Somalia might conjure images of pirates and Blackhawk Down, but the northern autonomous region and former British protectorate of Somaliland remains a peaceful, although economically depressed, place. Last month the international airport at the capital, Hargeisa, “re-opened” following renovations and modernization, funded to the tune of $10 million by the Kuwait Fund for Arab Economic Development.
Part of the funds went to Berbera Airport, a former Russian Cold War base and later U.S. air base with good access to the deep-water port on the Gulf of Aden. Ahmed Farah, Somaliland’s director general of civil aviation, told AIN that a Chinese mining company (China Hono Group) won the contract to upgrade Hargeisa Egal International Airport with a Kuwaiti consultancy advising on the projects, along with an Indian consultancy group.
Somaliland hopes the development will help revitalize its economy. “Airports are the gateways to the country,” Somaliland minister of civil aviation and air transport Mohamud Hash Abdi said at the August 17 opening. “How they are built and modernized can lead to economic growth as well as regional integration.” Farah said that the two airports would serve as hubs, for passenger and cargo traffic respectively, for the country and for the wider Africa/Middle East regions.
“The airport has not been developed since 1991,” Farah said. “But Somaliland trade has been improving since 1991 and Russian aircraft have been coming in since the 1990s.”
Although traffic has tapered, Farah said that airlines recently have shown considerable interest; for example, Ethiopian Airlines plans to start flights to Hargeisa from Addis Ababa twice a day using Boeing 737-700/800s. Somaliland authorities granted operational approval to the airline on September 1, said Farah.
Meanwhile, he recently met with Titus Naikuni, the CEO of Kenya Airways. “Despite the fire [that destroyed the terminal at Nairobi] they have approved the route from Nairobi, subject to a visit by their technical team, due in mid-September,” said Farah. Some charter operators from outside the country have also shown interest. However, “we would be hesitant to offer them fifth freedom rights,” he confessed. “We’re protective of local charter operators.”
The airport’s runway has undergone resurfacing and now extends 7,875 feet in length. Five wind turbines provide power. “We have one runway but we have abundant land,” said Farah. The airport also enjoys a relatively large catchment area–inhabited by 100 million people–estimated Farah, even though the Somaliland population totals only 3.5 million.
Russian-built Berbera Airport already boasts the longest runway in Africa at 13,582 feet and it served as an alternate airfield for the Space Shuttle at one time. “Two airlines are interested in creating a hub at Berbera: Air Arabia [the low-cost carrier] and South African Airways, [the latter] because South Africa has a large Somali population,” Farah told AIN. Reports from the region indicate that Yemen Airways has expressed interest in creating an air link with Sana’a, the Yemeni capital.
Farah claimed that the central Somali government in Mogadishu supports Somaliland’s plans for its airports despite ongoing tensions over possible Somaliland independence.