Military transport planes from the United Arab Emirates landed on the sleepy Yemeni island of Socotra last week, unloading tanks and troops as part of the Gulf Arab state’s drive to extend its influence over a strategic waterway flanked by war zones.
The UAE, with a population of less than 10 million but the Arab world’s second-largest economy thanks to oil, is deploying its soldiers and cash to create a web of bases and armed allies in Yemen and Somalia as a bulwark against Islamist extremists and Iranian influence, according to diplomats as well as Yemeni and Somali officials.
But backing groups at loggerheads with their national governments threatens to bog down the UAE in the seemingly endless conflicts of two of the world’s poorest countries.
Lying between the Arabian Peninsula and Horn of Africa, Socotra island, best known for its otherworldly plant life, appeared far from the war until the UAE troops arrived, in a landing reported by Yemeni officials and media.
The Yemeni government accused the UAE of seizing the island’s ports and airport. A government source told Reuters that the UAE move was a power-play for “commercial and security interests” and accused the UAE of trying to colonise Yemen.
“They won’t get that from Yemen,” the source said. “Yes, Yemenis are poor but they fight for their sovereignty,”
The UAE foreign ministry, in a statement on Socotra, said it backed Yemen’s legitimate government and sought “to establish peace and stability and to support developmental projects for the island’s residents”.
The UAE has built up local army units in Yemen, increasing its influence along the Red Sea coast, but also opening up a rift with the country’s exiled government.
Across the Bab al-Mandeb strait, through which much of the world’s oil flows, the UAE also has a foothold in northern Somalia, where Emirati firms have set up commercial ports and its troops conduct military and training missions.
Abu Dhabi, political capital of the seven-emirate federation, is moving assertively against the threat it sees from Islamist groups such as al Qaeda, while promoting itself as a stable, open and largely tolerant Muslim country.
It has allied itself with Saudi Arabia in the war against the Houthi group in Yemen, and with three Arab powers in a boycott of Qatar, accusing it of backing terriorism.
The UAE has hired senior foreign military officers to modernize its army, including Australia’s former top special forces general, Mike Hindmarsh, who reports to Abu Dhabi’s powerful Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan.
Hindmarsh oversees the Presidential Guard, the unit tasked with directing the UAE’s campaign in Yemen.
“They are taking the fight to the enemy around the region,” said a Western diplomat.
A Gulf source spelled out the UAE approach, saying it was protecting its interests in the region and promoting development to deter recruitment by Islamist groups.
“The UAE is helping to develop economically viable zones that create jobs and improve standards of living while also providing humanitarian and financial aid.”
“There is a comprehensive Emirati approach to fostering long-term stability in the region,” the source said.