Independent Socotra governorate: paving the way for a federal Yemen or a hint at separation?

Published on 29 October 2013 in Report
Ali Abulohoom (author)

Ali Abulohoom

President Hadi in Socotra two weeks ago, where he announced that Socotra Archipelago would be an independent governorate in a new federal state in Yemen. (Ismail Al-Rabidi - Presidential Office)

President Hadi in Socotra two weeks ago, where he announced that Socotra Archipelago would be an independent governorate in a new federal state in Yemen. (Ismail Al-Rabidi - Presidential Office)

Nearly two weeks after the Yemeni president declared Socotra archipelago an independent governorate, the potential implications of this decision are still under debate.

In a trip to the main island on the occasion of Al-Adha Eid, in mid-October, President Abdu Rabu Mansour Hadi announced the administrative independence of the Socotra archipelago, which has been under the supervision of Hadramout governorate since 2004.

“The future of Socotra archipelago will be promising,” President Hadi said.

He called on investors to capitalize on economic opportunities on the island for their own benefit and the benefit of the nation at large, promising that the central government will facilitate such investment projects.

Socotra’s independent status, both financially and administratively, was one of the principle demands of Socotrans during the 2011 popular uprising. With roughly 55,000 inhabitants, and located around 380 km. off the coast of mainland Yemen, Socotra is the largest part of four islands that form the archipelago in the Indian Ocean.

Socotra is home to a unique variety of animals and plants, such as the dragon’s blood trees, due to its extreme isolation. In addition to the geographical separation, being far away from the mainland’s insecurities has turned Socotra into one of the most safest parts of Yemen.

Fahd Saleem, one of three representatives of the island at the National Dialogue Conference (NDC), said it has been a long wait for Socotra to be declared as Yemen’s 22nd governorate.

“About four months ago, I personally took on this issue and prepared a petition to be signed by NDC members,” Saleem told the Yemen Times. “Finally, we got approval from 70 percent of representatives.”

Subsequently, the petition was delivered to the president for final approval, but before that he tasked a committee composed of members from his consultancy council, the Parliament and the NDC to assess conditions on the ground.

Saleem, who was a member of the committee, has met with the president to explain the island’s situation in detail. The committee reported that Socotrans have limited or no access to basic services such as electricity, sanitation and piped water, along with an insufficient transportation network which covers fewer than two miles in Socotra’s capital city, Hidaibu.

“Educational and health institutions are scarcely present [in] Socotra, and the people are fed up with this situation,” Saleem added.

There is one bank on the Island, no universities and one hospital, built by the Emirates, with only basic services available. Anyone requiring an operation would have to travel to receive one, said Salam Dahaq, the district manager of Hidaibu.

Socotra was part of Aden governoate from unification until 2004, for 14 years. The central government annexed it to the Hadramout governorate because of its proximity, reducing expenses and hassle for residents who needed to access public services not available in Socotra.

Over the past few months, the NDC has hosted fierce debates about the future shape of the state. The number of regions in what will likely be a new federal system in Yemen is not decided yet.

Although it is not clear how the NDC’s decision will be affected by President Hadi’s Socotra announcement, Saleem said Socotra, as an independent governorate, will be part of the Southern region if Yemen is a federal state.

In Yemen’s post-revolution climate, the newly announced Socotra governorate is another issue in which some figures from the old regime are clashing with the new administration.

For Ahmed Al-Sufi, the media secretary of former President Ali Abdulla Saleh, declaring Socotra an independent governorate is “dangerous,” because it potentially provides legal motives for secession. Keeping Yemen unified has been a priority for the transitional government backed by international support.  But, many in the South, which was a separate country prior to 1990, are still pushing for renewed independence.  

Saleem rejected such allegations. He said loyalists to the old regime like Al-Sufi oppose this decision because it did not happen when former president was in power.

“They don’t want to see national strides like this one achieved by President Hadi,” Saleem said. “They wish it had happened before.”

Fadhl Al-Rabaei, a political analyst and the director of Madar Center for Studies, said at this point, the decision to form an independent Socotra has been considered a crucial step toward strengthening federalism in Yemen.

According to Fadhl, a new governorate of Socotra would be part of the Southern region, also consisting of Lahj, Abyan and Aden. Adding the independent governorate of Socotra to the Southern region will strengthen the region, Al-Rabaei said, thus balancing out the power between this region and the other federal regions.

Politics aside, Fatima Huraibi, executive director of the Yemen Tourism Promotion Board, says what is important for Socotrans is that their lives will be positively affected.

“Socially, politically, financially— Socotrans will benefit from an independent governorate,” Huraibi said. “It is a suitable time for this to happen because there are now many qualified and educated Socotrans who can manage and rule their own lands,” she said.

Khalid Bahaj is a native Socotran who says he will no longer need to travel to Hadramout in order to deal with bureaucratic paperwork.

“Now that Socotra will be an independent governorate, all services will be available here,” he said.