Map of Gulf. Photo: iStock
Map of Gulf. Photo: iStock

The UAE has been a busy little theocratic monarchy with regional ambitions. It has established a military foothold in northern Somalia, where Emirati firms have set up commercial ports. It has establisehed a web of bases and armed allies in Yemen and Somalia as a wedge against alleged Islamist and Iranian influence, but quietly, Emirati schemes have greater foresight.

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It may promote itself as a stable, open, and somewhat tolerant Muslim country, but what does the security web the UAE is weaving really indicate?

Equally so, Emirati media has been trumpeting the altruistic acts of its leadership in Yemen with articles in the UAE’s The National stating, “The UAE aspires to achieve peace and stability in the region; it is neither an occupier nor a troublemaker.” A closer examination can repudiate the performative, magnanimous image; really it’s not philanthropy but empire building.

UAE weaves a string of pearls from the Gulf to the Horn

From the war-torn Yemeni mainland to the failed state of Somalia, both are suffering from Salafists militias, US droning and Emirati interference under the pretext of security against such Salafist militants.

In Yemen, the UAE sponsors the secessionist al-Hirak/Southern Movement, now unified and labeled the Southern Transitional Council by the UAE, and has distanced itself from the Hadi government.

The aligned interests between Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman (MBS) and Emirati Crown Prince Mohammad bin Zayed (MBZ) in reshaping the Middle East offer the UAE an opportunity to re-enter a polarized and fragmented Yemen.  .

As I wrote about the ideological and imperial objectives in Yemen, I mentioned that state-owned Dubai Ports World lost its considerable investments in Yemeni ports, and reportedly, gold mines in southern Yemen and pipelines, when the Saudi-sponsored Hadi government took power.

Abu Dhabi has made concerted efforts to fissure Yemen through supporting secessionist movements and local but loyal militias in southern and eastern Yemen, from Aden to Hadramawt Province

Abu Dhabi has made concerted efforts to fissure Yemen through supporting secessionist movements and local but loyal militias in southern and eastern Yemen, from Aden to Hadramawt Province. Its own military are deployed at specific ports or “pearls” such as Mocha Port on the Red Sea to Mukalla in the east, which Emirati-trained southern Yemeni forces captured from al-Qaeda. It hosts Emirati helicopters, a training center, detention facility and also a small contingent of US Special Forces.

In Africa the UAE’s more subtle work is ongoing. Raids by Somali pirates on trade routes along the Horn of Africa helped draw the UAE, home to the Middle East’s busiest port, into the tangled politics of Somalia. The UAE decided on exploitative and divisive diplomacy by deepening ties with the unrecognized breakaway state of Somaliland and the semi-autonomous Puntland, which seeks a federalized Somali state, by having state-owned Emirati firms Dubai Port World and P&O Ports sign deals with both in 2016 and 2017.

Dubai Ports World has been building a controversial $422 million regeneration project, which is home to Emirati soldiers and a military base, in the Port of Berbera in Somaliland. An unrecognized self-declared state in Somalia, Somaliland agreed in a tripartite contract with Ethiopia for this project in a derisive act towards Somalia’s central government in Mogadishu. The port would be a free trade zone, making it a hub for UAE activities in the Gulf of Aden and would bolster the Emirati military presence in Assab Port in Eritrea, already used to support military activities in Yemen. Each port is being used to further expand Emirati presence, and even regional dominance.

However, in March this year, 168 Somalian lawmakers outlawed the deal and banned Dubai Port World from Somalia as the deal was “null and void” because Somalia had not given its sovereign consent and undermined its unity. The Emirati presence still exists in Berbera though.

Abu Dhabi has also lost a battle to manage the Doraleh Container Terminal in Djibouti in February, after accusations by the Djibouti government that Dubai Port World bribed officials to extend the monopoly agreement for 50 years. The London Court of International Arbitration sided with the company, the terminal and its rail connection that links the Indian Ocean through the Gulf with Ethiopia and the African heartland is lost to Abu Dhabi for the moment.

The Emirati interference in a polarized and divided Somalia has seen infrastructure such as a highway to Ethiopia and airport being built in Somaliland, and has garnered consternation from Mogadishu, ending a UAE training mission there in April and causing the seizure of $9.6 million from a private plane with 47 Emirati officers on board, which had landed at Mogadishu International Airport from Abu Dhabi, by Somali soldiers. Mogadishu believed the money was to buy influence inside Somalia, while the UAE said it was for Somali soldiers’ salaries. Causing further conflagration by hiring 8,000 Ugandan soldiers to be dispatched into Yemen, and 2,000 to Somalia, further infuriating Mogadishu.

The president of the semi-autonomous region of Puntland, Abdiweli Mohamed Ali, as told Reuters in Dubai that UAE personnel were training local forces to combat piracy as well as Islamist groups in Yemen or Somalia. Again, did the UAE consult with Mogadishu before doing this?

Abu Dhabi is doggedly cultivating influence over the Horn of Africa and Gulf of Aden to expand its naval presence by using Assab in Eritrea, Mukalla in Yemen, as well as Djibouti, Berbera Port in Somaliland and Bosasa in Puntland, along with Port Sudan. All of these ports stretch from the Red Sea to the Indian Ocean, and are erecting a “String of Pearls” for an Emirati commercial and energy empire under the sole auspicious of deterring Iran, and the jewel in this string is Socotra.

Commandeering an Eden in the Aden Gulf

The UAE seems to have commandeered a haven lying in the laneway between the Mediterranean Sea and the Indian Ocean. The Yemeni island of Socotra, a UNESCO paradise, along with Abd al-Kuri Island were reportedly (but there’s no clear source) leased for 99 years in 2016 from Saudi-sponsored former Yemeni president Mansur Abd Rabbuh Hadi, who sought to gain Abu Dhabi’s support amid the conflict gripping the impoverished state.

Hadi seems to have been myopic and desperate as the UAE has occupied Socotra Island, despite the Yemeni government’s presence there and without informing the Hadi government. This led to a meeting between the Saudis, Emiratis, and Hadi governmental representatives on Socotra after Saudi-based Hadi accused UAE officials of behaving like occupiers in Yemen. In what may be a mediatory effort or a total loss of power for Hadi, Saudi troops now occupy Socotra.

And it is an occupation, with Britain’s The Independent reporting its writers on Socotra “found the UAE has all but annexed this sovereign piece of Yemen, building a military base, setting up communications networks, conducting its own census and inviting Socotra residents to Abu Dhabi by the planeload for free healthcare.” In fact, the UAE is going heavy on the militaristic side, constructing an anchorage for warships, a gigantic air base, and facilities for air defense and shore-to-sea missile batteries to defend the island.

Healthcare may be a charitable act and considering that Yemenis are suffering it’s hard to look beyond the contrived humanitarian efforts, but by encroaching onto, and occupying, sovereign territory in a unilateral way, the UAE’s expansionist agenda is apparent.

From the perspective of UAE supporters, the country is carrying out important security work in Socotra and aiding the island’s inhabitants who have been neglected by Yemen’s failed government. The neglected rhetoric may be convincing but the security pretext isn’t, especially considering the island was spared the violence that has ravaged mainland Yemen to justify such a deployment.

The Emirati foreign ministry blames the Muslim Brotherhood for drumming up anti-Emirati sentiment over Socotra, but British press investigations cite Socotra residents in protest against the effective Crimea-style annexation of their island. We’re not hearing CNN scream annexation though are we?

The lucrative financial gain of commandeering these islands is noteworthy: fish-rich waters can be exploited by the UAE, and catches can be transported to the Emirates’ markets. The addition of Socotra for UAE tourism operators, through weekly commercial flights and package vacations, also adds to the Emirati domestic economy.

The strategic significance of Socotra can’t be dismissed either as it sits in the Gulf of Aden, between the shipping traffic lanes on the way to the Bab al-Mandab Strait, and beyond, the Suez Canal of Egypt. The island boasts a 3,000-metre-long runway, ideal for fighter jets and large military aircraft to command kinetic dominance over the energy shipping lanes and southern coast of the Middle East and Horn of Africa.

Furthermore, the UAE’s major maritime facility is in Jebel Ali in Dubai, lies inside the Gulf, and is vulnerable to conditions in the Strait of Hormuz, controlled by Oman and Iran. To negate this vulnerability, the UAE’s “lease” or “occupation” of Socotra allows it to establish a pivotal maritime base that would augment its regional naval designs and capabilities.

Such a naval base would also complement its port at Khor Fakkan on the Gulf of Oman, or its ports in Berbera in Somaliland, Bosasa in Puntland, or Assab in Eritrea, and Mukalla if Yemen is partitioned.

Partitioning Yemen would gift the entire southern coast of South Yemen to a favoured UAE, which sponsored actors like Aidarous al-Zubaidi, and Hani bin Breik in establishing the Southern Transitional Council.

Equally, establishing such ports allows the UAE to safeguard its commercial ports against Pakistan and Iran’s development of their port facilities on the Indian Ocean.

The fork in the road

From Emirati-backed separatists wrenching much of Aden from other pro-Hadi government factions and thus pro-Saudi forces in January, UAE proxies in Yemen are breaking somewhat from the Saudi agenda. Now, even though MBS and MBZ are cohorts, meaning the on-the-ground events could be completely coordinated, a fork in the road could yet come.

While the Saudi’s have primarily been fighting the Houthis to prevent an ideological change in Yemen, as it had done historically, and carve out a new historical trade route, Abu Dhabi has been promoting the fragmentation of Yemen and establishing a “String of Pearls” in acquiring pivotal ports by occupation, exploiting the “Balkanized” Somalia, and exerting influence over Djibouti and thus landlocked Ethiopia.

It’s this ambition that could ignite the animus of MBS and sour this comradery, just as it has raised the ire of Qatar, which is aligned with Turkey, coincidently, which Abu Dhabi is competing with for good relations with Somalia and Sudan.

Just as the “petrocracy” trifecta’ (Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and the UAE) worked together until Saudi and Qatari interests diverged, and Qatar was labeled a pariah and ostracized from the trio. Its great rival the UAE seized on Qatar’s containment. Riyadh may be in for an envious awakening as Emirati ambitions diversify and gain, while the Saudis expend blood and fortunes in combating the Houthis and slaughtering innocent Yemenis.

Andrew Brennan

Andrew Brennan is a dual Irish/American citizen who was educated in Ireland. He holds two Master of Arts degrees from the National University of Ireland, Galway. He has experience in radio, research, and domestic television, and also currently contributes to Forbes and Global Times.