Al Mukalla: It has been called ‘the Galapagos of the Indian Ocean’.
Such is the uniqueness of Yemen’s Socotra island, nestled in the ocean about 350km off the coast of Yemen, that it was branded a World Natural Heritage Site in 2008 by Unesco due to its stunning biodiversity.
Socotra is the largest island in the Yemeni archipelago, and is instantly recognisable by its white dunes, limestone caves, and giant mountains.
The unique topography of the island also gives it an eerie, other-worldly feel.
For various reasons, Socotra has remained largely untouched—its population is just around 50,000.
It’s not on the tourist trail but the few who have visited it agree that too much human presence risk disturbing the island’s unique flora and fauna.
Excessive tourism risks sending Socotra’s rare plant species into extinction, and lead to the birds fleeing the island.
Socotra is home to hundreds of plants, reptile, and snail species that do not exist anywhere else in the world.
The most famous of these are the Dragon Blood trees.
The sap of the tree is blood-red, and the crown is dense.
Historically, the island was a transit point in the Indian Ocean.
Seafarers from Arabian peninsula used to stop in Socotra to buy key commodities like honey, frankincense, and gum.
During the British occupation of South Yemen, which started in 1839, the island was governed by a Sultan who accepted British protection.
After a successful revolution that expelled the British from Yemen in 1967, the island became part of a sovereign South Yemen.
The capital Hadiboh is also the largest town in Socotra.
It’s home to a small airport, seaport and key government facilities.
The main source of income for the residents is livestock, fisheries, frankincense and honey.
Despite an abundance of arable land, agriculture is not a big industry.
Until just after the Al Houthi militia’s occupation of Sana’a in 2014, there were regular flights from the Yemeni capital and from Hadramout province to Socotra.
Residents also sail to the mainland using traditional boats, a trip that can take up to 36 hours.
Geographic distance from the mainland has also meant social and economic isolation.
For successive governments, Socotra has been little more than an afterthought, leading to extreme poverty among inhabitants.
The small airport was only built in late 1990s; the main towns lack basic infrastructure like power stations, sanitation, roads, and schools.
When the Saudi-led coalition began bombing Al Houthi targets in Yemen in 2015, the national airline, Yemenia, suspended flights to the island, prompting Socotrans to rely more and more on perilous sea voyages to the mainland.
In December 2016, a boat carrying 60 people capsised off the Yemeni coast.
On board the overloaded boat were men, women and children from Socotra heading to the port city of Al Mukalla for medical treatment, education and for travel abroad. After the tragedy, local authorities stopped boat journeys to Hadramout province and, as an alternative arrangement, allowed a commercial ship to transport them to the mainland.
Yemenia recently resumed a once weekly flight to the island.
But most people can’t afford the $100 (Dh367) return fare, given that that is the monthly salary of a government worker on the island.
During the monsoon season, which begins in May and lasts for five months, extreme winds cut off the island from the rest of the world as they make it hard for wooden vessels to sail from or to the island.
In 2015, Socotra was hit by two cyclones, which caused heavy damage to the already poor infrastructure and badly built houses.
Nearly the entire population of the island was displaced as a result and thousands of people lost their livelihoods as the cyclones washed away farms, beehives and boats.
The UAE Red Crescent was among the first aid organisations to arrive after the cyclones.
Cargo planes brought food, medicines and blankets. The UAE built a humanitarian corridor from UAE cities to affected areas on the island.
Thousands of displaced people were sheltered in tents as the UAE Red Crescent mobile clinics provided vital medical assistance.
Months after the cyclones, the agency began rebuilding schools, hospitals, roads and distributed 100 boats to Yemeni fishermen who lost their boats.
The island has recently been in the news as its residents have rallied in support of UAE presence on the island which has been essential in providing much needed humanitarian aid and rebuilding damaged infrastructure.
The rallies came in response to false media reports criticising the UAE presence there and likening it to an occupation.