First commercial flight from Yemen’s capital to Saudi Arabia since 2016 signals easing tensions
In a positive development after years of war, the first commercial flight from Yemen’s rebel-held capital to Saudi Arabia since 2016 took off on Saturday, carrying hajj pilgrims.
The departure of a Yemenia Airways plane carrying 277 travelers marks a significant milestone as Sanaa’s international airport had been under blockade by the Saudi-led coalition for the past seven years, impeding air travel.
Mohammad Askar, one of the passengers, expressed his relief and happiness, hoping that the blockade would end and the airport would remain open.
The flight was bound for Jeddah and represents the first direct connection to Saudi Arabia since the coalition blockade closed Sanaa’s airport in August 2016, a year into the Saudi-led military campaign against the Iran-backed Huthi rebels.
While the blockade severely restricted air traffic, there were exceptions for aid flights, which served as a lifeline for the Yemeni population.
The ongoing conflict in Yemen has resulted in a massive humanitarian crisis, with hundreds of thousands of lives lost due to direct and indirect causes such as lack of food and water.
Despite coalition efforts, including airstrikes and ground clashes, the Huthis, who seized control of Sanaa in 2014, continue to govern significant parts of the country.
Officials stated that two more flights are scheduled to depart on Monday and Tuesday, with Yemen’s Works Minister Ghaleb Mutlaq indicating that around 24,000 people wished to travel, requiring approximately 200 flights.
Najeeb Al-Aji, the Huthis’ minister of guidance, hajj, and umrah, described the flights “as a positive gesture towards the reopening of Yemeni airports, particularly Sanaa’s airport, for Yemeni travelers.”
Previously, pilgrims from Huthi-held areas had to endure a challenging 12-hour journey by bus to either Saudi Arabia or the government-controlled city of Aden, where they could then board a flight to their destination.
The intensity of fighting in Yemen has significantly diminished since a UN-brokered truce went into effect in April of the previous year, and hostilities did not resume even after the ceasefire expired in October.
As part of the truce agreement, international flights from Sanaa were expected to resume. In May of the previous year, the first commercial flight in six years departed for Amman, Jordan’s capital.
Efforts to achieve peace have gained momentum, particularly since Saudi Arabia’s surprise reconciliation with Iran, its powerful regional rival. Seeking stability for the region while aiming to diversify its oil-dependent economy and attract investments, Saudi Arabia reopened its embassy in Tehran earlier this month, and the Saudi foreign minister recently visited Iran for talks with his counterpart.
In April, a Saudi delegation traveled to Sanaa, coinciding with a significant prisoner exchange that saw the release of nearly 900 detainees as a confidence-building measure.
However, negotiations between Saudi and Huthi representatives failed to result in a new ceasefire agreement. Saudi ambassador Mohammed al-Jaber emphasized the seriousness of both sides in the peace process but admitted that the next steps were uncertain.
Acknowledging the challenges ahead, UN special envoy Hans Grundberg, speaking at a forum in The Hague, emphasized the long and difficult road to peace, highlighting an increase in public rhetoric that threatens significant escalation.