Shifting alliances in the Middle East: Countering the China threat with an Indian Ocean triangle

With an agreement signed recently between Israel and the UAE to normalise relations, Middle East experts detect a shift in focus in the Middle East and North Africa region. Issues in the future will revolve around the divide between the Arabs, Israelis and Americans on one side and Iran on the other. Enter China, who, with its recent upgrade in relations with Iran, as well as interests in the Red Sea, Gulf of Aden, Horn of Africa and the Indian Ocean, could up the ante in the region against the backdrop of US-China tensions.
Yemenis protest against the United Arab Emirates and the Southern Transitional Council (STC) in the country's city of Taez on 24 June 2020, after the STC's southern separatists seized control of the strategic island of Socotra. (Ahmad Al-Basha/AFP)
Yemenis protest against the United Arab Emirates and the Southern Transitional Council (STC) in the country's city of Taez on 24 June 2020, after the STC's southern separatists seized control of the strategic island of Socotra. (Ahmad Al-Basha/AFP)

That Gulf Arab states and Israel have been quietly cultivating ties with one another since the 1990s is an open secret. Yet, it is still shocking — although unsurprising — to hear that the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Israel have signed an agreement on 13 August establishing full diplomatic relations. Middle East experts generally think that this agreement signals a shift in focus from the traditional Palestinian/Arab-Israeli conflict to hostility between the Arab-Israel-US bloc and Iran.  

Shortly after the UAE and Israel established diplomatic relations, the military website South Front that is reportedly related to Moscow stated on 28 August that the UAE and Israel are building a joint intelligence-gathering base in Socotra, a Yemeni island. At once, Arabian media in the UK, Israeli media, Turkish, and even Iranian media started arguing about the accuracy of this information and its potential impact. Beyond the open animosity between the UAE and Israel on one hand, and Iran on the other in the Persian Gulf, this news also reveals the dark schemes of the UAE and other Persian Gulf countries in strategic locations such as the Gulf of Aden, Red Sea coast, and Horn of Africa. 

Socotra a strategic prize near the Gulf of Aden

“Socotra” in Sanskrit means “Garden of Eden” or “heaven”. This Yemeni archipelago consists of four islands and two islets, and guards the Gulf of Aden, the Red Sea, the Horn of Africa, and the northwestern region of the Indian Ocean. 

Following the outbreak of Yemen’s civil war and the Houthi Movement (advocates of the Muslim-minority Zaydi Shiites) taking over Aden in 2015, the Yemeni central government requested military intervention from Saudi Arabia and other Arab coalitions. Although the fighting between the Saudi-led coalition and the Houthis was concentrated in the southern tip of the Arabian Peninsula, the UAE had intended to infiltrate and control Socotra from the start. Amid the Houthi takeover of the Yemeni capital of Sana’a, the Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi administration reportedly loaned Socotra to the UAE for 99 years.      

Students shout slogans during a ceremony to mark the 6th anniversary of the takeover of Yemen's capital Sana'a by the Houthi movement, in Sana'a, Yemen, 20 September 2020. (Khaled Abdullah/Reuters)
Students shout slogans during a ceremony to mark the 6th anniversary of the takeover of Yemen's capital Sana'a by the Houthi movement, in Sana'a, Yemen, 20 September 2020. (Khaled Abdullah/Reuters)

In the following year, the UAE started to build a military base on Socotra allegedly in support of the Arab coalition’s military operation in Yemen. Since 2017, the Yemeni central government has been criticising the UAE for colluding with southern Yemeni separatist forces in an attempt to seize Socotra and establish so-called “peace islands” and “no-war zones” on the island far away from war. In May, UAE-backed southern tribes and regions, especially the Al Mahara and Hadhramout regions and tribes, formed the Southern Transitional Council that directly confronts and divides the Saudi-supported Hadi administration.      

...in June 2020, the UAE-backed Southern Transitional Council drove out Saudi-led troops from the island, henceforth placing Socotra in the hands of the UAE and the UAE-backed southern Yemeni local government.

In April 2018, the UAE brazenly deployed airborne forces to Socotra and controlled the main facilities of the island in one fell swoop. They then formed army units and a police force, built prisons and factories, laid a power grid, conducted its own census. UAE forces opened up a flight route between Abu Dhabi and Socotra and enhanced shipping routes between Dubai and Socotra. They also encouraged the locals to seek medical advice and education at the UAE, and even urged the island to hold a referendum to potentially become the UAE’s “eighth emirate”.    

Saudi Arabia responded swiftly to the UAE’s military operations in Socotra. Two weeks later, it also deployed military troops to Socotra and to some extent reinstated the Hadi administration’s jurisdiction over the island. It also mediated talks between the UAE and the Yemeni central government over Socotra. 

However, in June 2020, the UAE-backed Southern Transitional Council drove out Saudi-led troops from the island, henceforth placing Socotra in the hands of the UAE and the UAE-backed southern Yemeni local government.   

(Graphic: Jace Yip)
(Graphic: Jace Yip)

UAE’s own ‘string of pearls’ key to US-Israel-Gulf-Arab-states alliance

Shortly after the UAE established diplomatic relations with Israel following their agreement on 13 August, there were endless reports on their joint intelligence-gathering base in Socotra and of the UAE’s attempts at acquiring US-made F-35 fighter jets through Israel. According to US media, it was US President Donald Trump’s Jewish son-in-law Jared Kushner who pushed for US arms sales. This strange move invited much dispute among US governmental organisations and US congressmen. Following a short row between Kushner and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel unexpectedly claimed that it does not oppose the US arms sales to the UAE.    

...through financing Eritrea and the Sudanese military government, the UAE established a “string of pearls” that extends from Socotra and Somaliland to the ports of Eritrea and Sudan. 

According to UAE officials, the UAE has been trying to acquire F-35 fighters for a few years now. That is to say, the Arab coalition’s military intervention in Yemen, the UAE’s “colonisation” of Socotra, and the UAE and Israel colluding to obtain advanced US fighter jets were taking place almost concurrently. The establishment of diplomatic relations between the UAE and Israel has simply brought these long-time secret collaborations to light, while exposing the UAE’s strategic plans in the Gulf of Aden at the same time. As early as the start of the Yemeni civil war, the UAE had already been making these plans in the Gulf of Aden and the Red Sea coast.   

Apart from controlling Socotra, the UAE also obtained military bases in the self-proclaimed independent Somaliland through supporting Somali separatist forces (Somaliland recently established relations with Taiwan). In addition, through financing Eritrea and the Sudanese military government, the UAE established a “string of pearls” that extends from Socotra and Somaliland to the ports of Eritrea and Sudan. By relying on these strategic strongholds, the UAE intends to build a complex maritime trade and military power of Athens-Sparta proportions.     

Based on reports, the UAE’s and Israel’s joint intelligence-gathering base in Socotra targets Iran, Pakistan, and China.  

Mohamed Hagi (right), Somaliland's Taiwan representative, bumps elbows while posing with Taiwan's Foreign Minister Joseph Wu during the opening ceremony of the Somaliland representative office in Taipei on 9 September 2020. (Sam Yeh/AFP)
Mohamed Hagi (right), Somaliland's Taiwan representative, bumps elbows while posing with Taiwan's Foreign Minister Joseph Wu during the opening ceremony of the Somaliland representative office in Taipei on 9 September 2020. (Sam Yeh/AFP)

To achieve this, military cooperation between the UAE and Israel is imperative. Be it in terms of experience, technical equipment, networks, and organisation, cooperation and assistance from Israel are indispensable. According to reports, the UAE and Israel have long been collecting intelligence in Eritrea. Their establishment of an intelligence-gathering base in Socotra follows a set pattern in their model of cooperation.        

Creating a bulwark against China and other threats

Yet, to the UAE, the most important gain from cooperating with Israel is in deepening UAE-US relations through the latter, thus gaining political support from the US (the US did not criticise the UAE for its actions on Yemen’s Socotra), and obtaining advanced weaponry and even military support from them. The UAE’s and Israel’s precise cooperation in the Gulf of Aden works to the same effect as Saudi Arabia’s proposal of an “Arab NATO” in 2017, which supposedly aimed to limit the growing influence of Russia and China in the Middle East (especially Syria). Based on reports, the UAE’s and Israel’s joint intelligence-gathering base in Socotra targets Iran, Pakistan, and China.  

These strategic strongholds of the UAE, coupled with the Indian Ocean, as well as the US base in Diego Garcia, form a firm Indian Ocean triangle that controls the Red Sea, Gulf of Aden, Horn of Africa and even the larger Western Indian Ocean region.

The city hall in the Israeli coastal city of Tel Aviv is lit up in the colours of the United Arab Emirates national flag on 13 August 2020. (Jack Guez/AFP)
The city hall in the Israeli coastal city of Tel Aviv is lit up in the colours of the United Arab Emirates national flag on 13 August 2020. (Jack Guez/AFP)

In the long run, the strategic pivots connecting the Atlantic and Indian Oceans via the Red Sea and the Mediterranean Sea will help to demarcate and secure boundaries, while building seamless links as per the Indo-Pacific strategy rolled out by the US and Japan, participated in by Australia and India, and supported by ASEAN, Germany, and France. These strategic strongholds of the UAE, coupled with the Indian Ocean, as well as the US base in Diego Garcia, form a firm Indian Ocean triangle that controls the Red Sea, Gulf of Aden, Horn of Africa and even the larger Western Indian Ocean region.    

It is only under the background of these geostrategic changes that future trends in UAE-Israel/US relations can be deeply understood. This would also explain the new relationship trends among countries on the northern coast of the Indian Ocean, which may seem abnormal at first, but which are actually perfectly normal. 

This Aden-Red Sea centered geostrategic transition explains the realignment of certain relations in the region and beyond. The UAE, Saudi Arabia, Israel, Turkey, and even Iran have intensified their competition in the Red Sea coast. UAE-funded and guided Eritrea and Sudan have substantially improved relations with Israel and the US. Even Somaliland is calling for the establishment of diplomatic ties with Israel. The UAE and Saudi Arabia have chosen India, instead of their traditional ally, Pakistan, as their major strategic partner. And visibly, the UAE and Saudi Arabia’s political infighting has intensified in the Aden and Red Sea regions.

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