The situation in Yemen has been a mess for a long time now. Saudi Arabia has been fighting a proxy war there against Iranian-backed militias since Barack Obama was in office. The legitimate government of the country is effectively in exile and the rebels control large parts of the nation, including some of the military bases. But now, even more trouble appears to be brewing. Satellite imagery shows what appears to be a large airfield, complete with a runway and hangers, being constructed on a desolate volcanic island off of the country’s coast.. And at least for now, nobody appears to be taking credit for it or claiming ownership. (Associated Press)
A mysterious air base is being built on a volcanic island off Yemen that sits in one of the world’s crucial maritime chokepoints for both energy shipments and commercial cargo.
While no country has claimed the Mayun Island air base in the Bab el-Mandeb Strait, shipping traffic associated with a prior attempt to build a massive runway across the 5.6-kilometer (3.5 mile)-long island years ago links back to the United Arab Emirates.
Officials in Yemen’s internationally recognized government now say the Emiratis are behind this latest effort as well, even though the UAE announced in 2019 it was withdrawing its troops from a Saudi-led military campaign battling Yemen’s Houthi rebels.
What’s left of Yemen’s recognized government seems convinced that the United Arab Emirates is behind that and it sounds like a fair bet. The UAE has a history of stationing forces on that island so they’ve already invested in some of the required infrastructure. But I suppose it could also be Saudi Arabia. The curious part of all of this is why nobody is claiming ownership. Has Yemen just become so much of a wasteland at this point that people aren’t even recognizing its borders?
This development is of interest to the entire world, not just the parties involved in the fighting in Yemen. The Bab el-Mandeb Strait sits between Yemin and Eritrea, acting as a choke point in terms of access to the Arabian Sea from the Red Sea. Saudia Arabia, Egypt and Sudan all make use of it and a significant portion of the region’s oil supply sails through there. Adding military airstrike capabilities to a chunk of rock sitting right in that chokepoint will be of concern to all nations sending maritime traffic through the strait.
It’s been established for some time that the Houthi rebels who control much of the country are armed to the teeth with weapons supplied by Iran. If it turns out that this airbase is going to be used by the Saudis, the chances are that they’ll primarily be targeting the Houthi militants rather than any international shipping. But if the conflict continues to escalate, this could still change from a proxy war to open conflict between Saudi Arabia and Iran.
We had good relations with the Saudis under Donald Trump, but that relationship seems to be souring this year as the Biden administration conducts outreach with the Iranians. Seeing the situation in Yemen deteriorate further will leave us in a delicate position and Joe Biden will need to figure out who our friends are and who is siding with our enemies.