NO-BOMBERS: Yemenis board first direct flight to Saudi Arabia since 2016

Yemenis wait to board a flight heading to Mecca to perform the Hajj pilgrimage, at the Sanaa International Airport, Yemen, June 17, 2023. /CFP

Yemen’s national airline Yemenia Airways restarted direct flights from Houthi-held Sanaa to Saudi Arabia after a suspension that lasted seven years.

The first two commercial flights took off from Sanaa’s international airport on June 17 and 19, and one more has been scheduled for June 21.

According to the Yemeni airport, these flights are among the five that will take this year’s Muslim pilgrims from Sanaa to Saudi Arabia for Hajj, the pilgrimage to Mecca required once in a lifetime of every Muslim who can afford it and is physically able to make it.

Millions of Muslims from around the world will start converging next week on Mecca in Saudi Arabia to begin the several days of rituals at holy sites in and around the city.

The flights between Sanaa and Saudi Arabia are regarded as another sign of easing tensions between the Houthis and Saudi Arabia, which has been attempting to end its involvement in the Yemen conflict.

A brief history

Yemen has been locked in a military conflict since the Houthi militia took control of several northern cities and ousted the Yemeni government from Sanaa in 2014.

The Houthi takeover prompted a Saudi-led coalition to intervene in 2015 to try to restore the government. The coalition closed off the Sanaa airport in August 2016, part of an air and sea blockade on Houthi-held areas in Yemen.

The Yemen conflict has in recent years turned into a proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran. Recently, with the restoration of diplomatic relations between Saudi Arabia and Iran, the peace process in Yemen has also seen positive developments.

In April, the Houthis and the Yemeni government successfully completed a prisoner swap in which 887 prisoners and detainees from both sides were released.

Li Zixin, associate researcher with the China Institute of International Studies (CIIS), pointed out that prisoner swap is often seen as an important step for both sides in a conflict to begin building trust.

Li said that the latest wave of reconciliation in the Middle East has provided a good political atmosphere and foundation for the resolution of the Yemen conflict, but it is also facing uncertainties.

The Yemen conflict has resulted in a staggering number of casualties and plunged the Arab world’s poorest country into humanitarian crises, including widespread famine. More than 150,000 people, including fighters and civilians, have been killed.

Li said challenges such as livelihood and refugees will be difficult to solve for the future Yemeni governing team. He noted how they distribute political and economic benefits, maintain security, get international recognition and lift sanctions will add to the uncertainty in the process of achieving lasting peace and prosperity in Yemen.

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