YemenMiddle East

‘Mysterious’ airbase being built on island off Yemen linked to UAE

A “mysterious” airbase being built on a volcanic island in the Strait of Bab al-Mandeb, off Yemen’s southwestern coast and at the cusp of a key global maritime energy trade route, has been traced to the United Arab Emirates, even though the country has claimed to have disengaged from Yemen militarily.

No country has come forward to claim the airbase, which is situated at the southern entrance to the Red Sea on Mayun Island, but shipping traffic associated with a previous attempt to build a massive runway across the 5.6-km island points to the involvement of the neighboring United Arab Emirates (UAE).

An investigation carried out by The Associated Press (AP), using satellite images, has blown the lid off the airbase, revealing that the United Arab Emirates is most likely building the base.

An investigative @AP story I wrote today focuses on #Yemen‘s Mayun Island. Using satellite images, we see a mysterious air base is being built on the island in the maritime chokepoint of the Bab el-Mandeb. All signs point to the United Arab Emirates building the base.— Jon Gambrell جون (@jongambrellAP) May 25, 2021

Former Yemeni officials have also claimed that the Emirates is building the airbase, even though the UAE had in 2019 asserted that it was pulling out its troops from Saudi Arabia’s disastrous military campaign against Yemen’s Ansarullah movement.

Emirati ships, they said, have transported military weapons, equipment, and troops to Mayun Island in recent weeks, according to AP.

They also claimed that recent tensions between the UAE and Yemen’s Riyadh-backed former president Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi were partially rooted in an Emirati demand that he sign a 20-year lease agreement for Mayun.

“This does seem to be a longer-term strategic aim to establish a relatively permanent presence,” said Jeremy Binnie, the Middle East editor at the open-source intelligence company Janes. “[It is] possibly not just about the Yemen war and you’ve got to see the shipping situation as fairly key there.”

The big runway on Mayun Island has been used to launch airstrikes into mainland Yemen, which has been fighting back Saudi-led aggression. The runway also provides a platform for military operations into the Red Sea, the Gulf of Aden, and nearby East Africa, another sign of its strategic value.

Satellite images obtained by AP have showed dump trucks and graders building a 1.85-km runway on the island on April 11, which appeared complete by May 18, with three hangars constructed on the tarmac just south of the runway.

A runway of that length can accommodate attack, surveillance, and transport aircraft, says the AP report.

In an earlier effort, traced to the end of 2016, workers tried to build an even-larger, three-km runway, which would have allowed for the heaviest bombers. But the project was abandoned midway.

Emirati and allied forces seized control of the island for a second time in 2015. By late 2016, satellite images showed construction was underway there.

Tugboats associated with the Dubai-based Echo Cargo & Shipping LLC and landing craft and carriers from the 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 from 2015 showed them offloading the gear and vehicles at a temporary beachside port.

However, recent shipping data shows no recorded vessels around Mayun, implying that the boats’ Automatic Identification System tracking devices had been turned off to avoid detection.

According to the AP report, construction initially stopped in 2017, 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 construction restarted on the new runway site on February 22, satellite photos show, weeks after US President Joe Biden said he would end US support for the Saudi-led aggression in war-ravaged Yemen.

The decision by the Emirates to resume building the airbase comes after the UAE dismantled parts of a military facility it ran in the East African nation of Eritrea as a staging ground for its Yemen campaign.

While the Horn of Africa “has become a dangerous place” for the Emiratis because of competitors and local war risks, Mayun has a small population and offers a valuable site for monitoring the Red Sea, Eleonora Ardemagni, an analyst at the Italian Institute for International Political Studies, said.

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