Minister Ahmed Bin Dagr’s office. It was a rare criticism of its partner in the fight against Houthi rebels who control large swathes of the country.

The takeover “reflects the disagreement between the legitimate government and our brothers in the UAE, and at its core is a dispute over national sovereignty and who has the right to practise it,” the statement said.

The Foreign Ministry of the United Arab Emirates denied the accusation in a statement posted on the official news agency WAM late Sunday.

“The UAE plays a parallel role in the Yemeni island of Socotra to maintain security and stability, support development projects, and help the people of the island,” the ministry said. It added that its military presence “comes within the efforts of the Arab Coalition to support the legitimacy at this critical stage in the history of Yemen.”

The UAE deployed more than 50 soldiers, tanks and other military equipment to the island on April 30 and expelled personnel at the seaport and airport, the Yemeni government said. The takeover ratcheted up tensions between the UAE and Yemen’s government-in-exile, which is based in Saudi Arabia. The UAE supports southern separatists in Yemen who engaged in deadly clashes this year with government forces.
Dragon blood trees on the island of Socotra, in the Indian Ocean, some 400km off Yemen's coast. Photo: EPA

Yemen previously had refrained from criticising the UAE in deference to its participation in the Saudi-led military campaign to restore the internationally recognised government of Yemen President Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi, which was ousted by Iran-backed Houthi rebels more than three years ago.

The UAE’s Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Anwar Gargash also defended his country’s action on Twitter, pointing to “family and historic relations” with Socotra and its people.

The Yemeni government said military coordination with the UAE has been “absent” and asked Saudi Arabia to intervene with the UAE to help rectify the situation in Socotra.

The Socotra archipelago of four islands and two islets was listed by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (Unesco) in 2008 as a World Heritage Site because of its rich and distinct flora and fauna, much of which can’t be found anywhere else on the planet. Its strange dragon blood trees help create an alien-looking landscape.

On Friday, a Saudi delegation travelled to Socotra to defuse new tensions on the island.

The delegation met with Yemeni Prime Minister Bin Dagr in the presence of an Emirati official, Yemen’s Saba news agency reported.

Bin Dagr nevertheless took to social media on Sunday to question the UAE military presence he witnessed during an official visit to Socotra.

“On [April 30] … the first Emirati military aircraft arrived carrying two armoured vehicles and more than 50 Emirati soldiers, followed immediately by two other aircraft carrying tanks and armoured vehicles and soldiers,” Bin Dagher said in a statement published to Facebook.

“This raised a number of questions, and left the island in a state of anxiety.”

Socotra, which has been spared the violence that has ravaged mainland Yemen, sits at the exit of a bustling shipping lane that leads from the Mediterranean Sea to the Indian Ocean.