The Soqotra Archipelago consists of four islands and several sea stacks. Three of the islands, Soqotra (3,650 sq. km in area), ‘Abd-al Kuri (133 sq. km) and Samha (41 sq. km) are inhabited. The fourth and smallest island, Darsa, lies about 17 km east of Samha, and is uninhabited, though overrun with rats, as well as being home to great numbers of small crabs and clouds of seabirds.
Soqotra has a population of some 60,000 – 80,000 people. Currently the bulk of the population live on the north coast: in and around the archipelago capital, Hadiboh, and around the regional capital of Qalansiyah. The rural people of Soqotra are largely divided into tribal groupings, each tribe being made up of a number of clans. The people of the major coastal settlements are more diverse: a mixture of traders and merchants of mainland origin; descendants of a former slave population, largely of African origin, and of shipwrecked and deserting seamen; immigrants from the African seaboard, and fishermen of a variety of origins. This cosmopolitan mix is most noticeable in the larger towns of Hadiboh (and its many satellite villages), Qalansiyah and Qadheb.
Soqotrans speak their own Semitic language, Soqotri, which has a variety of local dialects. It is one of the group of six, pre-literate languages commonly called the ‘Modern South Arabian’ (MSA) languages, spoken only in southern Arabia. The islands continue to have an extremely rich poetic tradition: their poetry and song represent a unique storehouse of Soqotran language and culture, and are a striking record of traditional (and rapidly disappearing) island expertise. However, the language as yet has no written form, and with the spread of Arabic across the islands as the language of education, radio, newspapers and television, and with the rapid economic and socio-political change which the islands are undergoing, their original language is likely to disappear over time (as has happened to related languages in Yemen and Oman).
Traditionally the islanders lived by fishing, date-palm cultivation and animal husbandry, rearing goats, sheep and cattle for meat and milk, and donkeys and camels as pack animals. They traded butter-oil, salted and dried fish, various plant products and sheepswool cloth for the necessities they were unable to produce themselves. In recent decades they also relied on seasonal out-migration as labourers to the Arabian mainland as a source of income. Now they increasingly find employment in various government ministries (as policemen, soldiers, teachers, office and health workers etc.). Complex traditional rules which governed the management of livestock, access to pasture, water and dry season fodders, and which also controlled exploitation of the flora and fauna, were instrumental in maintaining the rich biodiversity of the islands. That the Soqotra Archipelago has been declared one of the world’s most important island groups, with a flora and fauna of global significance, demonstrates the success of the islander’s management of their natural resources.
Prior to 1967 the archipelago was ruled by a Sultan with his administration, soldiers, clients, slaves and law court officials. The position of Sultan was a hereditary one, the Sultans being drawn from within the family of ‘Afrer sultans from the Mahra people of the mainland opposite, who in the 17th Century extended their rule to Soqotra. They ruled the island more or less uninterrupted from that time until 1967 (though in 1876 Soqotra became a British Protectorate along with the rest of the Mahra State of Qishn and Soqotra). In 1967 the Archipelago became absorbed into South Yemen, the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen (PDRY), and when north and south Yemen were united in 1990, the islands became part of the Republic of Yemen, as they still are today.