Southern Transitional Council (STC) units have seized the island of Socotra and deposed its governor, whilst simultaneously driving out forces loyal to the Yemeni government. The island, which lies 205 nm South of Yemen, and 43nm East of the Horn of Africa, saw government facilities and military bases occupied on June 21st. Yemen’s UN recognised government has denounced the actions as a ‘coup’ and has asserted that the Saudi-led coalition operating in Yemen has turned a ‘blind eye’ to this development.
Dryad Global do not assess a significant escalation in risk resulting from this activity in the short term. It is not assessed that the Yemeni government has the means or capacity to intervene significantly on the island of Socotra when it is entangled in a multi-faceted battlefield on the mainland of Yemen. Whilst piracy was historically a significant security dynamic associated with the island of Socotra, especially circa 2011, there are no intelligence sources suggesting a resumption of piracy off Socotra, especially in the wake of this incident.
Despite the lack of a significant escalation of risk due to this incident, Dryad Global advises vessels to continue to maintain awareness and caution when transiting the Gulf of Aden. There are no immediate routing considerations required as a result of this incident with current recommendations around safe passage in the Gulf of Aden and safe transit distance from Socotra and East Africa remaining extant. Should the STC decide to hold the island longer-term this may result in an uptick of cross-Gulf of Aden traffic, especially via Aden carrying arms, supplies, food and other resources to the STC units. Such traffic is unlikely to impact wider commercial traffic however the vessels used are likely to be small skiffs or fishing vessels, often poorly maintained and unlit at night. Vessels are highly unlikely to appear on AIS and as such have the potential to increase the false alarm rate. It is also entirely possible that local UAE forces based on Socotra may attempt to support the presence of STC forces, reducing STC reliance on maritime supply chains as a result of their continued control of the island airport.
The seizure of the island by the STC is realistically in part an opportunistic attack which was undertaken due to an acknowledgement that the defences on the island were poor. Such an attack, as well as having strategic and tactical considerations, will also be used to send a message that the Yemeni government cannot hold wider areas of Yemen. Furthermore, seizure of the island is likely leverage in ongoing ceasefire talks, which are suggesting the STC may reach a ceasefire with Saudi-led forces (in part due to the recent seizure of the island).
The STC continues to be supported by the UAE, despite the withdrawal of UAE forces from Yemen following the Houthi attack on the Abqaiq oil processing facility in September 2019. Following this withdrawal, the UAE maintained facilities, including a military base, on the island of Socotra. UAE ambitions in Socotra stem from the islands strategic position, as well as its potential to become a hub of maritime trade in the Gulf of Aden/Western Arabian Sea.