Yemen: As the civil war rages on, the island of Socotra battles with climate change

Socotra is an archipelago consisting of the islands of Socotra (also referred to as Soqotra), Abd al-Kuri, Samha, Darsa and
the islets of Kal Farun and Sabuniya. Part of the Hadramawt governorate, it is situated in the Indian Ocean, south of the Gulf of Aden, around 250 kilometres off the tip of the Horn of Africa. Its unique biodiversity, including its famous dragon’s blood tree, is due in part to its physical isolation: until relatively recently, Socotra was largely unreachable from Yemen during the entire monsoon season. It also hosts a wide variety of ora, fauna, reptiles, birds and other forms of wildlife that are endemic to the area.

Socotra’s population is as unique as the archipelago’s biosphere, and Socotris comprise a distinct ethnic group. Studies of Socotra’s population point again towards its isolation from the rest of the Arabian Peninsula. According to the 2004 Census, Socotra’s population totalled 42,842 inhabitants, although various sources cite around 60,000 at present. Socotris have their own language, an archaic yet living Afro- Asiatic and South Arabian language known as Socotri, that is only spoken on the archipelago and that includes a number of dialects. Though for centuries the inhabitants were Nestorian Christians, following the arrival of the Mehra sultanate on the island the inhabitants steadily Islamicized and today Socotris are almost entirely Muslim, split between Zaidis (an offshoot of Shi’a Islam), Sunni Sha ’is and smaller numbers of Ismailis on the archipelago. Socotra itself has remained largely undeveloped and acquired its first proper road only a few years ago.

Socotra has long been somewhat removed from developments on the Yemeni mainland. Following the takeover of Sana’a in 2014 by the Houthis, an armed group originating from Saada in the North, a coalition of Arab states led by Saudi Arabia launched a military campaign on Yemen in 2015, with the declared aim of restoring the internationally recognized government of President Abd-Rabbur Mansur Hadi. While the whole of Yemen has been ravaged by war since, Socotra, due to its natural isolation, was initially sheltered from it. However, later that year the islands were hit by two successive cyclones just a week apart – an unprecedented development that uprooted as much as a third of the island’s population and devastated the local environment. These highly unusual events were blamed by researchers on a combination of environmental pressures, including – besides the effects of El Niño – climate change and air pollution. Fears that Socotra could find itself exposed to further extreme weather in future were sadly confirmed in 2018 when another cyclone hit, further devastating the island’s limited infrastructure and leaving at least 19 people dead.

Mirroring these developments, the political situation for Socotra has also become more troubled as the United Arab Emirates has steadily established a presence on the island. While initially welcomed in 2015 when, in the midst of the destruction left by the cyclones, the country provided considerable humanitarian assistance to the population, since then its involvement has become more controversial. As one of the main actors in the Saudi-led coalition fighting in Yemen, the United Arab Emirates supports the local apparatus loyal to the Southern Transitional Council, a group that has frequently engaged in fighting with the Islah party, despite its ties to President Hadi. Tensions between the two have resulted in numerous clashes and the government of President Hadi, having previously supported the UAE’s move into Socotra, has since accused it of effectively staging an occupation. As a result, Socotra, until then largely sheltered from the conflict raging on the mainland, has seen some of the dynamics of the con ict spreading to its shores. Local resentment of UAE and its increasing military footprint, as well as its apparent annexation of the island as a base, have resulted in protests on the streets. New factions have been formed, with some demonstrating in support of Yemen while others carry UAE flags.

In this context, Socotra’s population must now recover from the trauma of its recent natural disasters, while political divisions on the island continue to increase. Just as they have played no part in the development of conflict on the mainland, so too the Socotri community has contributed little to climate change – and yet, like other communities on the frontline of global warming, they are now faced with its worst effects. With swathes of its wildlife devastated by the cyclones, development and climate change could further undermine Socotra’s fragile ecosystem – a situation that has prompted the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) to recommend the island to be listed on the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO)’s List of World Heritage in Danger.

This is an edited version of the community entry in the profile of Yemen in MRG’s online World Directory of Minorities and Indigenous Peoples.