fb-pixel Skip to main content

Otherworldly beauty in the balance in the Galapagos of the Middle East

An archipelago in Yemen is home to stunning biodiversity. Civil war, geopolitical wrangling, and climate change threaten all of it.

Socotra's snow-white Arher dunes gently descend into the turquoise waters of the Arabian Sea.Matjaž Krivic

SOCOTRA, Yemen —

Between the Horn of Africa and the Arabian peninsula and situated at the crosscurrents of the Arabian Sea, the Indian Ocean, and the Red Sea, the Socotra Archipelago is home to stunning natural beauty, white sand beaches, and unparalleled biodiversity. More than a third of the archipelago’s plant species and nearly all of its reptile and land snail species are not found anywhere else in the world. In 2008, UNESCO declared the archipelago a “uniquely preserved living museum and a masterpiece of evolution” and named it a World Heritage Site. Collectively, the four islands that make up the archipelago are known as the Galapagos of the Middle East.

In Qalansiyah, the second-largest town on Socotra, fishing is the economic mainstay.Matjaž Krivic

Given its proximity to a historically important trade route extending from the coast of East Africa into India, the island for which the archipelago is named, Socotra, is caught in an ongoing struggle between the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Saudi Arabia. Both nations seek to control the petroleum trade route between the Persian Gulf and the Suez Canal.

The UAE, which took advantage of Yemen’s civil war and began occupying the 1,400-square-mile island in 2018, controls the airport and allows only one international flight onto the island each week — from Abu Dhabi. And while Yemeni law forbids both the sale of Socotra’s land to foreign buyers and construction in coastal zones, the UAE is permitting and proceeding with both.

A boy departs Qalansiyah for Shu’ab Beach, one of the most remote and beautiful beaches on Socotra, accessible only by boat and when the sea is calm.Matjaž Krivic

The Emiratis and Saudis are also engaged in a bid to win islanders’ hearts and minds. After cyclones ravaged the island in 2015 and 2018, Emiratis delivered humanitarian aid and built homes, schools, and a hospital. The Saudis have built more schools and have other development projects in the works.

There is yet more at stake on Socotra: Climate change is rendering the island more arid and threatening its fragile ecosystem. Among the endemic species that have adapted is the desert rose. Known to islanders as the bottle tree, it has evolved a wider trunk that retains water during the driest months. Another species, the umbrella-shaped dragon blood tree, has been ravaged by cyclones. Typically the trees have a lifespan of hundreds of years, but they are dying far earlier, claimed by wilder, climate change-driven storms. Locals harvest the trees’ bark and red resin, for which the species is named, for use in traditional medicines and cosmetics. According to some estimates, nearly half of the trees will be gone by 2080.

The dragon blood tree (Dracaena cinnabari), with its unusual umbrella-like canopy, is a native species on Socotra and prized by locals for the red resin for which it is named.Matjaž Krivic

And population growth, spurred by the civil war in Yemen that began in 2014, threatens the islanders’ economic mainstay, fishing. According to the last census in 2004, Socotra’s population was 50,000. Today, that has nearly doubled, with an estimated 90,000 people living on the island.

For centuries, Socotris have harvested fish sustainably, taking only what they need. An influx of people from the mainland has put stress on fish stocks and other natural resources, such as water and firewood. Islanders report that their spoken language, which is older than the more widely spoken and taught Arabic, is disappearing too.

Endangered Egyptian vultures rest on a dragon blood tree destroyed by a cyclone. Matjaž Krivic

Despite all of this, longtime islanders, proud to showcase their home’s unparalleled natural beauty, have embraced tourism with enthusiasm. Whether or not they can strike the delicate balance between economic gains and exploitation remains to be seen.

Socotra's Detwah Lagoon is known as the “jewel of biodiversity in the Arabian Sea.”Matjaž Krivic

Ana Tasic is a tour guide in hard-to-reach places in the Middle East, including Socotra. Matjaž Krivic is a documentary photographer from Slovenia. For the past two decades, he has traveled the world capturing stories about social and environmental change.