No country has claimed Mayun Island military base but Israeli military intelligence news site says the construction is a "UAE military project" meant to control shipping in strategic Bab al Mandeb strait.
UAE is building a new air base on a volcanic island off Yemen that sits in one of the world's crucial maritime chokepoints for both energy shipments and commercial cargo, an Israeli military intelligence website has claimed.
Calling it UAE's "military project," Debkafile – a news site known to be close to the intelligence agency Mossad – said an attack helicopter base on the island, also called Perim Island, will give Abu Dhabi's Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed Bin Ziyad "means of controlling oil tanker and commercial shipping through the Red Sea's southern chokepoint and up to the Suez Canal."
"It will also give the Emirates a jumping off pad for rapid deployment forces to reach Yemen, although they withdrew from the civil conflict there during 2019-2020," Debkafile said.
Isareli Debkafile that offers analysis and commentary on military and international relations said UAE's vessels loaded with heavy engineering equipment, building materials and troops have been sighted putting into the island since May, "raising rumours of a mysterious air facility which no country has claimed."
While no country has claimed the Mayun Island air base in the Bab al Mandeb strait, shipping traffic associated with a prior attempt to build a massive runway across the 5.6-kilometre island years ago links back to the United Arab Emirates.
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'UAE behind the project'
Officials in Yemen's internationally recognised government 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."
US Senator Chris Murphy, a Democrat from Connecticut, called the base "a reminder that the UAE is not actually out of Yemen."
Base can host heaviest bombers
The runway on Mayun Island allows whoever controls it to project power into the strait and easily launch air strikes into mainland Yemen, convulsed by a yearslong 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 1.85-kilometre runway on the island on April 11. By May 18, that work appeared complete, with three hangars constructed on the 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 over 3 kilometres long, which would allow for the heaviest bombers.
'UAE never left Yemen'
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 the 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.
UAE traces seen
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 couldn't 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.
While the Horn of Africa "has become a dangerous place" for the Emiratis due to 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.
It increases "their capacity to monitor what happens and to prevent possible threats by non-state actors close to Iran."
Mayun, also known as Perim Island, sits some 3.5 kilometres 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 the Red Sea.
The British kept the island up 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's likely due to needing to bring water and supplies onto the island. That will affect the new air base, as well as Mayun, has no modern port, said Binnie, the Janes analyst.
The base still may interest American forces, however. US troops operated from Yemen's al-Anad Air Base running a campaign of drone strikes targeting al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula until the Houthi advance forced them to withdraw in 2015.
The Defense Department later acknowledged on-the-ground American troops supported the Saudi-led coalition around Mukalla in 2016. Special forces raids and drones also have targeted the country.