Soqotra is a place apart. An isolated island located in the middle of the Arabian Sea roughly between mainland Yemen and Somalia, Soqotra boasts an almost antediluvian landscape. Much of its vegetation and wildlife is found nowhere else on earth, while its natives speak an ancient language that’s also unique to the island. While other areas of Yemen have been wracked by conflict, irrevocably changed over the last four years of war, standing in Soqotra’s beaches or rock-hewn valleys, the conflict on the mainland could scarcely feel further away. On the surface, at least, life goes on as normal, with the bulk of the island’s inhabitants continuing to live a semi-pastoral lifestyle, herding animals and taking care of small gardens. The bulk of prewar officials — with the notable exception of the governor — remains in place, while broad patterns of life haven’t witnessed anything close to the epochal disruptions seen in cities like Aden, Sanaa and Taiz.
None of this is to say that the ongoing conflict hasn’t spurred significant shifts — nor is it to say that the island has avoided the political tensions or economic fallout that have wracked the mainland. In many regards, the situation in Soqotra epitomizes the extent that the conflict’s shadow has fallen across the country, affecting even isolated areas that have ostensibly been spared from the horrors of the ongoing war.
While Soqotris often express pride in their societal unity and shared culture, the island’s political divisions can be palpable even in a short drive on the island. Graffitied flags speak not just to competing factions, but to competing visions for the island’s future and conceptions of its past. The Yemeni flag brandished by supporters of the internationally recognized government and flown above government buildings attests to continued backing of Yemeni unity. The flag of the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen (PDRY) shows the support for a return to the pre-1990 order and independence in the south. And, finally, the flag of the once Sultanate of Mahra and Soqotra displays the willingness of returning to greater autonomy and self-rule, in addition to nostalgia for the pre-communist period of the sultan. Many Soqotris joke about the transactional nature of allegiances, which often appear to change as the wind blows.
“It’s a small island, we know everyone,” remarked one Soqotri. “So we see how a lot of people shift [allegiances] based on who’s visiting the island that week.”
The differing periods of nostalgia intersect with varied degrees of historical resentment. In many regards, they are on the level with similar questions raised by Yemenis across the country. Soqotris largely share feelings of marginalization at the hands of Yemen’s central government and frustration regarding lack of development and poor economic prospects. But there is less agreement on the root causes and solutions. Is it simply a matter of poor governance? Is it an inevitable outcome of being a part of a unified Yemen which has seen power concentrated in the hands of a Sanaa-based elite? Or is it the fruits of a marginalization of Yemen’s eastern provinces that predates unification altogether? The discussions certainly aren’t new. But they have been given a new zest and urgency since the Houthi takeover of Sanaa and the subsequent launch of the Saudi-led coalition’s military operations in the country.
The ongoing war has done more than just spur discussion. There may be no scenes of destruction or famine, but if one scratches the surface, the signs of the fallout are everywhere. Prices are higher in Soqotra. Transport on and off the island is ever more difficult. Soqotra’s once burgeoning sustainable tourism industry, a key employer of locals and driver of the island’s economy, has dried up, with flights to the island and visa challenges alike rendering it a nearly impossible to reach destination even for those willing to make the trip. The future seems as clouded as ever.
Mainland’s fighting never reached Soqotra, nor did the Houthis ever maintain anything remotely resembling a tangible presence in the island and, while a number of local officials continue to express nostalgia for the former president Ali Abdullah Saleh, the island and its leadership broadly remained in line with the internationally recognized government throughout the turmoil of 2014 and 2015. That being said, the island’s strategic location has rendered it a prize since the days of the Portuguese Empire. In light of regional tensions and wider competitions, particularly considering the strategic security architectures of key regional powers, Soqotra is incredibly well placed, with the current situation only serving to inflame anxieties regarding smuggling, piracy and the potential infiltration of hostile powers.
In that sense, it’s not surprising that the coalition would make a move on the island — though its equally unsurprising that such a move would risk blowback. Emirati officials framed their engagement in Soqotra not simply in terms of security, but also in terms of humanitarian motivations — particularly in the wake of devastating cyclones hitting the island in 2015 and 2018 — and decades old ties. Indeed, the relationship between Soqotra and the Emirates dates back to the days of the Sultanate, predating the birth of modern Yemen or the unification of the UAE; thousands of Soqotris have lived in the UAE, mostly in the emirate of Ajman, for generations, sending money back to the island and often returning to marry. Regardless, their increasing presence — accompanied by numerous troops and military hardware — raised the alarms of some on the island, in addition to inflaming often-strained relations between the internationally recognized Yemeni government and the UAE. Following an Emirati troops’ deployment in April 2018, the situation reached a boiling point, with the Yemeni government bluntly accused the Emiratis of carrying out an occupation of the island, claiming the Emirati troops were deployed without the Yemeni government’s permission, sparking former Prime Minister Ahmed Obaid bin Daghir to decamp to the island as part of a sustained period of protest. As Soqotris supportive of the differing sides took to the streets, the situation briefly brought societal and political divides on the island to level unprecedented in its modern history, prior to being resolved (if for the moment), in a deal brokered by Saudi Arabia that saw Emirati troops withdraw to give way to troops from the Saudi kingdom.
“The crisis is over,” bin Daghir wrote in a May 14thpost on Facebook after the deal was inked. By May 14th, 2018, bin Daghir saw fit to declare the crisis “over”: regardless of how things may have flared, in a recent visit, tensions seemed rather minimal. Local officials and the coalition appear to have worked out a mutually beneficial modus vivendi; indeed, save a few encampments by the airport, coalition troops are a barely perceptible presence. That being said, ever present placards denoting coalition and government-funded development projects and Emirati flags attest to both the work being carried out on the island — ranging from well-building to school construction — and continued efforts to build loyalty through soft power. Still, despite rumors otherwise, there is little sign of anything even resembling a wide-scale surge of construction being carried out: the two main hotel resort projects launched before the start of the war on the mainland appear to remain stalled. Focus, more than anything, remains on the old issues, most of which have been exacerbated due to current dynamics: the lack of economic options, the risks of environmental degradation, fears of outsiders (whether mainlanders or foreigners) disrupting the island’s social fabric through land speculation or wanton development.
At least for the moment, the calm appears set to hold. But the questions about Soqotra’s fate, and its place within a rapidly changing Yemen, are unlikely to go away soon. The war may be out of sight. But its effects are anything but out of mind.