Socotra is one of the most biodiverse parts of the planet and is an island located in the Indian Ocean that is dejure part of the Republic of Yemen, but now has a slightly more complex political nature. Known as a haven from the Yemeni Civil War it is now proving s hugely popular tourist destination. This is the ultimate Socotra guide for 2022.
What is the ancient history of Socotra?
Local tradition states that the Christians arrived via Ethiopia in the 3d century AD, with the Ethiopians conquering the island in 880 AD and consecrating an Orthodox Bishop for the island.
The Ethiopians were later dislodged by a large armada sent by Imam Al-Salt bin Malik of Oman, but right up until the time of Marco Polo it was reported that the inhabitants remained Christian, although while also practising their own “magical traditions”, although these were frowned upon by the archbishop.
In the 1500’s a Portuguese fleet commanded by Trsitan Da Cunha (who later had an island named after himself) arrived and set up a garrison, but it was not to last with the Mahra Sultans of Eastern Yemen taking over the island and largely converting the inhabitants to Islam. It was though later reported that some tribes in central Socotra still practised Christianity, although having been isolated for so long, their religious interpretation of the bible had become somewhat muddied.
To read about Tristan Da Cunha Island click here.
In 1834 the infamous East India Company arrived and while failing to make a decent port, or much headway tried to convince the ruling Sultan to sell them the island, he refused, but the British were later to take effective control after the capture of Aden in South Yemen. This “control” was basically a letter stating that Aden would not sell the island to anyone, except the British. This was though also accompanied by a yearly payment to the Sultan as well as various other “incentives”.
As the world got closer to World War One the British fearful of German presence in the area made Socotra a full protectorate in 1886, which forbid the Sultan to conclude any treaties about the island without specific British consent. For all intents Socotra was now very much part of the British Empire.
Socotra Guide – Independence and the Cold War period
In 1959 the The Federation of the Emirates of the South was formed by the British as a prelude to independence for what would later become south Yemen, ironically in a similar model to what the United Arab Emirates (UAE) would become.
In 1962 this was to morph into the Federation of South Arabia, which was joined by Aden in 1963 and by the Upper Aulaqi Sultanate in 1964 thus creating a 17 “state” union fully part of the Commonwealth, with it even sending a team to the games of 1966 in Jamaica.
This was all to change in 1967 though when a popular communist revolution created the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen (Arabic: جمهورية اليمن الديمقراطية الشعبية), or quite simply Democratic Yemen. This put it squarely in the Soviet Bloc, being the only communist state in the Middle-East, although there were other socialist states, including North Yemen, although they followed Nasserism, or Baathism, rather than orthodox Marxism-Leninism.
To read about Nasserism click here.
After World War One, northern Yemen became an independent state as the Mutawakkilite Kingdom of Yemen. This lasted until 1962 when Nasser inspired rebels deposed the King and the North Yemen Civil War started, with Egypt supporting the revolutionaries and Saudi Arabia supporting the Royalists. Despite predating the conflict this has often being referred to as Egypt’s Vietnam and the conflict raged until the final royal assault failed in 1970.
Socotra and the Soviet Years
Despite the war in Northern Yemen, South Yemen and Socotra in particular remained fairly peaceful and out of the conflict, with this remoteness also coming into play later on for the island on numerous occasions. In both the Yemeni wars (between north and south) of 1972 and 1979 the island remanned largely untouched and under the control of the communist government.
The island was also considered a major asset by the Soviet Union who used Socotra as a supply and supporting base for its operations in the Indian Ocean between 1971 and 1985, such to the benefit of the local population.
Unlike other socialist states South Yemen never suffered from a lack of housing and despite some turbulence for the socialist state many including those from Socotra see it as a relative golden period.
To read about Socialist countries click here.
After the fall of the Berlin Wall and the dying breaths of the USSR the two Yemen’s finally agreed to reunification in 1990, but unlike their counterparts in Germany things did not exactly go to plan.
Unlike in Germany where the communist German Democratic Republic was absorbed by the Federal Republic Germany, Yemen was supposed to be a unification rather than an annexation. This was to mean the end of the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen (South Yemen) and the Yemen Arab Republic (North Yemen) both ceasing as entities and becoming a new country the Republic of Yemen.
To read about the Confederal Republic of Koryo click here.
It was though soon to prove not so much the case and by 1993 there were already tensions in the united Yemen, tensions which would lead to open conflict in the Yemeni Civil War of 1996. During this time Socotran allegiance was largely with their southern brethren, although again they were spared the worst of the conflict.
Fowling the most recent Yemeni Civil War Socotra was to remain at least officials part of the internationally recognized Republic of Yemen until the events of 2015 when cyclone Chapala and cyclone Megh struck.
This was to lead to a Gulf Cooperation Council intervention officially to help the often overlooked island, withe the face being largely led by the United Arab Emirates UAE), who by 2018 had taken over the seaport and airport and set up a military base backed by Saudi Arabia.
It was also during this time that the UAE were accused of sending separatist forces forces to the island from the Southern Transitional Council. Whether true, or not Yemeni army regiments on the island eventually “defected” to the Southern Transitional Council (who are backed by the UAE), which led to military “advisors“ being sent alongside the military from the UAE who were already there.
So who owns Socotra?
Internationally Socotra is recognized as being part of the Republic of Yemen. Locally it is in theory run by the secessionist and Saudi/UAE backed Southern Transitional Council.
In reality though many would argue that it is mostly under the control of the UAE a fact likely to remain unchanged particularly with the new President expected to continue his interventionist and internationalist stance.
To read about the death of the President of the UAE click here.
The nature of Socotra
Being so isolated has meant that Socotra is one of the most biodiverse places on earth, with the United Nations (UN) noting 700 endemic species found nowhere see on earth. This puts it behind just a few other places on earth in terms of diversity.
Mots famous of these is of course the Socotran Blood Tree, or Dragon Tree, or as it is technically known the Dracaena cinnabari, and can be seen in literally everyone who visits Scootra’s photo albums, including our own.
The island also boasts a number of other native flora, fauna, birds and animals, all of which combine to make the island so special.
The island has been recognised as a United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) world heritage site since 2008.
Recent history of tourism to Socotra
Young Pioneer Tours have been running tours to Socotra for many years, with these taking on many different guises depending on the situation on the ground. Initially tours to the island involved chartering a ship from Bahrain, before this was stopped.
The next phase involved flights from Cairo that needed to be paid for in cash, before this was ended and the island was again isolated. This all changed last year when direct flights allowing week long trips were inaugurated from Abu Dhabi, thus confirming the importance the UAE now has in the affairs of Socotra.
It does though mean that you can now safely visit Yemen through Socotra if country counting is your thing, or just join to see an amazing place.
Does visiting Socotra count as visiting Yemen?
This is a tough one, but one which by the current YPT rules of engagement would count.
It is though also something this is very much subject to change, particularly with regards to the situation in Southern Yemen, Should Southern Yemen succeed in succeeding then it may become a recognized, or unrecognised state, which would make things much more complicated.
You can read our take on what counts as a country here.
What is it like to travel to Socotra?
In our mind frankly amazing and one of the most unearthly experiences outside of Antartica and one we take pride in being experts on.
The tours themselves involve spending some time in the capital city, but mostly getting down to nature and doing some camping.
You can read our full guide to travel to Socotra here.
What is the capital of Socotra and what is it like?
The capital city of Socotra is Hadibu (Arabic: حديبو Ḥādībū), also known as Hadibo and has a population of around 10,000 people (30,000 in the general area).
For context there are around 60,000 people in Socotra. Hadibo has hotels and restaurants, although you will find no bars in Socotra. It is about 12 miles from Socotra International Airport, which we will undoubtedly cover in another article.
What is the food like in Socotra?
Being so isolated and for many years without supplies has led to a large degree of self-sufficiency for the island when it comes to the food. On our tours at least expect a lot of fresh fish, chicken, fruit vegetables and that middle-eastern favourite the date.
To read more about the food in Socotra click here.
And last, but not least what about the Caveman of Socotra?
The BBC recently ran a story about a caveman in Socotra who had forgone early pleasures to live in a cave. We won’t spoil the story too much, as this will be covered by YPT’s resident Socotra expert Rowan, but apparently as well as his cave, he has a wife, a car and money.
Trust journalists to never the let the truth get in the way of a good story……
To join our next tour to Socotra click here.