People of Socotra

The Socotra Archipelago belongs among the poorest regions in Yemen. Administratively, it is a part of the Hadramawt governorate even though the island is meant to get certain autonomy in the ongoing decentralization process.

The population of the islands is estimated at 44,000 with most people concentrated around  the capital of Hadibu and in the western town of Qalansyia. Less that 400 people live in Abd Al-Kuri and about 150 in Samha. Most of the Socotra inhabitants are of Southern Arabian origin with many immigrants having come from Hadramawt and Mahra area. However people with African and Indian origin can be also found on the island, the first coming mostly from Somalia. Some families of Hadrami Sayyids, descendents from the Prophet Mohammed, have also settled on the northern coast. Ahmed Isa Ifrar, said to be a direct descendant of Mahri sultans, worked as the Director for Protection Areas under the UNDP supported SCDP project.

A little boy from Hadibu.
Photo: Bohdana Rambouskova

As in the rest of Yemen, Arabic is the official language in Socotra being taught in schools. However, local people use an ancient unwritten language of pre-Islamic origin related to the Mahri language spoken in the Mahra region of Southern Arabia. Nowadays, the Socotri language is spoken mostly by women and children in mountain areas of the island. In the coastal areas, most literate people are completely bilingual and modern Arabic is used for communication.

The ancient language is not the only culture heritage local people can enjoy till today. Their ancestors have developed a complex shared knowledge of their environment including traditional medicine where herbs, honey, civets, green pigeons, snails, head lice etc. are used as valuable ingredients of remedies. From the sea, ambergris, shark liver oil and dried shark meat, turtle and dolphin fat are also used.

Goat milk is traditionally stored in goat leather bags.
Photo: Musad Suaileh


Local Livelihoods

Main economic activities on which the population of Socotra relies upon are livestock, fishing, date palm plantations and primitive household gardens.

Socotri population living in the rural areas is mostly semi-nomadic pastoralists, raising livestock such as goats, sheep, cattle and camels in the inland. Because local weather is prone to extremes, the Socotris developed a system of keeping several kinds of livestock to minimize risks. Each type of animals has different weather, terrain and dietary requirements, tolerance to hardship and productivity. Camels and donkeys, traditionally used as baggage animals especially to fetch water, have been losing their importance since motor vehicles and paved roads occurred on the island.

Date palm cultivation is another important activity even though dates market is almost non existing and most of the harvest stays on the island. Date harvesting is the main occupation during the summer monsoon when people escape from northern coast suffering from strong winds.

Sheep vaccination managed under the SCDP project.
Photo: Musad Suaileh



Along the coasts, fishing from small boats is the main source of livelihood. Fish and seafood are the most important commodities exported from the island, sold mostly to the industrial fishery in Al-Mukalla. The main stocks targeted are shark, king fish and tuna, which are salted or dried and sold on the mainland. Reef fish and lobsters represent also an important source of income, and are mostly sold to visiting fishing vessels from neighboring countries.

Fish is also the main component of nutrition along with some meat, milk and dates, supplemented by imported flour and rice. Agriculture remains unknown except small scale gardening supported recently by international projects on the island.

Fisherman selling his catch at the local market in Hadibu.
Photo: Bohdana Rambouskova, SGBP

As the majority of local population lives under the poverty line, they heavily depend on outside support which mainly comes from the Yemeni Government and development programs of NGO's and international organizations such as the UNDP. An estimated number of 8,000 Socotris live and work in the United Arab Emirates, contributing considerably to the income of related families on their home island.


Products of Socotri nature

Wood is very important in Socotra for heating, cooking, constructions, fencing and also for manufacturing lime used in traditional buildings. As the supply of dead wood is no longer sufficient to meet growing demands, live trees are now being increasingly cut, thus posing a serious threat to the survival of important species.

The highland forest trees have always provided the islanders with useful resins, gums, tannins, dyes, medicines, juices, scented woods, such as the famous cinnabar, and some of the above materials are still traded outside Socotra in the present times. Certain non-wood products (i.e. fruits, roots) are collected by the islanders and are used as valuable nutritional supplement, e.g. fruits of Cordia Obovata and orange-yellow berries of Ziziphus spina-christi are edible and appreciated by the population. Honey has become a well traded commodity, collection of wild honey was supplemented with beehives by a bee-keeping project.


Traditional Ways of Conservation

Due to the limited contacts with the outside world, the local population had to be virtually self-sufficient for all primary needs throughout their history. Socotri people have therefore developed strong traditional rules to protect the marine and terrestrial natural resources they rely upon. Such traditional rules are still to some extent enforced by the local village councils. Examples include, i.e.: ban on cutting of live trees unless with the agreement of the village council and for valid reasons; rules regulating the harvest of cinnabar in order to prevent damages to the trees by unskilled cuts; establishment of marine sanctuaries where no net fishing is allowed; and monthly "rest" period for all fishing grounds.

A local herdsman from Homhill.
Photo: Bohdana Rambouskova

The Archipelago

Did you Know

The original inhabitants of Socotra speak an ancient Arabian language that has been passed on without a written form. It contains many specific words to indicate natural elements.