While the owner of the airbase still can’t be independently verified, for better or worse it promises to reshape Red Sea dynamics once completed.
New satellite imagery reveals a 1.8-kilometre runway strip under construction on Perim Island, less than 8 kilometres off the coast of Yemen. The island is strategically located in the Bab el Mandeb Straits, a key maritime passage connecting the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden.
The island has a military value not only as a supply depot, but a potential military staging area for Iran-affiliated Houthi rebels.
Satellite imagery sourced from Planet Labs indicates that construction of the airstrip began on the small island between February 18 to 22. By March 3, the runway was nearing completion.
The airstrip is not being built in isolation. Two smaller structures were added near the airstrip. While previous attempts to militarize the island saw plans to build a 3-kilometre airstrip, a requirement to host heavy aircraft, the work was abandoned.
Satellite imagery taken on March 8 Island suggests that the latest attempt to build a runway is also making use of material from the old runway.
To date, both newly built structures adjacent to the runway show signs of installed generators. South of the buildings, a defensible entrenched position on a hill is being constructed. According to Intel Lab, the position will likely see the installation of a radar, air defense, or electronic warfare system.
In spite of the Gulf coalition’s role in fighting the Houthis who initially attempted to claim the island, there remains the possibility that the United Arab Emirates is involved.
Nearly a month prior, the Associated Press reported that the UAE had vacated most of their facilities in Eritrea, on the other side of the strategic straits. This was a key part of Emirati strategy in the region, which quickly saw the Eritrean coastal base become home to the UAE’s air sorties, and a forward operating base for its troops, Sudanese soldiers and mercenaries.
Satellite images provided by @AP confirming the evacuation of the UAE military base in Assab, Eritrea.— Mahmoud Gamal (@mahmouedgamal44) February 18, 2021
The base was established in late 2015 to serve as FOB & a logistical hub for the UAE forces which participate in the Saudi-led coalition military operations in Yemen. pic.twitter.com/RFfP2ZEmP9
Intel Lab analysis posits that the two new structures on Perim Island are possibly home to a small UAE force, after shifting from the shut down Assab base in Eritrea.
The current airway is also long enough to support large military planes.
The island is no stranger to military build-up. After 2015, Houthi rebels lost a battle with the island's natives who were aided by the UAE and Saudi coalition. Since then, the UAE attempted to build an air base and allegedly ran a prison complex on the island too.
“They have established secret prisons, banned fishing, and allowed smuggling activities. All these actions undoubtedly will tear Yemen apart and create an unstable political and security situation,” says Tawfik Alhamidi, a Yemeni human rights activist speaking to Anadolu Agency.
The island remained under UAE control since 2015. In 2019, the UAE left the Saudi coalition in Yemen, and officially ended combat operations against Houthi rebels. In July 2019, Reuters reports Saudi Arabia sent soldiers working with the pro-Saudi government’s Yemeni coast guard to secure the strategic volcanic Island for the UAE, which had experienced a reduction of forces in the area.
No reports detail a Saudi Arabian or Yemeni withdrawal from the Island, or of any attempts by Iranian-supported Houthis to take the island since.
The UAE’s dismantled Eritrean bases were relocated to Perim island, according to an Associated Press report that uncovered the flight tracking details of a Ukrainian-Emirati cargo plane that made regular trips back from the Eritrean base to the UAE.
While Saudi Arabian forces are present on the island, the timing of the island’s occupation coincides with an Emirati drawdown in forces in Africa after years of criticism for its role in the coalition’s campaign on Yemen, which is currently facing the largest famine in its history.
"The Emiratis are paring back their strategic ambitions and are pulling out of places where they had presences,” says Ryan Bohl, an analyst at Stratfor speaking to the Associated Press.
“Having that hard-power deployment exposed them to more risk than the Emiratis are now willing to tolerate,” he adds.
It remains to be seen whether holding Perim island represents the UAE’s reduced force posture in the region. Once construction of the runway and base is fully complete, air traffic data should provide a clear idea of who claims the island.
The island holds a strategic position in the heavily frequented maritime passage. If Houthi’s are behind the island’s recent occupation, it could provide them with a much-needed operations hub in the region.
Houthi rebels regularly use remotely controlled explosive boats, anti-ship missiles and mines in the region. Houthi rebels also make use of Q-ships, or converted civilian merchant ships to support a covert operations network.
The island offers a secure position to carry out surveillance and unmanned strikes, without fear of land reprisal. The volcanic rock also features a number of limited docks, which are already seeing use by the pro-Saudi government’s coast guard.
But even if the island is not converted to a military fortress, it still grants an easy capability for shipping interdiction and interruption. With the Bab el Mandab straits only 32 kilometers across, a combination of missile placements could effectively deny access or impose control over the area with relative ease, similar to China’s use of its newly constructed Spratly island bases in the South China Sea. Alternatively, it could be used to effectively protect ships from piracy and terrorism to great effect.
Nonetheless, even if the UAE or Saudi Arabia set up shop on the island, Houthi rebel capabilities have advanced to the point that the newly constructed base is still within range of Houthi missiles or suicide drones.
Houthi capabilities, made possible with Iranian support, have only been on the rise. On March 7 Houthi rebels launched eight missiles and 14 unmanned drone strikes on four Saudi Arabian cities, marking the largest attack of its kind by Houthi rebels against the Kingdom. With that firepower, it's unlikely Iranian-backed militias would not target the island if it was operated by the UAE or Saudi Arabia.
The reduction in the UAE’s force presence likely comes amid an effort to maximize influence while limiting dangerous exposure in the region. In spite of reducing its military footprint, the UAE continues to finance and support Yemeni militias including the Security Belt forces, Hadrami elite forces, Shabwani, Abu al-Abbas brigade and West coast forces, who operate independently of the UN-recognized Yemeni government.
While it remains to be seen whether the UAE or Saudi Arabia will go forward with establishing a full base on the island, it remains a sign that Gulf involvement in Yemen is not on the wane, but now entrenched in one of the most strategic islands in the region.