Paradise regained:
return to Socotra

by Haneen Dajani

The Ditwa lagoon and beach near Qalensiya, Socotra (Picture: Mohammed Al Sayaghi / Reuters)

The Ditwa lagoon and beach near Qalensiya, Socotra (Picture: Mohammed Al Sayaghi / Reuters)

Socotra was the island where time stood still. Located 240 miles south of Yemen, where the Arabian Sea and Indian Ocean meet, it had been almost untouched by modernity.

The 60,000-strong population were almost self-sufficient – surviving mostly on locally caught fish. There was virtually no running water, working roads or electric power. Little wonder that tourists once flocked to revel in the simplicity of Socotran life.

But in the last few years this insular idyll has been shattered by the war on the mainland and two cyclones which destroyed much of its infrastructure. The burgeoning tourist industry ground to a halt in 2015 when all commercial flights and boats to Socotra were shut down to tourists.

And only in May, nature intervened again when Cycone Mekunu visited more devastation on the island.

But Socotra has a friend in the UAE, which is leading a humanitarian effort to help it recover from these blows – as I discovered when I was invited to join a team of experts when they visited the island several months ago. Flying by private chartered flight from Abu Dhabi, we were hosted by officials running UAE-sponsored projects on the island. 

We had a chance to experience different aspects of the island, visited the locals in their houses and saw an early glimpse of Emirati development initiatives for the people of this unique island.

Socotra: a video portrait

Graphic: Ramon Penas / The National

Graphic: Ramon Penas / The National

Graphic: Ramon Penas / The National

Graphic: Ramon Penas / The National

Graphic: Ramon Penas / The National

Graphic: Ramon Penas / The National

Memories of when Socotra was alive

Downtown Hadibu (Celeste van Rooyen)

Downtown Hadibu (Celeste van Rooyen)

Like many Socotrans, Sadiya Eissa lost count of her age after she turned 50. Her beach camp can be found on top of a small hill overlooking the Detwah lagoon - one of the most impressive and naturally preserved parts of the island’s coastline.

The home she shares with her family is a primitive shack with only two small rooms. There is also a storage area, a field and a barn for the goats.

Inside the majlis she proudly displays professional photos that tourists took of her - jumping in the sea to catch fish, posing at the lagoon with her traditional clothes and face-veil.

“I have goats and I catch fish from the sea. I dive, I fish, I hunt, I do everything,” she explains proudly. “My children help me as well. I have three daughters and four sons. Tourists used to come to swim, and I cooked for them, they ate lunch and spent the night. But we have been cut off from visitors since the war started.”

“The entire land and hill is mine,” she says as she shows off her property to us, her grandchildren following in her footsteps wherever she goes. She explains how they have to travel for two hours on foot to get drinking water, and how a car would make her life easier.

“There is a lot of underground water that can be utilised, but we need help digging the wells.” The following day she is given a car by the UAE humanitarian team. Mrs Eissa is one of many Socotrans who speak fondly of the days when “Socotra used to be alive”.

But despite being cut off from outsiders, adults and children alike are always willing to accept visitors. Whether they live in primitive houses, in caves or under a tree in a wadi that took a two-hour off-road drive to get down to - they will serve you a cup of tea mixed with fresh milk straight from the goat.

The children will always offer to sell a small nylon bag of dried red fluid from the “Dam Al Akhawayn” (brothers’ blood) tree, which they say stops bleeding and protects the skin from wrinkles and ageing.

Known to the world as the dragon blood tree, it got its name in Arabic from a local myth - that when Adam’s son Cain killed his brother Abel, the tree started to bleed.

(I can’t vouch for the power of “brothers’ blood” but it did help my separate quest to find a rare species of chameleon on Socotra. We were searching for hours in vain, until I offered to buy a bag from one of the children if he would help us with our hunt. The children immediately split into search teams, and just as we had lost hope of finding the species and started to drive back, the same boy came running to us, said chameleon in tow.)

The free spirit of the island is also evident while driving on its roads. It is common to stop for pedestrians catching a free ride to their nearest stop. Even if the driver doesn’t offer, just by stopping to give directions a bunch of 11 teenage boys took that as an invitation to hop on board with us. Women also have no qualms about hopping on the back of a truck with strangers. The locals explain that everyone honours unknown women as if they were their own.

“As part of Socotra’s 20-year master plan, we will put in place housing project limitations, and define environmentally protected zones.”

Major Gen Salem Al Socatri

The crime rate is close to zero with no murders or major thefts reported in the past couple of years. 

Major Gen Salem Al Socatri, governor of Socotra, says: “The last time a man was killed was four years ago and it was by accident at a construction site. I also used to be the police chief in Socotra, and there were no crimes. Maybe only rare petty thefts that are not worth reporting.”

For instance, goats are widely available in the streets, and people can simply mark their fleece to claim them as their property. No need to steal, then. 

“There are sometimes disputes over land, not because someone stole another’s, but because of dual ownership.”

Traditionally, inhabitants claimed ownership of land as they did with goats - by getting there first and marking it as their own, which would then be inherited by future generations. Any disputes were often resolved between the residents themselves, although a few made their way to court. However, things will not continue in such a random manner.  

“As part of Socotra’s 20-year master plan, we will put in place housing project limitations, and define environmentally protected zones,” says the governor.

Since Socotra was named a UNESCO world heritage site in 2008, “preserving its environmental qualities has been a top concern for everyone”.

Since the governor came to office in 2016, the island has been trying to recover from the effects of cyclones Chapala and Megh, which killed 18 people and destroyed many of the dragon blood trees that are exclusive to Socotra. There were more than 80,000 of them before the winds came. 

“The situation was already difficult in Yemen because of the war, and the island became isolated from the rest of the world. It was left without any maritime access: Al Qaeda was in control of the main ports in Hadramout, whereas Houthis and [Ali Abdullah] Saleh took over Aden.”

And people were left with no source of income after the Houthis stopped paying them their wages. “It was hard to bring life back to the people, like providing electricity and access points in and out of the island.”

In order to deliver anything from Hadramaut to Socotra, the governor had to send an official letter to Al Qaeda’s emir, “so this was totally awkward for us”.

"It was hard to bring life back to the people, like providing electricity and access points in and out of the island.”

Major Gen Salem Al Socatri

There was a partial shift after the cyclones hit the island in November 2015. 

“International organisations came to provide aid, and with that access to the island started to become easier.”

Power was brought back, roads started to open and relief teams managed to reach and distribute aid to the people.

The Emirates Red Crescent assisted with building houses and rehabilitating schools in villages that were completely destroyed by the winds. Other projects included building mosques and setting up a lighting system at the airport with a fence built around it.

“And there are other projects like providing poor families with a source of income and sponsoring orphans through humanitarian organisations,” he adds.

Portraits of socotra

A Socotran man enjoys a tea break in Hadibu (Celeste van Rooyen)

A Socotran man enjoys a tea break in Hadibu (Celeste van Rooyen)

When tourists came

Efforts are in place to revive Socotra’s tourism industry. Currently there is only one, small-scale hotel, the Summerland, but there are plans for two more in the capital, Hadibo (better to build them there than in the untouched countryside). Camp sites which were completely destroyed by the cyclones will be rehabilitated.

Reopening Socotra to the world is proving a challenge, though. According to Abduljameel bin Adam, deputy governor for the environment and development affairs, there was a plan to activate a sea route between the island and Salalah in Oman, and to restart commercial flights from Abu Dhabi. To no avail.

“We hope for the best, but until now nothing changed,” he laments.

As it is, Royal Jet provides private flights for Socotrans and other authorised passengers from Abu Dhabi twice a week. Mr bin Adam says there are endless booking enquiries – but not since April 2015 has a tourist set foot on the island.

A number of attempts were made by travel agents and hiking groups to charter their own flights, but they were all diverted back and no one was allowed to come.

“Socotra is safe but the problem is that there are no [commercial] flights,” he says. Even the last group of tourists had to leave by sea.

“Once the war escalated, the flights stopped, so they had to take a ship to Salalah. The trip took 24 hours.”

Being home to unique species, alien trees and rare environmental features, Socotra had become a haven for eco-tourists during the last two decades with up to 5,000 visitors a year.

The attractions included snorkelling, swimming, hiking, discovering rare plants, birding, caving, camping and stargazing. The plan is to attract the right calibre of eco-tourists who will respect the island’s unspoilt environment.

Ismail Mohammed from the TABE’A environmental programme says: “We are targeting people who admire the fauna, flora and culture of the people of Socotra and limiting the number of visitors according to the carrying capacity of the island.”

Denis Romanov, a Moscow travel agent, says he would send around 800 people – mostly women – to Socotra every year.

“Every day I get a few letters from customers asking about Socotra” he says. “Now I have more than 1000 requests.”

The last time he went to the island himself was a year ago but since then he has had no updates about when tourists will be able to go back. “There is no news. Nobody knows,” he says.

Teach a man to fish

In the meantime, UAE volunteer teams have managed to revive and improve the fishing sector, which constitutes 80% of Socotra's job market.

Jumaa Al Makindo Anbar, who is known as the fishermen’s sheikh, says the value of their catch has certainly escalated since the fish market underwent a makeover last year with the aid of Emirati efforts.

"Developing the fish market fixed the situation for us. Now all the fish have much more value than before, and we are able to live and support our children."

Sitting outside the market under a palm tree by the sea with his peers after a busy day that started at 5am, he describes how different the situation was years ago.

"When we came back from the sea, contractors would come and negotiate prices for a certain amount. And even before that we did not have any cash, we used to exchange goods, we give them fish, they gave us dates, flour and mandi [a local rice and meat dish]."

Even though life developed and they eventually started dealing with cash, he said the fish they caught had little value.

"People bought what they needed to eat for the day, and we were left with the rest. But since the beginning of 2016, the situation started to improve. We received the [fishing] resources from the UAE. Not everyone could afford a fishing boat, but the Emirates Red Crescent came and distributed them for free, so we were able to go deep in the sea and catch more fish. Only with that we managed to increase production and raised the status of the fisherman on the island."

The UAE humanitarian intervention started in the beginning of 2016 after the cyclonic storms Chapala and Megh hit the island in November 2015.

Damage spread over the island, and the side that overlooks the Indian Ocean was completely destroyed. Schools moved to tents, and houses transformed into huts.

Many people were left without many of life's necessities such as food, water and a proper shelter. 

Two months later, the UAE started to send its representatives and volunteers to address the people's grievances and help them recover. 

Within a few months, power was brought back to the island, wells were dug, roads connecting remote villages were built, and the fishing market was developed in a way that benefits all of the island’s fishermen.

Previously, their nets were easily filled with the finest types of fish, but the local demand was limited, and they had no refrigerators to store or transfer the excess supply. 

Hamdan Al Obaidli, an Emirati fisherman volunteering in Socotra, says: “When we entered the island, the question was: what is it that we can give? Food? Money? Until when? So we decided to go by the Chinese proverb that says, ‘don’t give them fish, teach them how to fish’.”

Instead of giving them aid and food, the locals were provided with fishing equipment, 100 new boats and engines, and better opportunities to sell their fish.

“We are buying everything they catch, and we export it to the UAE," he explains. “The income of the fishermen became very satisfactory.

"The island's fishermen are also being trained to be more productive. “We are currently evaluating them to see who are the best qualified, and whoever is weak, we will train them; I have a number of fishermen who came to the UAE to train.”

Roads and marinas are also being built around the fishermen’s districts. 

“There was no marina so they had to dock their boats in the open sea, and when they went home to sleep, the strong waves sometimes broke the boats,” explains Mr Al Obaidli. They will also build a reception and resting area in front of each marina, as the fishermen often spend a night or two near the beach.

“So now we will build a proper resting area for them in every fishing hub. Around nine in total," he explains.

Meanwhile, providing food and drinking water for everyone on the island continues to be a priority.

"Because really there are areas that are very rural, and the residents are spread randomly across vast lands, five houses here, ten houses there.”

For instance, an area called “Ki’ra” is only 45 km long, but takes two hours to go through because of the extremely rough terrain. “Only mountains, wildlife, and one of the best spots for fishing.”

Some people still live in caves and some areas have never even seen a car before. 

“So it was very hard to transfer humanitarian aid. We delivered food baskets, and by autumn we will give them a road, and two marinas.”

A young fisherman proudly shows off his catch (Yahya Arhab / EPA)

A young fisherman proudly shows off his catch on the shore. Yahya Arhab / EPA

Fishing boats are a fun playground for children in Qalensiya, the island's second biggest settlement (Alistair Lyon / Reuters)

Fishing boats make for a fun playground among Socotran children in Qalensiya, the island's second biggest settlement. Alistair Lyon / Reuters

Fishing boats moored off the beach of Qalensiya (Alamy)

Fishing boats moored off the beach of Qalensiya. Alamy

A sustainable future

When you walked into the old power station situated in the downtown part of the Socotran capital Hadibo over a year ago, it appeared to be in a state of ruin. There were holes in the ground, old tyres, scattered wires, litter here and there, and a random goat standing in the corner. How could such a place generate power?

It had only one functioning generator out of six, producing only 200 kw for the entire island, as the rest were destroyed by the cyclones. Less than 20% of the power was delivered, and almost none of the public was able to benefit from it. 

"People were living without electricity," explains Yasir Al Ane, the engineer who brought power back to the island. 

Last year, Mr Al Ane and his team set up two new main stations; they expanded the existing one in Hadibo and developed another in Qalansiya - the second largest settlement on the island. 

The expanded station has brand new generators, with the wires hidden safely under the ground. Another room contains around a dozen synchro-system totalising panels to distribute the generated electricity. It is all managed through a smart system that can be controlled through a laptop or mobile phone by GPS.

"So even when I travel back to the UAE, I can still operate it," he says.

And that’s not all: plans are underway to expand and introduce more environmentally friendly solutions. 

"At the moment we have served people's needs, but we have more than one plan to be implemented on the ground."

Dragon's blood trees cling onto the Socotran landscape (Mohamed Al Sayaghi / Reuters)

Dragon's blood trees cling onto the Socotran landscape (Mohamed Al Sayaghi / Reuters)

The first phase was to get electricity up and running on the island, and further plans will include solar panels. 

As of May last year, they started extracting water from wells using solar power. Currently the city is living off wells that are around 200 feet deep, and it is always a challenge to bring water to residential areas.

Furthermore, boosting Socotra’s economy and livelihood is becoming more achievable through a series of measures in the making, which include constructing water factories, boosting fish exports, and recycling plastic water bottles in order to preserve the environment and protect livestock. 

And the island has even bigger plans, such as producing ice using seawater and working on solar panels.

“Our number one aim is to reduce dependency [on aid] and create a sustainable economy that can produce part of their needs,” says Mahdi Al Hassani, an Emirati philanthropist helping Socotrans stand on their feet. 

“We can’t give everyone jobs but we can try and ensure we have some sort of sustainable market.”

Mr Al Hassani first arrived on the island in October 2016 and since then he has been looking for ways to develop Socotrans’ living essentials and livelihoods. 

“I was very clear in my job; I needed to have a plan, not to shoot blanks.”

His first priority was to develop the fishing industry, as it is the most available and feasible way to generate money for the people, and it is the profession of the majority.

“We are finding better ways of selling the produce and more profitable ways to sell the products.”

He started exporting their fish to Dubai in April last year and in one month it had made about Dh100,000 of profit.

“Now this project supports itself. It is a profitable project,” he adds.

Socotra's glorious, untouched coastline (De Agostini via Getty Images)

Socotra's glorious, untouched coastline (De Agostini via Getty Images)

Extra profits will be used for upcoming projects in Socotra, such as setting up the island’s first water factory. As recently as two years ago, there was no reliable source of pure drinking water.

“We had only the bottled water we brought with us.”

To import water from mainland Yemen is quite expensive because of the weight, “so having it produced here is very important”.

Most of the water people have been drinking here, especially when the island closes during the storm season, is contaminated.

This has led to several cases of cholera and malaria. So having their own water factory will solve this issue. He also plans to export the extra production of water to Oman, using a vessel he will be buying, and sell as much of it there as possible. The rest can be brought to the UAE.

“And again the proceeds will be accumulated for the next step of expansion, so we are trying to create a self-sufficient industry; businesses that can fuel the expansion for the island.”

Before the water factory, foodstuff warehouses are ready to be built once the windy season is over. He expects them to be ready by the end of September.

Building a
woman's world

A young girl embarking on her education (Yousef bin Shakar alzaabi)

A young girl embarking on her education (Yousef bin Shakar alzaabi)

Women have a major role to play in Socotra’s economic development with a job market opening for them, including a date factory that will be entirely female-operated, and a project to dry fish to help preserve them in villages and rural areas. 

Date production has been minimal on the island, but the new factory will provide a stock for local use, with excess production exported.

“We brought the machines from Abu Dhabi last week,” Mr Al Hassani says. “It will be specifically targeted for women to work in.”

Their role will be to sterilise, wash and pack the dates so they are preserved all year long.

“That will provide a job for women. We are mainly targeting divorcees and widows.”

As the job description does not require a specific set of skills, recruitment can expand based on the number of trees that will be ready for fruition. Right now there are about 100,000 such trees available. 

“And we need to work on the efficiency of the trees; from what I have gathered, every tree can give 40 kg of fruit,” explains Mr Al Hassani (trees in Abu Dhabi and Al Ain produce around 110 kg each).

“So we need to improve the amount in Socotra.”

“Dates are one of the most nutritious fruits one can have with high levels of iron,” he adds.

A stitching business is also in the making, to provide jobs for less well-off women and teach them skills.

“I extended my interest to buy them machinery, as charity, and teach them to use machines for embroidery. The machines are available here in the local market, it is not difficult to buy them. The number of machines to be bought depends on how many women are available.

“We started distributing the machines directly to the homes of the families so each woman can stay at her home and sew.”

The sewing business aims to enable women to produce their own clothes - right now clothing has to be imported. They could also make souvenirs, “like T-shirts that say Socotra”, he adds.

As women in rural areas are skilled in drying fish, their expertise will be used for fish that is exported dry, says Hamdan Al Obaidly, an Emirati volunteer in Socotra.

“Instead of bringing the fish straight from the sea to the market, we will allocate a place in the village for them to clean it and dry it under our supervision,” he explains.“And this way we would have provided jobs for women in the suburbs.”

The spectacular Socotran sunset (Celeste van Rooyen)

The spectacular Socotran sunset (Celeste van Rooyen)

So long, Socotra

My week in Socotra felt like stepping into a historical moment; I felt like history was being shaped while we were there. The people we met, the projects that were shielded, and the adventures that we had - all seemed like they were from a different world. While boarding the plane out of Socotra, I was grateful that I could visit it at this point in time. I knew that the Socotra I will return to one day will be very different from the one I had just left. 


Words: Haneen Dajani
Photographs: Celeste van Rooyen; Mohamed Al Sayaghi / Reuters; Emma Robbins; Mohammed Socotri / Anadolu Agency / Getty Images; Yayha Arhab / EPA, Yousef bin Shakar Al Zaabi; Alamy Photo; DeAgostini / Getty Images; Khaled Abdullah / Reuters
Videography: Ebrahim Al Shamsi; Khalid Al Ameri
Graphics: Ramon Penas
Editors: Dan Gledhill; Stephen Nelmes
Photo Editor: Jake Badger

Copyright The National, Abu Dhabi, 2018