An airbase is being built on Mayun Island, a crucial maritime passageway for both energy shipments and commercial cargo. While no country has claimed the Mayun Island airbase in the Bab el-Mandeb Strait, shipping traffic associated with a prior attempt to build a runway across the 3.5 mile-long island links back to the United Arab Emirates.
Officials in Yemen’s 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.
Jeremy Binnie, the Middle East editor at the open-source intelligence company, Janes, said: “This does seem to be a longer-term strategic aim to establish a relatively permanent presence.
“It is possibly not just about the Yemen war and you have got to see the shipping situation as fairly key there.”
The runway on Mayun Island allows whoever controls it to project power into the strait and easily launch airstrikes into mainland Yemen.
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It also provides a base for any operations into the Red Sea, the Gulf of Aden and nearby East Africa.
Satellite images from Planet Labs Inc. obtained by The Associated Press showed dump trucks and graders building a 1.85 kilometre runway on the island on April 11.
By May 18, that work appeared complete, with three hangars constructed on a tarmac just south of the runway.
A runway of that length can accommodate attack, surveillance and transport aircraft.
An earlier effort that was later abandoned begun toward the end of 2016. The effort had workers try to build an even larger runway over three kilometres long, which would allow for the heaviest bombers.
Military officials with Yemen’s government, which the Saudi-led coalition has backed since 2015, say the UAE is building the runway.
The officials, speaking to Associated Press anonymously, say Emirati ships transported military weapons, equipment and troops to Mayun Island in recent weeks.
Emirati officials in Abu Dhabi and the UAE’s Embassy in Washington did not respond to requests for comment.
The military officials said recent tension between the UAE and Yemeni President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi came in part from an Emirati demand for his government to sign a 20-year lease agreement for Mayun.
Emirati officials have not acknowledged any disagreement.
The initial, failed construction project came after Emirati and allied forces retook the island from Iranian-backed Houthi militants in 2015. By late 2016, satellite images showed construction underway there.
Tugboats associated with Dubai-based Echo Cargo & Shipping LLC and landing craft and carriers from Abu Dhabi-based Bin Nawi Marine Services LLC helped bring equipment to the island in that first attempt, according to tracking signals recorded by data firm Refinitiv.
Satellite photos at the time show they offloaded the gear and vehicles at a temporary beachside port.
Echo Cargo & Shipping declined to comment, while Bin Nawi Marine Services did not respond to a request for comment. Recent shipping data shows no recorded vessels around Mayun, suggesting whoever provided the sealift for the latest construction turned off their boats’ Automatic Identification System tracking devices to avoid being identified.
Construction initially stopped in 2017, probably when engineers realized they could not dig through a portion of the volcanic island’s craggy features to incorporate the site of the island’s old runway.
The building restarted in earnest on the new runway site around February 22, satellite photos show, several weeks after President Joe Biden announced he would end US support for the Saudi-led offensive against the Houthis.
The apparent decision by the Emiratis to resume building the air base comes after the UAE dismantled parts of a military base it ran in the East African nation of Eritrea as a staging ground for its Yemen campaign.
Eleonora Ardemagni, an analyst at the Italian Institute for International Political Studies, said that while the Horn of Africa had “become a dangerous place” for the Emiratis due to competitors and local war risks, Mayun had a small population and offered a valuable site for monitoring the Red Sea. There has been a rise in attacks and incidents in the region.
Ms Ardemagni said: “The Emiratis have been shifting from a power-projection foreign policy to a power-protection foreign policy.
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“It increases their capacity to monitor what happens and to prevent possible threats by non-state actors close to Iran”.
The expeditionary al-Quds force of Iran’s paramilitary Revolutionary Guard was said to run a similar operation on a cargo ship long stationed nearby off Yemen before being apparently targeted by an Israeli attack.
Mayun, also known as Perim Island, sits two miles off the southwestern edge of Yemen.
World powers have recognized the island’s strategic location for hundreds of years, especially with the opening of the Suez Canal linking the Mediterranean and Red Seas.
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