Latest, News, Sections

The Game for Yemen: Saudi Arabia and Washington Both Pitch for Socotra Island

Saudi Arabia and the US cooperate - and compete - for control of strategic Yemen island which controls key oil routes and sea ways.

It was US Navy Geostrategist Rear Admiral Alfred Thayus Mahan (1840-1914) who once commented:

“Whoever attains maritime supremacy in the Indian Ocean would be a prominent player on the international scene.”

What was at stake in Rear Admiral Mahan’s writings was the strategic control by the US of major Ocean sea ways and of the Indian Ocean in particular:

“This ocean is the key to the seven seas in the twenty-first century; the destiny of the world will be decided in these waters.”

The Rear Admiral was not a visionary, but rather a keen observer whose military background and understanding of nations’ political ambitions allowed him to rise above the immediate, to foresee the ultimate goal – domination.

Yemen of course plays an important role in this race for the Indian Ocean. A nation sitting atop geostrategic waterways, Yemen is in more ways than one a victim of its own dormant political power.

Now, for a quick lesson in geography: The Yemeni archipelago of Socotra in the Indian Ocean is located some 80 kilometres off the Horn of Africa and 380 kilometres South of the Yemeni coastline. The islands of Socotra are a wildlife reserve recognized by (UNESCO), as a World Natural Heritage Site. Socotra is at the crossroads of the strategic naval waterways of the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden.

You will note that Socotra allows for the monitoring of the world oil route, offering a bird eye view over both Bab al Mandan and the Strait of Hormuz. Needless to say that this one island has been coveted by more than just one empire … and though the US staked its claim on Yemen long ago, it is Saudi Arabia today which could soon succeed where others have failed.

Among Washington’s strategic objectives has always been the militarization of major sea ways.  This particular strategic waterway links the Mediterranean to South Asia and the Far East, through the Suez Canal, the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden.

It is a major transit route for oil tankers. A large share of China’s industrial exports to Western Europe transits through this strategic waterway. Maritime trade from East and Southern Africa to Western Europe also transits within proximity of Socotra, through the Gulf of Aden and the Red Sea.

Militarily speaking Socotra stands a perfect vantage point. It was Amjed Jaaved who wrote in 2009 for the Pakistan Observer:

“The [Indian] Ocean is a major sea lane connecting the Middle East, East Asia and Africa with Europe and the Americas. It has four crucial access waterways facilitating international maritime trade, that is the Suez Canal in Egypt, Bab-el-Mandeb (bordering Djibouti and Yemen), Straits of Hormuz (bordering Iran and Oman), and Straits of Malacca (bordering Indonesia and Malaysia). These ‘chokepoints’ are critical to world oil trade as huge amounts of oil pass through them.”

Readers might be interested to know that some 3000 km away from Socotra lies an important military base: the US naval base of Diego Garcia – among America’s largest overseas military facilities.

The missing link in America’s arsenal, Washington was not exactly about to let go of Yemen’s island – territorial sovereignty or not, Socotra would have to be brought into the fold of America’s imperialism … only to be swept off by Saudi Arabia’s very own.

History it happens does not lack irony.

Let’s backtrack to January 2010 – then America was, we were told, coming to terms with the foiled Detroit Christmas bomb attack on Northwest flight 253 … America was scared, the world was calling for answers to its security questions, and of course, Washington neocons were on the prowl for fresh meat.

Need I say that Socotra acted as the proverbial lamb for the slaughter.

On January 2nd, 2010, a high-powered meeting took place between then-President Ali Abdullah Saleh and US General David Petraeus, Commander of the US Central Command.

The Saleh-Petraeus meeting was casually presented by the media as a timely response to the foiled Detroit Christmas bomb attack.   Of course America was in Yemen to guarantee the integrity of its territories – never to expand its military footprint in Southern Arabia! That would be insanity right?!

Can you see where I’m going with this? While I will not play into any conspiracy theory, we cannot deny that Terror’s timing, and its propensity to move in those areas most geostrategically crucial, have had a way of playing to the advantage of our friends in Washington.  Whether by design or opportunism, Washington has played both terror and radicalism to the tune of its own imperialism. I would imagine by now that we can all agree on this?

So there they were: Yemen’s head of state and the powerful US general, playing chess at the expense of Yemen’s territorial integrity.

The meeting, the story goes, had apparently been scheduled on an ad hoc basis as a means of coordinating counter-terrorism initiatives directed against “Al Qaeda in Yemen”, including “the use [of] American drones and missiles on Yemen lands.”

Several reports, however, confirmed that the Saleh-Petraeus meetings were intent upon redefining US military involvement in Yemen, including the establishment of a full-fledged military base on the island of Socotra.

Yemen’s president Ali Abdullah Saleh was reported to have “surrendered Socotra to the Americans who would set up a military base, pointing out that U.S. officials and the Yemeni government agreed to set up a military base in Socotra to counter pirates and al-Qaeda.”

Have you ever wondered how President Saleh became America’s bulwark against terrorism? It was the title the US bestowed upon him! Have you ever wondered why Saleh ever agreed to open Yemen’s land to a foreign power? As often happens in politics: money, and the promise of political longevity.

A day before Gen. Petraeus and President Saleh met mainstream media reported that the US general had announced during a press conference in Baghdad that America’s “security assistance” to Yemen would double from $70 million to a whopping $150 million.

This doubling of military aid to Yemen was presented to World public opinion as a response to the Detroit bomb incident, which allegedly had been ordered by al-Qaeda operatives in Yemen.

Subtitles should then have read that Washington purchased a military lease on the island of Socotra!

The establishment of an air force base on the island of Socotra was described by the US media as part of the “Global war on Terrorism”:

“Among the new programs, Saleh and Petraeus agreed to allow the use of American aircraft, perhaps drones, as well as “seaborne missiles”–as long as the operations have prior approval from the Yemenis, according to a senior Yemeni official who requested anonymity when speaking about sensitive subjects. US officials say the island of Socotra, 200 miles off the Yemeni coast, will be beefed up from a small airstrip [under the jurisdiction of the Yemeni military] to a full base in order to support the larger aid program as well as battle Somali pirates. Petraeus is also trying to provide the Yemeni forces with basic equipment such as up-armoured Humvees and possibly more helicopters.”

Back then the US was already planning to develop Socotra into an important naval base – the military sentinel Washington always dreamt of but could never really pull off by lack of political opportunity.

No? What about this: a few days prior to the Petraeus-Saleh discussions, the Yemeni cabinet approved a US$14 million loan by Kuwait Fund for Arab Economic Development (KFAED) in support of the development of Socotra’s seaport project.

Yemen was all set up to meet America’s demands in exchange for political patronage.

Not exactly alone are we … playing the Game that is

If America has long coveted Southern Arabia for the openings it offers on Africa, the Middle East and of course Asia, the US is not the only power around to have woken up to the importance of Yemen.

Just like Afghanistan saw a great many empires fight over its land-locked territories, so Yemen would experience that too, finding out what it means to stand as a geo-political jewel amongst giants.

This Great Game over Yemen’s waterways dates back to the Soviet era, when Moscow ruled with an iron hand over Socotra and South Yemen. Just like Yemen, or rather, South Yemen, was a pawn in the Cold War between America and the Soviet Union, so unified Yemen still stands as a conquest to be had.

An old Soviet tank – the Soviet Union had military facilities operating on the island during the days of the Cold War.

Petraeus was not the only military official courting Yemen this January 2010. A Russian Navy communiqué in January 25, 2010

“…..confirmed that Russia did not give up its plans to have bases for its ships… on Socotra island.”

Russia lost to the US.  President Saleh was not at that time ready to pull the plug on his American “alliance” and risk losing the power house he had spent decades building around his family.

But selling out to America only served to delay the inevitable.  Quite literally stuck in between a rock and a hard place: imperial America and imperial Saudi Arabia; Yemen stood no chance.

Still, Yemen was not about to throw in the towel … It is in resistance Yemen eventually found itself a path.  Only through resistance could Yemen carve a way forward.

To borrow former World Bank official Peter Koenig’s words: 

“….domination of Yemen is an important step in the Zionist-Anglo-Saxon Empire’s path towards world hegemony. Like Ukraine, Yemen is just another square on the geopolitical chess board which the exceptional nation aims to dominate.”

Today Saudi Arabia accounts among those exceptional nations.

And if the US military coveted Socotra – and Yemen for that matter – a decade before Gen. Petraeus’s coveted catch, it is Riyadh today which is set to reap what Washington sowed.

In 1999, Socotra was chosen “as a site upon which the United States planned to build a signal intelligence system….” Yemeni opposition news media reported that “Yemen’s administration had agreed to allow the U.S. military access to both a port and an airport on Socotra.” According to the opposition daily Al-Haq, “a new civilian airport built on Socotra to promote tourism had conveniently been constructed in accordance with U.S. military specifications.” (Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pennsylvania), October 18, 2000)

Allow me to elaborate by pointing out some interesting queries.

Have you ever wondered why the US would stand side by side with Saudi Arabia against Yemen, while Washington exerted so much efforts brokering peace in the impoverished nation in the first place? I would argue the US does not want to see the fruits of its labour in Socotra and Southern Yemen lost.

I would argue that it was Washington’s overt dependence on Saudi Arabia to “look after” its interests in southern Arabia which has created this political mess.  A new exceptional power is rising to the table where empires come to rest.   The Saudi Kingdom propelled itself ahead of the flock, a grand master over its former master.

Like I said … history does not lack irony.

Forget America’s military footprint … Riyadh is now on the prowl – a very oil wealthy, and lobby strong Riyadh!

Here is how Abdul Sattar Ghazali, the Chief Editor of the Journal of America summarized the situation:

“The Bab el-Mandeb Strait is a chokepoint between the Horn of Africa and the Middle East, and it is a strategic link between the Mediterranean Sea and the Indian Ocean. The strait is located between Yemen, Djibouti, and Eritrea, and connects the Red Sea with the Gulf of Aden and the Arabian Sea. Most exports from the Persian Gulf that transit the Suez Canal and SUMED Pipeline also pass through Bab el-Mandeb.

An estimated 3.8 million bbl/d of crude oil and refined petroleum products flowed through this waterway in 2013 toward Europe, the United States, and Asia, an increase from 2.9 million bbl/d in 2009. Oil shipped through the strait decreased by almost one-third in 2009 because of the global economic downturn and the decline in northbound oil shipments to Europe. Northbound oil shipments increased through Bab el-Mandeb Strait in 2013, and more than half of the traffic, about 2.1 million bbl/d, moved northbound to the Suez Canal and SUMED Pipeline.

The Bab el-Mandeb Strait is 18 miles wide at its narrowest point, limiting tanker traffic to two 2-mile-wide channels for inbound and outbound shipments. Closure of the Bab el-Mandeb could keep tankers from the Persian Gulf from reaching the Suez Canal or SUMED Pipeline, diverting them around the southern tip of Africa, adding to transit time and cost. In addition, European and North African southbound oil flows could no longer take the most direct route to Asian markets via the Suez Canal and Bab el-Mandeb.

Any hostile air or sea presence in Yemen could threaten the entire traffic through the Suez Canal, as well as a daily flow of oil and petroleum products that the EIA estimates increased from 2.9 mmb/d in 2009 to 3.8 mmb/d in 2013. Such a threat also can be largely covert or indirect. Libya demonstrated this under Qaddafi when he had a cargo ship drop mines in the Red Sea.”

But what Saudi Arabia you may say?

Well Saudi Arabia has been a keen student of the United States of America when it comes to playing its partners’ weaknesses to weave its own imperial web.

A monarchy without a military, Riyadh was nevertheless able to force nations to do its bidding – chequebook in hand and political threat on the lips. These days, few are the powers who dare to oppose al-Saud’s political will. I would say that the United Nations’ latest run in with the Kingdom this June 2016 firmly anchored that ship.

In February 2016 Press TV ran a report in which it confirmed that resigned Yemeni President Abdo Rabbo Mansour Hadi has leased Socotra to the UAE for a period of 99 years, hoping to encourage Abu Dhabi to support his claim on power.

“Abdo Rabbo Mansur Hadi has offered the Indian Ocean isle to the UAE in an attempt to get Abu Dhabi’s support amid the ongoing conflict in Yemen, the Lebanese al-Mayadeen satellite television channel reported. The report, however, did not elaborate on details of the development. Other reports have suggested that Socotra may come under the US control. The Yemeni island will reportedly be hired for the investments of touristic, economic and navigation fields.”

Through the UAE, Saudi Arabia clearly entered the fray.

Why use the UAE? Because Abu Dhabi needs Yemen on a tight leash if Dubai is to remain the sheikhdom’s golden calf. Let’s not pretend that Southern Yemen would easily rival Dubai given half a chance at growth …

By all accounts Saudi Arabia’s war against Yemen is playing into very important political lay lines – which if we are not careful could soon re-arrange a map of the region we won’t be too happy to look at.

The author is the Programs Director for the Shafaqna Institute for Middle Eastern Studies and the author of Arabia’s Rising – Under The Banner Of The First Imam.  She is currently a columnist for RT, a TV & radio commentator for RT, Press TV, Sputnik, and CCTV.  She has also written for Ayatollah Khameini’s website, al-Akhbar, Epic Times, NEO, Katehon think tank, Mintpress, Foreign Policy Journal and many others.

Previous ArticleNext Article