Satellite images reveal extent of mysterious air base

·4-min read

A mysterious air base is being built on a volcanic island in the Middle East with the highly strategic location of the build prompting suspicions.

Satellite images have revealed the project being constructed off the coast of Yemen, in an area which sits in one of the world's crucial maritime chokepoints for both energy shipments and commercial cargo. 

According to the Associated Press, which published the aerial photography, no country has claimed the Mayun Island air base in the Bab el-Mandeb Strait. 

However, shipping traffic associated with a previous attempt to build a massive runway across the 5.6-kilometre-long island years ago links back to the United Arab Emirates, it reported. 

Images taken by Planet Labs in April reveal a long 1.85 kilometre runway now established on the island. By May 18, work appeared complete, with three hangars constructed on a tarmac just south of the runway.

Previously taken satellite images from Google Maps show the extent of the recent construction on the island.

A satellite photo of a mysterious air base on Yemen's Mayun Island, being built on  April 11, 2021.
A mysterious air base is seen being built on Yemen's Mayun Island on April 11, 2021 from this satellite photograph. Source: Planet Labs/AP
Google Maps photos reveal the transformation after the renewed airbase construction.
Google Maps photos reveal the change after the renewed construction work. Source: Google Maps

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 Middle East editor at the open-source intelligence company Janes.

It is "possibly not just about the Yemen war," he added. 

"You've got to see the shipping situation as fairly key there," he told AP. 

In a conflict that dates back more than a decade, Yemen, one of the Arab world's poorest countries, has been devastated by a civil war. 

On Sunday (local time), US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said ahead of a visit to the region that Saudi Arabia has been engaged productively in trying to bring the war in Yemen to an end. 

The Kingdom announced a widely-welcomed peace initiative in March which included a ceasefire. However, the Iran-backed Houthis ignored the plan and pressed on with hostilities. 

Runway could be used to project military power

The runway on Mayun Island allows whoever controls it to project power into the strait and easily launch airstrikes into mainland Yemen. It would also provide a base for any operations into the Red Sea, the Gulf of Aden and nearby East Africa.

US Senator Chris Murphy, a Democrat from Connecticut, called the base "a reminder that the UAE is not actually out of Yemen".

Huthi rebel fighters inspect the damage after a reported air strike carried out by the Saudi-led coalition targeted the presidential palace in the Yemeni capital Sanaa in December 2017. Source: Getty
Huthi rebel fighters inspect the damage after a reported air strike carried out by the Saudi-led coalition targeted the presidential palace in the Yemeni capital Sanaa in December 2017. Source: Getty

Yemeni officials, speaking to the AP on condition of anonymity, said 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. 

An earlier effort in 2016 had workers try to build an even-larger runway over three kilometres, which would allow for the heaviest bombers but was abandoned.

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 underway there.

Strategic island formerly occupied by Britain

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 Red Seas.

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 a 1981 CIA analysis.

The base still may interest US forces, however American troops operated from Yemen's al-Anad Air Base running a campaign of drone strikes targeting al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula until the Houthi advance forced them to withdraw in 2015. 

The US military's Central Command did not respond to a request for comment by the Associated Press. The CIA declined to comment.

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