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Socotra - Indian Ocean’s Galapagos under threat

Disclaimer: The views expressed are that of the individual author. All rights are reserved to the original authors of the materials consulted, which are identified in the footnotes below.

By Jaspreet Chahal

You would be forgiven for being unaware of the majestic jewel in the India Ocean, where the famous dragon’s blood trees look Star Wars-esque in their shape, as if from an alternate universe.[1] The beautiful island is nicknamed the Galapagos of the Indian Ocean, referencing the unique biodiversity existing on the island, and is named a UNESCO World Heritage Site due to its rich and exceptional flora and fauna, with 90% of its reptile and over 300 plants on the island not existing anywhere else on Earth.[2] The island is officially known as Socotra, and, de jure, belongs to Yemen, as it is politically governed by the Yemeni government. Socotra is 230 miles away from the port of Aden, and 60 miles from mainland Yemen and the Horn of Africa.[3] The tranquil island akin to Caribbean islands, juxtaposes the turbulent civil war which rages with its governing nation, Yemen. But for how long?

When the brutal civil war began in Yemen, the Houthi’s fighting for former President Saleh began the conflict against the internationally recognised President Hadi, prompting swift action by a Saudi-led coalition intervening on behalf of Hadi.[4] The stunning island was not exempt, with Saudi Arabia intervening on the strategic island, located between two failed states, Somalia and Yemen,[5] which raised questions of the erosion of the sovereignty of the island, with protestors demonstrating against the UAE intervention in their affairs, denouncing the deployment of forces in the province.[6] But, around June 21st 2020, the island was seized by the Houthi Yemeni Separatists, who drove out the Saudi-backed government forces.[7]

The power changes and opportunities for legal issues beggar the question of what rights overseas islands have to claim international action. Haschemi, gives the example of Sāo Tomé e Príncipe and argues that the island could call on the African Union or Portugal (the previous colonial ruler until 1975), which still maintains a sphere of influence in the area.[8]

How could this translate in Socotra?

The middle eastern equivalent of the African Union doesn’t exist. However, theoretically, pro-Saleh Yemen could bring a claim in the International Court of Justice if Saudi Arabia continued to interfere or intervene on the island. Or conversely as the United Nations to clarify the status of the island depending on who retained control of mainland Yemen; but in practice the UN would likely have little power to enforce any rulings in the fractured area.

Socotra’s colonial history is slightly more complicated. The British Empire took over the strategically valued south port of Aden (and Socotra) in 1839, but didn’t control the entire modern-day region of Yemen, with the north area becoming independent from the Ottoman Empire in 1918, establishing a monarchy. Eventually the British ceded the south land to Yemenis in 1967, who established South Yemen, which became a Marxist state and anti-British. South and North Yemen dispassionately reunited in 1990.[9] However Britain’s influence in the area wasn’t as far-reaching and haven’t maintained a presence in the area, so it is unlikely to appeal to its old colonial ruler.

Perhaps only time will tell how the island survives and thrives, located in one of the most tempestuous areas of the world.


Image: Caitlin Morton and Megan Spurrell, 'The Most Beautiful Forests in the World' (Condé Nast Traveller, 5 May 2020) <> accessed 20 June 2019

[1] Caitlin Morton, '20 Places That Look Like They're On Another Planet' (Condé Nast Traveler, 29 May 2017) <> accessed 12 February 2021 [2] 'The World Heritage List' (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation, before 12 February 2021) <> accessed 12 February 2021 [3] Leon Mccarron, 'Can Socotra, Yemen’s ‘Dragon's Blood Island,' be saved?' (National Geographic, 13 November 2018) <> accessed 12 February 2021 [4] Patrick Wintour, 'Yemen civil war: the conflict explained' (The Guardian, 13 November 2018) <> accessed 20 June 2019 [5] Seth Frantzman, 'Socotra: How a strategic island became part of a Gulf power struggle' (The Jerusalem Post, 6 May 2018) <> accessed 12 February 2021 [6] Al Jazeera 'Yemenis protest against UAE presence in Socotra' (Al Jazeera, 7 May 2018) <> accessed 12 February 2021 [7] Reuters in Aden, 'Yemeni separatists seize island of Socotra from Saudi-backed government' (The Guardian, 21 June 2020)<> accessed 12 February 2021 [8] Aron V. Mir Haschemi, 'When Disaster Strikes Small Islands the Right of Overseas Territories and Micro-States to Claim International Attention' [2004] 37(4) Law and Politics in Africa, Asia and Latin America 457-464 [9] Charles Dunbar, 'The Unification of Yemen: Process, Politics, and Prospects' [1992] 46(3) Middle East Journal 456-476

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