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Socotra island legend of the dragon’s blood tree

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Between Africa and Arabia lies an island of rare biological oddities—one that’s buffeted now by development, cyclones, and civil war

DW-Yemen .It has been called the “Galapagos of the Indian Ocean.” There are parallels, certainly. Of the 825 plant species found on Socotra today, 307—37 percent— are endemic, meaning they live nowhere else. Some of the flora provide resources, like the sweet and fragrant frankincense of the Boswellia trees. Others, like the squat and bulbous subspecies of Adenium obesum, commonly called the desert rose, paint the landscape with color and oddity. The island play host to as many as 11 unique bird species, and over 90 percent of reptiles and molluscs are endemic too .

The island of Socotra is part of an archipelago in the Indian Ocean. It is so isolated that a third of its plant life is found nowhere else on the planet. Notable are the dragon’s blood trees that look like flying saucers perched on trunks. Adenium socotranum are trees that look like elephants’ legs with pink flowers on top. Birds such as the Socotra starling, Socotra sunbird, and Socotra grosbeak are found nowhere else on Earth. Bats are the island’s only native mammal.

 Offshore, multiple bio geographical areas converge around Socotra creating an equally fertile, if less exceptional, marine environment. It is perhaps no wonder that, in eras gone by, Greek and Arab sailors connected this peculiar and plentiful land with paradise. Some even regarded Socotra as part of the lost mythical continent of Atlantis

In 2010 a Russian archaeological team discovered the ruins of a city on Socotra dating to the second century. The island is also held by some to be the location of the original Garden of Eden, due to its isolation, biological diversity, and the fact that it is located on the edge of Yemen’s Gulf of Aden, which many connect with the ancient Sumerian tales of a paradise called Dilmun .

There are almost no roads on the island, which is also home to a collection of caves and a number of shipwrecks.

  Legend of the dragon’s blood tree

Photo By Hayat Al-sharif

Another popular export was what is now the flagship species of the island: the dragon’s blood tree. One version of the local legend surrounding its origin says it grew from the blood of two brothers fighting to the death; another that it was created from the blood of a dragon that was injured fighting an elephant. It’s an odd and alien-looking tree, with thick, knotted branches sprawling out to form an umbrella-shaped covering. These skyward-facing leaves collect condensation from the mists that roll along the cliff tops and high plateaus of the interior. The trunk is thick and gnarled but, when sliced open, it bleeds a resin of deep crimson; the blood, perhaps, of the injured dragon.

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 In a sense the tree has shielded the island itself. The vulnerability of species like the dragon’s blood tree has led to high levels of environmental protection on Socotra including, in 2008, full recognition as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, covering 75 percent of the land mass. The Diksam Plateau is one such designated area, sweeping across the center of the island and encompassing deep, winding limestone gorges. From a distance, great forests of dragon’s blood trees stretch toward the granite mountains beyond—but their abundance is misleading.

The population of Socotra is 60,000,Socotra’s sedentary inhabitants are engaged in fishing, pearl diving, and small-scale agriculture. In the interior, nomads keep cattle and other animals and raise some crops. The island’s exports include ghee(clarified butter), fish, and frankincense. The capital and largest town is Hadīboh (Tamrida) on the northern coast.

Hurricanes and storms hit the island of Socotra ” Storm “Alban” , Cyclone Megh and Cyclone Chapala “

The myriad species that call Socotra home face other threats too. In the fall of 2015 two cyclones battered the archipelago within the space of a week. This was the first time since record-keeping began that such powerful weather systems formed in such close temporal proximity in the Arabian Sea. The infrastructure of Socotra was devastated, and 18,000 people—a third of the population—were displaced.

Socotra was still recovering from the effects of these cyclones when another hit in May 2018. This time, at least nineteen people died. Three such hits in three years is unprecedented. The worry is that with climate change such weather will become more frequent.

The war in Yemen affected Socotra’s sons

Despite the outbreak of a brutal civil war in Yemen. Since early 2015, a Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates-led coalition has mounted an offensive on the mainland in support of the exiled president Abd-Rabbur Mansur Hadi, . After the cyclones of 2015, the embattled Yemeni government was unable to provide the aid that Socotra needed. Other Gulf nations, in particular the UAE, contributed to the effort, but that in turn has led to accusations that Abu Dhabi had taken advantage of the compromised Yemeni government to grow their own influence on the island. The UAE’s quest for greater political and economic regional influence has taken it to the Yemeni island of Socotra The United Arab Emirates’ latest attempt to secure the Yemeni island of Socotra are evidence it is seeking to reinforce its political clout in Yemen and ultimately further afield.  

Yemen’s four-year-long war has not devastated Socotra, as it has elsewhere in the country. The island is relatively peaceful – 220 miles away from mainland Yemen, and is a UNESCO-protected site .Yet this unique island is now part of the ongoing struggle for influence between the government of Abedrabbo Mansour Hadi and southern separatists, and ultimately their backers Saudi Arabia and the UAE.

 A previous controversial Emirati military build-up took place a year ago, as the Gulf state deployed its tanks and troops there. Now Yemeni officials report the UAE has sent hundreds more troops to Socotra in recent weeks, largely from Aden where its militias have significant control .

The UAE is seeking greater influence in Socotra, having built a military base there, installing communications networks, and carrying out other development projects – similar to its policies elsewhere in Yemen such as Aden and Mukalla .

 Arab countries participating in the war want to occupy Socotra

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The UAE has used its leading position in Riyadh’s anti-Houthi coalition as justification to expand its influence in Yemen’s South, though its backing of southern separatists and independent militias threatens Saudi Arabia’s attempts to reinforce the Hadi government’s unified legitimacy over Yemen .

Much of the international spotlight is over the clashes between the Hadi regime and Ansar Allah , and the visible carnage caused by Saudi Arabia. This gives the UAE essential cover to embark on its quest to empower itself regionally and globally, with Yemen being a central target and stepping-stone for this.

There is little unified domestic opposition to the UAE’s expanding influence

Riyadh will hope to curtail an Emirati presence on Socotra; yet the UAE’s latest escalation, as well as its actions in Aden and elsewhere, will probably not significantly worsen Riyadh-Abu Dhabi relations .

Both countries have almost identical foreign policy aims elsewhere.

This could force Saudi Arabia to concede some economic and development rights in Socotra, Aden and elsewhere in Yemen to the UAE, despite seeking such hegemony in Yemen itself. After all, despite the UAE’s blatant moves to occupy south Yemen, Riyadh has avoided directly criticising them .

Meanwhile the UAE will likely avoid officially annexing Socotra, also to prevent a fall-out with Saudi Arabia, while still seeking to covertly increase its influence as much as possible .

Yet ultimately it is still Yemen that will suffer as a result if these policies continue. These Emirati-backed groups and militias risk prolonging instability, while making peace a further distant prospect .

The UAE must de-escalate its militia and secessionist support and join the international community’s consensus on ending the Yemen war, in order to revive hopes for peace.

  If Yemeni officials and civilians can raise further awareness of Emirati actions in Yemen, this could also pressure Abu Dhabi to scale back its influence .

In 2018 there was a standoff between the UAE and the Yemeni government on the island, and Hadibo, the capital, erupted in protest. Ultimately it was Saudi Arabia that brokered an uneasy stalemate. The exact situation now is unclear, but it appears there are three militaries on the island—not a prescription for preserving its environment . Now in 2019, the UAE has announced the withdrawal of a number of its forces in the province of Marib and Hodeida and handed over to the Saudi forces.

We do not know yet whether this step is a withdrawal from Yemen or a plan to evade the crimes committed against the Yemenis.

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