Yemen’s Socotra, isolated island at strategic crossroads

Only goats seeking shade now use the long-abandoned lines of Soviet-era T-34 tanks, but the rusting relics point to the strategic value that Yemen's Socotra islands hold for foreign powers.

The archipelago's remote location helped it forge its astonishing nature millennia ago - a third of the main island's plants are unique, from bulbous bottle and cucumber trees to alien aloes.

But the 130-kilometer (80-mile) long island - the biggest in the Middle East region - also oversees busy global shipping lanes at the crossroads between Africa and the Arabian Peninsula.

With mainland Yemen wracked by civil war, Socotra is under the rule of the separatist Southern Transitional Council (STC), part of an UN-recognized unity government, but who want an independent South Yemen.

But it is the United Arab Emirates (UAE) that is in de facto control.

It bankrolls salaries and major infrastructure projects, ranging from schools and hospitals to communication systems and docks.

The STC's banners are dwarfed by far larger UAE flags fluttering at police checkpoints, while newly erected communication masts link phones directly to UAE networks, not Yemen.

It is not only oil tankers that must pass Socotra from the Gulf to the Red Sea and the Suez Canal.

The island also lies on seaways from Pakistan's Gwadar port - a stepping stone on China's trillion-dollar Belt and Road infrastructure initiative giving Beijing access to the Arabian Sea - to Djibouti and into east Africa.

Sea routes are key for shipping hub Dubai, one of the UAE's emirates, where the logistics industry makes up more than 14 percent of GDP, according to official statistics.

While the UAE's footprint is increasingly clear, its exact intentions are...

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