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Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 18 November 2018

I saw first-hand the UAE’s efforts to rebuild Socotra

There are many reasons to protect the cyclone-battered island amid concerns of it being dragged into the Yemeni conflict, writes Peter Hellyer

A Dragon's Blood tree toppled in a storm in Socotra. Mohammed Socotri / Getty
A Dragon's Blood tree toppled in a storm in Socotra. Mohammed Socotri / Getty

As global attention is focused on the campaign to free the Yemeni Red Sea port of Hodeidah from its occupation by the Houthis, with the corollary of a potential humanitarian impact, little now is to be heard about the island of Socotra, also part of Yemen and recently the focus of a special feature in The National.

Lying off the northeast tip of Africa, several hundred kilometres from the Yemeni mainland, it was hit heavily a month ago by Cyclone Mekunu, with a number of people being killed, fishing boats destroyed and large areas affected by torrential rain and floods.

Last month I was fortunate enough to visit Socotra for the first time, taking a brief look both at how the island is recovering after the cyclone and at the ways in which the UAE is playing its part not just in emergency relief but also in terms of a longer term contribution to the economic and social development of what is one of the most under-developed parts of one of the world’s most under-developed countries.

One facet of that developing relationship, which came as a surprise to me, was the fact that links between Socotra and the UAE are not only very diverse but have been in place for a long time. Thousands of Socotrans live in the UAE, many here for several decades, in a relationship stretching back to before the foundation of the federation. The island lies on the traditional shipping routes from the Gulf to east Africa and there is a history, centuries old, of relations.

It is natural, therefore, that many Socotrans have looked to the Emirates as a source of support in their troubles. This country has for years – whether at the level of government or individuals – contributed in a variety of ways to the island’s development.

The urgent need for relief aid following Cyclone Mekunu is being tackled effectively by the Emirates Red Crescent (ERC) and the Khalifa bin Zayed Foundation, in collaboration with agencies from other countries such as Saudi Arabia and Kuwait but the role of the UAE extends far beyond this emergency response.

One aspect of that is in the sphere of healthcare. While the ERC and the KBZ Foundation were prompt, in the aftermath of Cyclone Mekunu, to send relief supplies, less attention has been paid to earlier examples of assistance. Thus, the Khalifa bin Zayed Hospital in the island’s capital, Hadibu, was built in 2012, with a new extension completed prior to the recent cyclone. Top-of-the-range equipment is now being supplied. During my visit a new CT scan machine, still in wooden boxes, arrived and is now being installed. Training of local medical staff is being ramped up while a tuberculosis unit, currently out of use, is being brought back into operation.

The educational sector, of enormous importance for the future of the island’s estimated 60,000 population, is benefiting from a UAE-funded appointment of over 220 teachers, scholarships are now to be provided for 200 top school students to attend colleges of further education in the UAE and other parts of the Arab world, while support is also being extended to Socotra’s own two colleges.

One of the key issues facing the island is the danger that it might get dragged into the conflict affecting the rest of Yemen, which it has, fortunately thus far, escaped. The UAE has provided equipment and training for the local police force, commanded by a Yemeni officer, although those responsible for training have now come home.

Looking ahead, it’s generally agreed that Socotra’s future is likely to depend to a very large extent on the development of tourism, driven by the attractions of its unique environment, which has been recognised internationally by the Unesco designation of the greater part of the island as a world heritage site.

The small annual flow of tourists that existed before the outbreak of the Yemeni conflict has dried up and much is needed to prepare the island for the day when tourism can once again resume.

Here, too, the UAE has been playing its part. Financial support has been provided for scientific research into endangered species of fauna and flora. Studies are now under way to identify ways of collaborating both with Socotra’s own environmentalists and with international conservation organisations to protect the island’s biodiversity, both against the import of exotic species that might have an adverse impact on native plants and animals and against the export of endangered Socotran species.

The future of the island is, of course, a matter for the people of Socotra and of Yemen as a whole to decide. Despite some recent, ill-informed international coverage, there was no sign during my visit, either at the airport, port, in Hadibu or elsewhere, of any UAE presence other than aid officials.

Regardless of the views of ordinary Socotrans about their vision for the island’s future – which vary widely – the gratitude felt for the UAE’s assistance would appear to be shared by all.

Peter Hellyer is a consultant specialising in the UAE's history and culture