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Fares Al Hemyari
At the end of November 2021, I contacted a senior official at Aden International Airport to ask about the arrival of a foreign delegation to the airport, but the response was out of the ordinary. The official said: “The delegation did not reach the part under our control. It may have reached the other side of the airport. It is difficult for me to confirm the delegation’s arrival or even inquire about it.”
According to the official, part of Aden Airport is under forces affiliated with the Arab Coalition‘ control, and “it is easier to go to Riyadh or Abu Dhabi than to go to the other part of the airport.”
The senior official at Aden Airport reveals the extent of the division and the multiple authorities at the international airport. Although it is a civilian airport, foreign forces belonging to the Arab Coalition led by Saudi Arabia and the UAE are stationed in a critical part of an airport that receives and sends off flights away from the eyes of Yemenis.
The First Airstrip in Yemen
Aden International Airport is one of six Yemeni international airports, located in the Khor Maskar district in the centre of Aden, the city situated on the coast of the Gulf of Aden and the Arabian Sea in southern Yemen, and the temporary capital of the country for seven years, the economic capital and the second most important city in Yemen.
Aden Airport is the first airstrip in Yemen. The airport’s construction dates back to 1927, during the British occupation of the city and the southern regions when British forces began constructing the airport for military purposes.
Before the British forces constructed the airport, they had “flown to and from Aden on board the seaplane carrier (HMS Ben-my-Chree) in 1916.”
During the occupation, especially after 1927, the British forces initially used Aden Airport for military purposes. They received warplanes and sent off British aircraft, launching attacks on targets in several difficult-to-reach southern areas because of the rugged mountains in which sheikhdoms and authorities opposed to the occupation were stationed.
In a later period, Britain used the airport for civilian purposes in addition to the military, as flights were landing at the airport to transport and evacuate British employees working in the colony of Aden.
After Yemen attained independence from British occupation in 1967, Aden Airport was transformed into an international civilian airport. However, the situation at the airport today, after more than 50 years, has returned to its former stages: a civilian airport with a section being used for military purposes.
After independence, Aden Airport was the second most important international airport in Yemen after Sanaa International Airport in the capital. It was the main headquarters of Alyemda Airlines of the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen, and it was merged with Yemeni Airlines after the Yemeni Unification in 1990.
In 2015, Aden International Airport turned into a war zone after the Houthi armed group attacked the city after Yemeni President Abd Rabbuh Mansour Hadi declared it a temporary capital instead of Sanaa, which the Houthis overran in September of 2014.
The grounds of the international airport witnessed fierce battles between the Houthis and government forces backed by the Arab Coalition, which in turn launched a series of air raids on the airport where the Houthis were stationed.
At that time, the battles on the ground and the air raids left massive destruction in all the international airport facilities, and the only presidential plane on the airport floor was burnt down.
After liberating the airport and the city in general from the grip of the Houthis, the process of rehabilitating and developing Aden Airport began. Back then, “a specialised Emirati technical team and technology companies were able to rehabilitate the airport, resume its normal activity, and receive civil and relief flights.”
The rehabilitation and operation of Aden International Airport at the end of 2015 were followed by dozens of attacks by numerous parties, especially after it became one of the most essential spaces through which Yemenis connect with the outside world.
In the most recent attack on the airport, at the end of October 2021, a car bomb exploded at the external gate where returning passengers from a flight from Mumbai, India, overcrowded the area. The attack rendered casualties of more than 40 people between deceased and injured, besides the destruction of the building.
The Lethal Attack
Aden International Airport fell under a lethal attack a year ago, precisely on December 30, 2020, when the airport faced three powerful explosions. These bombings rendered more than 130 casualties, including local, civilian and military officials, in addition to three employees from the International Red Cross and a Yemeni journalist.
The attack coincided with the arrival of the Prime Minister and government members from the Saudi capital, Riyadh, days after the Yemeni president decided to form the new government equally between the governorates of the north and south of Yemen, based on the Riyadh Agreement sponsored by the Kingdom.
The Yemeni government said: “The attack was carried out using three medium-range surface-to-surface ballistic missiles with a range of 70 to 135 kilometres, and that the missiles were launched from Houthi-controlled areas.”
In February 2021, an international investigative team arrived in the city of Aden to investigate the bombings that targeted its international airport. The results of this team’s investigations have not yet been announced.
In August 2019, the Southern Transitional Council took over the city of Aden, including the city’s international airport. The Council’s forces are still stationed in the city and its airport.
The Council was formed in May 2017, headed by the dismissed governor of Aden, Major General Aidarus al-Zoubaidi, and military and security leaders to demand the secession of southern Yemen from its north after they were unified in 1990.
According to the internationally recognised Yemeni government, the Southern Council has military and security forces backed by the UAE. Since August 2019, these forces have controlled the city of Aden and the most important cities in the governorates of Ad Dali, Lahij, and Abyan, and recently Socotra, the largest of the Yemeni islands, the most important Arab island and the most environmentally diverse in the world.
Forces of the Southern Transitional Council are stationed at Aden International Airport, along with the military forces of the Arab Coalition, which control part of the airport. It should be noted that the Yemeni government itself has no authority over the airport.
Just as Aden International Airport is outside the government’s control, three international airports out of six other Yemeni airports are still under the Houthi armed group’s control, namely Sana’a International Airport, Al Hodeidah International Airport and Ta’izz Airport. In addition, Riyan International Airport in Al-Mukalla, the capital of Hadhramaut, is supervised by forces affiliated with the Arab Coalition stationed there. In contrast, government forces impose their authority on a single airport which is Seyoun International Airport, in the Hadhramaut governorate to the country’s east.
As a result of closing airports under the control of the Houthis, including the airport in the capital, Sanaa, where the Arab Coalition has suspended commercial air traffic since 2017, except for relief and UN flights, Aden airport is the most important gateway from which Yemenis look at the world, despite the division of its authorities and the threats it faces from time to time.