Sana’a and Riyadh, Asharq Al-Awsat—Yemen and Iran’s civil aviation authorities on Saturday signed an agreement to operate direct flights between both countries, according to Yemen’s state news agency SABA, a move many in the region will see as another sign of Tehran’s growing influence in the Arabian Peninsula’s poorest country.
The agreement enables Yemen’s state carrier Yemen Airways and Iranian private airliner Mahan Air to each operate fourteen direct flights a week between both countries. As part of the deal Iran will also help train Yemeni airline pilots and refurbish and maintain airports in the country as well as provide technical support.
According to AFP, a Mahan Air plane arrived in Sana’a on Sunday carrying a team from the Iranian Red Crescent and several senior Iranian diplomats—the first flight between both countries in several years.
Many in the region, particularly the Sunni Gulf states, see Shi’ite Iran as a major influence in the political turmoil that has engulfed Yemen since September of 2014, and which has seen the country’s Shi’ite Houthi movement emerge as the de facto ruling power.
A series of mass protests and sit-ins held in Sana’a by thousands of Houthis throughout that month eventually led to the movement’s takeover of state and military buildings and facilities in Sana’a and its eventual control of the capital.
The Houthis have since expanded their presence across the country with the help of the movement’s own armed members and amid a marked security absence in major cities across the country.
The movement then announced in a “constitutional declaration” in January of this year it was setting up a committee to help form a new government and parliament and help run the country’s affairs in the absence of a president and prime minister, after the resignations of Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi and Khaled Bahah, respectively, in January.
Both men were placed under house arrest that month, but last Saturday Hadi announced he had “escaped” to the southern port city of Aden, insisting he is still president of the country and beginning moves to form a rival government operating from the country’s south.
A number of Gulf states, including Saudi Arabia and the UAE, shifted their embassies from Houthi-controlled Sana’a to Aden on Friday and Saturday, in a sign of support to Hadi’s efforts to counter the Houthi power-grab.
Some reports said on Friday a number of Saudi diplomats had been abducted in Aden following the relocation to the city, but these were quickly rejected by the Saudi embassy in Yemen.
Speaking to Asharq Al-Awsat on Saturday, Osama Naqli, a spokesman for the embassy, said the reports were the work of the Houthis and maintained that all members of the Saudi diplomatic mission in Yemen were safe and conducting their work as usual.
“These rumors being spread by the Houthis that the diplomats in Aden have been abducted aim to discourage embassies from moving to Aden [to work with] with the legitimate government represented by President Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi,” he said.