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Sanaa International Airport: Yemen’s Clogged Lifeline
The parking lot of Sanaa International airport stands empty in a photo from Sept. 23, 2021, after the airport was closed due to Yemen's civil war. (Mohammed Huwais/AFP via Getty Images)

Sanaa International Airport: Yemen’s Clogged Lifeline

Millions in Houthi-controlled areas have no way to travel abroad for advanced medical care

Seven-year-old Thawab (not her real name) is waiting for the opportunity to travel for medical treatment abroad, but there are no flights from Sanaa International Airport in the country’s capital due to the closure of its’ airspace by the Saudi-led coalition. She cannot make the more than-24-hour journey by land to reach Aden International Airport due to her poor health.

Youssef, Thawab’s oldest brother, told The Media Line that his sister suffers from a urinary system disorder and needs bladder surgery.

“Before the coronavirus crisis, we had been optimistic about the reopening of Sanaa International Airport for medical flights under international sponsorship, and we registered on the waiting list, but these flights stopped after the second flight. Now the negotiations on reopening have also stopped. They do not feel us and our pain; we need to travel,” Youssef said.

They do not feel us and our pain; we need to travel

Ali al-Shami was another victim of Yemen’s civil war. Shami, who was in his 70s, died of leukemia on the bumpy, 28-hour-long road from the Ibb governorate to Seiyun Airport in the Hadramaut governorate. He too would normally have used Sanaa International Airport to access advanced medical care, but Sanaa, like Ibb, is controlled by the Ansar Allah group, also known as the Houthis or the De Facto Authority (DFA) in Yemen.

“He needed to travel, his health deteriorated greatly, we could not travel through Sanaa Airport because of the closure and we had to travel through Seiyun Airport,” Hager (not her real name), Shami’s widow, told The Media Line.

Untreated diseases and economic losses

Some 450,000 people need to travel through Yemen’s primary international airport for treatment, according to Khaled al-Sharif, director general of Sanaa International Airport Administration.

More than 90,000 patients have died due to the airport’s closure, which has also led to economic losses of more than $3.5 billion, Sharif said.

Sharif, speaking on the Houthis’ Beirut-based Al Masirah television channel, said more than a million Yemenis are at risk of death due to the lack of medicines. He added that 3,000 patients registered with the Ministry of Public Health and Population suffer from heart defects and urgently need to travel abroad for treatment.

A source in the ministry who spoke to The Media Line exclusively and on condition of anonymity said that at least 20 people died because they were unable to fly through Sanaa airport or because they tried to travel by land to Aden and Seiyun airports since the most recent negotiations to reopen Sanaa airport ended last month. The source added that the medicines that reach Sanaa airport through the United Nations cover only 40% of the needs.

Differences in implementation mechanisms

On June 9, the Political Office of the Ansar Allah group announced an initiative for a political solution to the civil war, led by an Omani delegation that visited the capital seeking to reopen Sanaa International Airport.

The proposal coincided with engineering teams beginning to perform maintenance on the airport terminals, which was widely welcomed by activists and politicians alike.

Some observers suggest that in exchange for reopening Sanaa’s airport, the siege imposed by the Houthis on the city of Taiz, once known as the cultural capital of Yemen, should be lifted.

However, Martin Griffiths, the outgoing UN special envoy for Yemen, announced in his briefing to the Security Council on June 15 that  recent negotiations seeking a cease-fire had failed. Griffiths added that the Houthis insist there first be an agreement on reopening Al-Hudaydah port on the Red Sea and Sanaa Airport, with a cease-fire as well as political negotiations as a second step, while the internationally recognized government insists on implementing all measures as a single package.

“The continued closure of Sanaa airport as well as the extensive restrictions on fuel through the port of Hudaydah are not justifiable and must be addressed urgently,” said Griffiths.

‘Closed to humanitarian cases’

Ahmed Ayadh, a media professional affiliated with the Ansar Allah De Facto Authority, told The Media Line that the airport should be open on the basis of humanitarian reasons.

“Opening Sanaa International Airport is a humanitarian need that should not be linked to any negotiations, and it is unreasonable for Sanaa airport to remain open to UN flights and closed to humanitarian cases that need to travel,” he said.

Ayadh added that during the 2018 Stockholm negotiations, reopening Sanaa International Airport was the most discussed issue, and an agreement was almost reached on the matter.

However, he said, the IRG (Internationally Recognized Government) worked to “disrupt the agreement” by asking for permanent inspection of flights and control of the flight paths, “which is totally rejected.”

By contrast, Hussein al-Qasimi, a political activist and IRG loyalist, said the De Facto Authority (DFA) was the one who worked to thwart the negotiations regarding the reopening of airports and seaports.

“The IRG made many offers and initiatives to end the sieges on the port of Hudadyah, Sanaa airport and the city of Taiz; but the Houthis, they insisted on ignoring the file of Taiz City and the cease=fire file,” he said.

Qasimi added that the IRG cares about all citizens, including those under the control of the DFA. However, the DFA is seeking to obtain benefits without making any concessions, “and the latest UN envoy brief made this clear,” he said.

Mutual accusations

Traffic through Sanaa International Airport has been banned since August 2016 due to mutual accusations between the IRG and the DFA, after the DFA was accused of using the airport for military purposes, which it denies.

A high-ranking source in the DFA told Turkey’s Anadolu Agency that the authority informed the Omani delegation that opening the airport must be done without making any “bargains” as it is a legitimate sovereign right, while the IRG’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs responded by stating that the IRG offered many concessions and guarantees for the travel of citizens and the reopening of the airport, but the DFA refused them, trying to impose its terms, which complicated the issue.

The humanitarian need to reopen Sanaa International airport remains urgent, since it is the only lifeline for those in the heavily populated DFA-controlled areas.

The civil war has been going on for seven years. More than 230,000 people have died and millions displaced in what the UN has described as the world’s worst humanitarian crisis.


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