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 3.5 mile-long island years ago links back to the United Arab Emirates.
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 Mideast editor at the open-source intelligence company Janes, who has followed construction on Mayun for years. It’s “possibly not just about the Yemen war and you’ve got to see the shipping situation as fairly key there.”
Emirati officials in Abu Dhabi and the UAE’s Embassy in Washington did not respond to requests for comment. US senator Chris Murphy, a Democrat from Connecticut, called the base “a reminder that the UAE is not actually out of Yemen”.
The runway on Mayun Island allows whoever controls it to project power into the strait and easily launch airstrikes into mainland Yemen, convulsed by a years-long bloody 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 runway more than a mile long 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 toward the end of 2016 and later abandoned had workers try to build an even-larger runway nearly two miles 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 didn’t 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 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 under way there.