Located between the Guardafui Channel and the Arabian Sea, there lies a four-island archipelago, known as Socotra Archipelago, named after its largest island. The Island of Socotra lies in an extremely strategic position, 80 kilometers due east of the Horn of Africa and about 380 kilometers south of Yemen. Measuring 120 by 40 kilometers, the island occupies a vantage position in the North-Western Arabian Sea and commands a dominating position over the waters of the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden as well as the waters south of the exit point from the Strait of Hormuz into the Indian Ocean Region (IOR). Therefore, from a military viewpoint, the Socotra archipelago is of significant strategic importance. During the Cold War, the Soviet Union had a military presence in Socotra, which at the time was part of South Yemen. Considered as the jewel of biodiversity of the Arabian sea it is placed in a great strategic position. UAE is believed to have a military presence there as part of Saudi-led intervention in the Yemen crisis.
Every day, over three million barrels of oil travel from the Gulf to the Mediterranean Sea. Ships navigating this route travel westward through the Arabian Sea into the Gulf of Aden, then turn north, entering the Red Sea via the narrow pass at Bab-el-Mandeb before proceeding on to the Suez Canal. The Socotra archipelago occupies a critical strategic position en route to Bab-el-Mandeb, the most vulnerable chokepoint on this key energy transit corridor. Socotra’s central location also makes it an ideal launch point for interdicting pirates and smugglers.
As per reports, the US since 2010, has been secretly building infrastructure on Socotra that would support air, sea and land operations. In addition, the US is also reported to be using the Omani island of Masirah. This 70 kilometre long island, about 1000 kilometres north of Socotra, lies just south of the Hormuz Strait entry point to the Gulf of Oman and equals Socotra in strategic importance. These islands would give the US the flexibility to deploy its assets over a wider area and specifically out of the Gulf region where it faces Iran, yet remaining within striking range.
As per reports, the region is witnessing the heaviest buildup of US forces since the US invasion of Iraq in 2003. The implications are staggering. The steady and heavy militarisation of this region can only possibly point to the growing US preparation to take on Iran in case of a conflict. This is an aspect that has implications for the resident nations in the region. US bases and presence on these islands would not only aid the US in strengthening its presence in the IOR but also reduce the load on Diego Garcia (Diego Garcia is around 3000 kilometers south and in size is comparatively much smaller) in terms of aiding more strategic poise and in the ability to support more assets. Any disruption in the waterways of the Bab el Mandeb would result in blockage of the Suez Canal, interrupting all traffic between Europe and Asia. Socotra provides an ideal position to monitor traffic in and out of the Gulf and the Horn of Africa. However, the veracity of the reports is suspect as such a development would have caught the attention of the world as it cannot remain hidden for long.
India has occasionally shown interest in Socotra. In 1983 the research ship Sagar Kanya was dispatched to the waters around the island to investigate the onset of the monsoon. When cyclone Mekunu had hit the island, the INS Sunayana held a humanitarian operation to relieve the stranded Indians on the island. The importance of islands in maritime strategy has long been known but has been underappreciated in recent times. Throughout history, rising nations have controlled strategic islands to project power across vast areas of the globe. In the modern era, especially following the end of the Cold War, the acceptance of the established international order reduced the geopolitical importance of islands. There has been an uptick in collaboration between like-minded countries and deepening partnerships with the littorals. While partnerships between big and middle powers will determine the balance of power in the region, islands will shape the new framework for a security architecture. Access to and influence over islands will provide strategic advantages, thereby influencing the response from the other competitors.
Source: idsa, LSE, jpost, insidearabia, trtworld, jstor