Israel and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) are reportedly building an intelligence-gathering center on the southern Yemeni island of Socotra.
Plans for the Spy Base
According to French-Jewish site JForum, Israeli and Emirati officers recently visited the strategic island and examined several locations for establishing the planned intelligence facility. Reports suggested that the two countries have already installed some espionage equipment on the island.
Located off the Horn of Africa about 350 kilometers (220 miles) from Yemen, Socotra overlooks the strategic Bab al-Mandeb Strait, a major shipping route that connects the Red Sea to the Gulf of Aden and Arabian Sea. For this reason, the island has a strategic importance and provides a golden opportunity for monitoring naval movements and trade and shipping activities in the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden.
The Status of Socotra
Socotra has largely been spared the violence that has engulfed Yemen since 2014, when Iran-aligned Houthi rebels overran much of the country and forced the internationally recognized government to flee to Saudi Arabia. As a result of the Houthi takeover, Saudi Arabia, the UAE and several Sunni allies launched a massive air campaign in 2015 to roll back Houthi military gains in Yemen.
In 2018, Abu Dhabi deployed forces on Socotra, a move that angered the Yemeni government. Yemenis staged several protests to denounce what they termed as a military seizure of the island by the UAE.
Authorities in both Israel and the UAE have been mum on the reports of establishing a joint spy base on Socotra. But if proved true, the base will be the first manifestation of a US-sponsored agreement to normalize relations between the UAE and Israel.
The Abraham Accord
The normalization agreement has sparked anger among the Palestinians, who described the deal as a “stab in the back”. Abu Dhabi defended the deal, saying it managed to halt Israeli plans to annex Palestinian land in the occupied West Bank, although the Israelis dispute this.
The planned spy base is believed to be used to monitor Iranian activities in the Red Sea and near the Yemeni coast. Shia Iran is a major backer of the Houthi rebels, who control much of northern Yemen.
Iran: ‘the UAE Betrayed the World of Islam’
Iran has already reacted angrily to the UAE-Israel deal, with the country’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei accusing Abu Dhabi of betraying the Muslim world. “The UAE betrayed the world of Islam, the Arab nations, the region’s countries, and Palestine,” Khamenei said, according to his official Twitter account. “Of course, this betrayal won’t last long but the stigma will stay with them,” he added.
Iran fears that a deeper cooperation between Israel and Gulf states could pose a threat to its interests and regional ambitions, although the UAE has repeatedly denied that the normalization deal was directed at Tehran. Iran is already under heightened pressure due to American economic sanctions and the coronavirus outbreak, which killed nearly 20,000 Iranians and infected more than 340,000, according to official figures.
For Israel, gaining a foothold on the Yemeni island would be a major breakthrough. Tel Aviv has shown an increasing interest in Yemen due to its special geostrategic location – overlooking water lanes of the Indian Ocean and the Red Sea, and its proximity to Ethiopia and the Horn of Africa.
Before the 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran, Tehran and Tel Aviv used to enjoy strong relations, with Iran supplying Israel with a significant portion of its oil needs. Israel sent its navy ships to sail in the water around Yemen to guard tankers shipping oil to it.
After the Islamic revolution, the Israeli navy continued to patrol the same waters around Yemen, through which Israel imports oil and goods from India and the Far East.
Israel sees Iran’s growing influence in Yemen and its support to Houthi rebels as a threat. In July, a Houthi leader threatened to carry out attacks against Israeli targets, saying his group has amassed a “bank of vital and important targets” in Israel, Saudi Arabia and the UAE.
This threat came a few months after Saudi oil facilities came under drone attacks in September, with the United States blaming the attacks on Iran, which vehemently denied the accusation.
Israel and Iran are now avowed enemies, and as the Iranian influence in growing in several Arab countries around Israel, Tel Aviv finds itself surrounded by Iranian and pro-Iranian militias in Syria, Iraq, Lebanon and now Yemen. This all leaves Israel with no option but to find a space for itself in Yemen to counter Iranian influence and this intelligence-gathering center with the UAE would give it the golden chance to do exactly this.