Socotra and Little Sparta
While the war on the Yemeni mainland drags on with daily deaths from violence inflicted from all sides and a largely ignored humanitarian crisis, there is a new twist in the overall dreadful scenario. The island of Socotra, one of the most biologically unique islands in the world, is in danger of being taken over de facto if not de jure by the United Arab Emirates (UAE), aka “Little Sparta.”
Socotra belongs to the beleaguered Republic of Yemen; it has a garrison of pro-government troops with no Huthis in sight. In theory it should be protected as a UNESCO World Heritage Biosphere site due to the rich diversity of the flora and fauna. The reason for this is spelled out in the UNESCO description:
“The site is of universal importance because of its biodiversity with rich and distinct flora and fauna: 37% of Socotra’s 825 plant species, 90% of its reptile species and 95% of its land snail species do not occur anywhere else in the world. The site also supports globally significant populations of land and sea birds (192 bird species, 44 of which breed on the islands while 85 are regular migrants), including a number of threatened species. The marine life of Socotra is also very diverse, with 253 species of reef-building corals, 730 species of coastal fish and 300 species of crab, lobster and shrimp.”
One of the most iconic plants on Socotra is the dragon’s blood tree (Dracaena cinnabari), an evergreen that emits a dark red resin long known for its medicinal qualities. The tree is shaped like a giant mushroom or umbrella, which allows it to survive in the arid climate on mountainous land above 300 meters up to 1,500 meters with little soil. In the IUCN list it is designated “vulnerable,” the stage before being endangered.
Socotra is unique in many ways, including its people, which are now estimated at about 60,000. The Socotri language is closely related to Mahri, an indigenous South Arabian language spoken in Yemen towards the border with Oman. Throughout most of the island’s history the main occupations have been fishing, raising livestock and dates with limited exports. The late summer monsoon from June to September literally closed the island to sea traffic in the past. Thus, it has been off the radar of most foreign powers.
Enter Little Sparta, which is a name apparently given to the Gulfdom by American generals and the subject of a major documentary film. The UAE arrived in late 2015, after the Saudi coalition war broke out, to provide development aid to the island which had been badly damaged by a cyclone. This assistance, including free medical help in the UAE, was clearly welcomed at first. But in the past three years it looks more and more like Little Sparta has grandiose plans for staying on the island. In early May Yemen’s Prime Minister Bin Daghir objected strongly to the arrival in the island of military vehicles and Emirati soldiers, who in effect displaced their Yemeni colleagues. On May 13 Saudi Arabia brokered a deal to ease the situation and sent Saudi troops to replace the Emiratis and train the Yemenis.
The UAE Foreign Minister Anwar Gargash now claims his country’s interest was only humanitarian and not strategic. But it is hard to dismiss the fact that in February the UAE-backed DP World lost control of the port of Djioubti and in March the Somali government in Mogadishu cancelled a contract signed with DP World for port functions. Little Sparta is no doubt smarting from these setbacks to their muscle-flexing in the region. The UAE is clearly no Sparta, despite its militaristic efforts. Sparta in ancient Greece, for example, afforded woman more rights than most other places at the time. The question is if there is an Athens in the wings waiting to clip the ambitions of the former Trucial state.