Airport named in honour of Sheikh Zayed's humanitarian mission opens in Albania

The revamped Kukes International Airport Zayed – once the site of a UAE aid camp during the 1998 conflict – welcomes its first flight

Kukës International Airport "Zayed-Flatrat e Veriut". Courtesy Kukës International Airport

An airport named after the Founding Father, Sheikh Zayed, has opened in Albania.

The revamped Kukes International Airport Zayed welcomed its first flight on Sunday with the country's Prime Minister Edi Rama onboard, local media reported.

An Air Albania aircraft flew in from the capital Tirana, 150 kilometres away, to the airport that has been revitalised with the UAE's help.

Kukes, in north-east Albania, first opened in the 1920s but had been chiefly used for military and emergency use.

The UAE established an aid camp there during the Kosovan conflict in the late 1990s, to assist refugees who were streaming into Albania.

Emirati businessman Mohamed Alabbar, founder of Emaar Properties, shared pictures of a display dedicated to Sheikh Zayed and the UAE in the terminal.

"Our relations with Albania go back to 1998 when Sheikh Zayed, may his soul rest in peace, sent humanitarian relief to those affected by the Kosovo war, built camps and provided educational and medical aid," Mr Alabbar wrote on Twitter.

The UAE involvement in Kosovo was a humanitarian mission. When the former Yugoslavia broke up in the 1990s, separatist voices grew louder in Kosovo. Serbia responded by attacking the territory's ethnic Albanian population, creating a refugee crisis.

Almost 1,500 Emirati troops would serve in Kosovo over two operations. One was with the Nato-led Kfor peacekeeping force, from the spring of 1999 to late 2001.

The other operation was the White Hands aid mission near Kukes, between March and June 1999.

Thousands of refugees backed up for miles make their way across the border from Albania into Kosovo Wednesday June 16, 1999. There are more than 120,000 refugees in the Kukes area and thousands began heading home after weeks living in exile despite NATO and UNHCR warnings that their security is still not assured in Kosovo.  Flags are of the United Arab Emirates, who ran a refugee camp and contributed to the humanitarian aid effort in Albania. (AP Photo/David Guttenfelder)

In an interview with The National in 2019, Emirati Maj Gen Obaid Al Ketbi recalled the humanitarian relief effort and camp that saw more than 10,000 refugees receive help.

"We opened schools where we brought people from Kosovo to teach," said Maj Gen Al Ketbi. "The camp was open. We had journalists living with us."

Up to 45,000 hot meals were served every day. It was known among other militaries as the “five-star camp”.

"We felt proud hearing that, and Emiratis today should feel the same," Maj Gen Al Ketbi said.

“We are lucky to have a leadership who invested in us to help others. We were not only servicing the refugees but all the people of Albania.

"This was humanitarian assistance, part of the UAE's strategy to help wherever help is needed."

The UAE's role in Kosovo also featured prominently in a 2018 exhibition at Dubai's Etihad Museum that illustrated the UAE's humanitarian missions.

Video footage showed Emirati soldiers on patrol safeguarding the peace and interacting with locals.

In the years after the war, UAE investment was central to the airport's redevelopment, which included a new terminal, a control tower and expansion of the apron and runway.

The naming of the airport after Sheikh Zayed pays tribute to that story.

Kukes International Airport Zayed is designed to serve as Albania's second airport, after Tirana International Airport, and boost tourism in the region.

UAE's humanitarian mission to Kosovo – in pictures