Yemen’s Mukalla airport reopens after Al Qaeda driven out

Four years after militants overran city, transport centre rebuilt by UAE resumes operations

First flight lands at Mukalla’s renovated airport, Wednesday November 27, 2019. Saeed al Batati for The National
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The first flight in four years arrived at the rebuilt the Riyan airport on Wednesday, marking a turning point for a city once under the rule of Al Qaeda.

The airport closed in 2015 when Al Qaeda militants took advantage of the civil war and overran the city, burning government offices, looting banks and detaining local leaders.

But over the past three years, the UAE-trained fighters of the internationally recognised Yemeni government have pushed the militants out of the area and started rebuilding the shattered city.

The airport remained closed until the Emirates Red Crescent funded the building of new terminals and renovated the old airport at a cost of Dh25 million, the Hadramawt Governor's office said.

Salem Al Khanbashi, Yemen’s Deputy Prime Minister, said reopening the Riyan Airport would help to ease the suffering of thousands of local residents, who can now travel in and out of the country.

Mr Al Khanbashi said he hoped it would boost tourism and investment into the local community.

Local singers and dancers perform traditional Yemeni folklore in celebration of the opening of the airport. Saeed Al-Batati for The National.

"The government has asked Yemenia airlines to increase flights to Riyan Airport," he said. "We will work with the Saudi-led Coalition to open the air space 24 hours a day to boost air traffic."

At a ceremony on Wednesday to mark the resumption of flights, the UAE ambassador to Yemen, Salem Al Ghafli, said the event marked a turning point for the country.

“The UAE has repeatedly stated that it is in Yemen to restore security and stability and to build and develop, to alleviate the suffering of Yemen and its people,” Mr Al Ghafli said.

He said the UAE had provided more than $5.59 billion (Dh20.5bn) in aid to the country since 2015.

“The opening of the airport helps to restore freedom and eliminate terrorism, which promises a return to normal life in the south and gives hope to the Yemeni people for a better life,” Mr Al Ghafli said.

He urged “all Yemeni parties to consider a bright future for their entire country”, with a political solution to the civil war.

Hamed Al Shamesi, the UAE Red Crescent representative in Hadramawt district, said the organisation had responded to an appeal by the Yemeni government to help renovate the airport because of the huge effect it would have on the community.

Although there is only one runway, the new airport can accommodate 500,000 passengers a year.

“The opening of the airport today is a fruit of a strong partnership between the Arab coalition and the Yemeni government,” Mr Al Shamesi said.

“The UAE Red Crescent has provided the airport with all the equipment and machines."

He said the Emirates would continue giving aid to Yemen through the Red Crescent, and help to rebuild battered infrastructure.

The Governor of Hadramawt province, Maj Gen Faraj Al Bahsani, said he was optimistic that the return of flights would bring economic benefits.

On Wednesday, Mustafa, a young taxi driver in Mukalla, said he was delighted by the news that the airport was opening.

Like many of his colleagues, Mustafa used to make good money ferrying people over the 33 kilometres between the city and the airport.

Now, he said, he would again start heading to the taxi rank outside the arrivals hall to wait for customers.

"This is really good news," he told The National. "We lost our source of income when the airport was closed."

Capt Saleh Ben Nuhaid, head of Yemen’s General Authority of Civil Aviation and Meteorology, said: “The UAE has given us state-of-the-art security equipment.

"We can assure international airlines that the airport is safe and is ready to receive flights.”

Capt Ben Nuhaid said that for now, the national carrier Yemenia would be flying twice a week to Cairo.

Anes Baswaten, director of Riyan airport, said that in the near future staff would travel abroad for training thanks to international assistance.