Fish communities and habitats were studied at the Socotra archipelago (Gulf of Aden, ≈12°N 54°E). Extensive and unexpected hermatypic coral communities were recorded, at the centre of a 2200 km gap in knowledge of species and habitat distributions which coincides with a change from a western Indian Ocean coral reef fauna to an Arabian one. The fish assemblage associated with the Socotra archipelago corals is predominantly south Arabian. An east African influence, minimal on the mainland coasts of Arabia, is more evident here, and results in previously unrecorded sympatry between Arabian endemic species and their Indian Ocean sister taxa. A study of distributions of Chaetodontidae (butterflyfishes) in the north-western Indian Ocean reveals a number of distinct patterns, with a trend for species replacement along a track from the northern Red Sea to the Indian Ocean. A major feature of the reef fish zoogeography of the region is found to be a distinct south Arabian area, characterized by a ‘pseudo-high latitude effect’ which results from seasonal cold water upwelling along the Arabian sea coasts of Yemen and Oman and the Indian Ocean coast of Somalia. This south Arabian feature is consistent across a wide range of fish families. It is most pronounced in Oman and Yemen, and although it is the dominant influence at Socotra it is slightly ‘diluted’ here by the east African influence. The south Arabian area wholly or partly accounts for most of the major marine zoogeographic features around Arabia, and is the principal feature fragmenting Arabian coastal fish assemblages, and separating them from those of the wider Indo-west Pacific.