A mysterious airbase is being built on a volcanic island off Yemen that sits in one of the world’s crucial maritime chokepoints for 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 huge runway across the 5.6-km (3.5 mile)-long island years ago links back to the United Arab Emirates (UAE).
Officials in Yemen’s internationally recognised 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.
“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, who has followed construction on Mayun for years.
It is “possibly not just about the Yemen war and you’ve got to see the shipping situation as fairly key there”, Binnie added.
Emirati officials in Abu Dhabi and the UAE Embassy in Washington did not respond to requests for comment.
The runway on Mayun Island allows the projection of power into the strait and the launch of air attacks into mainland Yemen, convulsed by a years-long war. 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 1.85km (6,070-foot) runway on the island on April 11.
By May 18, that work appeared complete, with three hangars constructed on tarmac just south of the runway. A runway of that length can accommodate attack, surveillance and transport aircraft.
An earlier effort begun towards the end of 2016 and later abandoned had workers try to build an even-larger runway 3km (9,800 feet) long, which would allow for the heaviest bombers.
Military officials with Yemen’s internationally recognised government, which the Saudi-led coalition has backed since 2015, say the UAE is building the runway.
The officials, speaking to the AP on condition of anonymity as they did not have authorisation to brief journalists, say Emirati ships transported military weapons, equipment, and troops to Mayun Island in recent weeks.
The military officials said recent tension between the UAE and Yemeni President Abd-Rabbu 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 rebels in 2015. By late 2016, satellite images showed construction under way 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, likely when engineers realised 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 Houthi rebels.
The apparent decision by the Emiratis 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, said Eleonora Ardemagni, an analyst at the Italian Institute for International Political Studies. The region has seen a rise in attacks and incidents.
“The Emiratis have been shifting from a power-projection foreign policy to a power-protection foreign policy,” Ardemagni said. The base increases “their capacity to monitor what happens and to prevent possible threats by non-state actors close to Iran”.
The expeditionary 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 some 3.5km (2 miles) off the southwestern edge of Yemen.
World powers have recognised the island’s strategic location for hundreds of years, especially with the opening of the Suez Canal linking the Mediterranean and Red Seas.
The British kept the island until their departure from Yemen in 1967. The Soviet Union, allied with South Yemen’s Marxist government, upgraded Mayun’s naval facilities but used them “only infrequently”, according to a 1981 CIA analysis. That is likely due to the need to bring water and supplies onto the island. It will affect the new airbase as well, as Mayun has no modern port, said Binnie, the Janes analyst.
The base may still interest American forces, however. US troops operated from Yemen’s al-Anad Air Base, running a campaign of drone attacks against al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula until the Houthi advance forced them to withdraw in 2015.
The US defence department later acknowledged on-the-ground American troops supported the Saudi-led coalition around Mukalla in 2016. Special forces raids and drones have also targeted the country.
The US military’s Central Command did not respond to a request for comment. The CIA declined to comment as well.