Yemenis embark on first direct flight to Saudi Arabia since 2016

The flight carried Yemeni Muslims heading to Hajj and signals easing tensions between the two countries.

Yemenia passenger planes on the tarmac
Yemenia Airways Airbus A320 aircraft is pictured at the Sanaa International Airport [File: Khaled Abdullah/Reuters]

The first direct flight between Yemen and Saudi Arabia in nearly seven years has taken more than 270 Yemenis from rebel-held Sanaa to Jeddah, signalling easing tensions between the two countries.

The flight by Yemenia – also known as Yemen Airways – took place Saturday evening and carried Yemeni Muslims embarking on the annual Islamic pilgrimage of Hajj in the Saudi city of Mecca.

The flight is one of five that will carry pilgrims heading to Islam’s holiest site from Sanaa’s international airport, according to Khalid al-Shayyef, head of the Yemeni airport.

A Saudi-led military coalition closed off Sanaa’s airport in August 2016 as part of an air and sea blockade on Houthi-held areas in Yemen. This came a year after the coalition intervened in Yemen after Iran-aligned Houthi rebels removed the government from the capital Sanaa.

A Saudi delegation, which is seeking a permanent ceasefire deal, concluded peace talks with the Houthi group in mid-April in Sanaa.

The peace talks came on the heels of Saudi Arabia and Iran restoring diplomatic ties in recent months, with the latest meeting between the countries’ foreign ministers in Tehran Saturday.

Riyadh helped facilitate a prisoner exchange in April between Yemeni rebels and government forces, which freed more than 800 detainees, and further boosted hopes of ending the protracted war.

Yemen’s conflict has killed tens of thousands of people, is deemed one of the world’s worst humanitarian crises and is also seen as a proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran.

The Yemenis travelling to Mecca for Hajj will be joined by millions of Muslims from around the world.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies