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Should the Middle East impose a laptop ban on US and UK flights bound for the region?

Image of an airport in London, UK [Adrian Pingstone/Wikipedia]
Image of an airport in London, UK [Adrian Pingstone/Wikipedia]

The US and Britain have banned the carrying of electronic equipment bigger than a mobile phone in the cabins of airlines flying from a number of Muslim-majority countries. The ban includes laptops, iPads and other devices on board flights bound for the two Western allies.

The US ban covers 10 airports in eight countries; Britain’s covers six countries: Turkey, Jordan, Lebanon, Tunisia, Egypt and Saudi Arabia. According to American officials, the US authorities were increasingly worried that “suspected bomb maker Ibrahim Hassan Al-Asiri, who was allegedly instrumental to Al-Qaeda’s Yemen branch in several bomb plots, might be helping terrorists in Syria develop new, harder-to-detect explosive devices.”

Two theses have dominated social media in the Middle East regarding the real reasons behind the ban. The first is that the decision was triggered by the need to beat the competition presented by Middle East airlines in the US. The second is that President Donald Trump was sneaking in his “Muslim Ban” and travel restrictions through the back door and using Britain to help justify America’s actions.

Read: US ban forbids passengers on Middle Eastern airlines from carrying electronic devices

The first thesis is based upon the fact that on 9 February, Trump met with the CEOs of major American airlines at the White House to discuss the competition presented by airlines from the Middle East. Although Trump “signalled that he cannot help them fend off foreign airlines that are heavily subsidised by their governments”, many believe that concessions were made in that meeting. The announcement to ban electronic equipment from certain airports and flights bound to the US from the Middle East is one of those concessions. The ban is therefore a pretext to outdo the competition by trying to redirect passengers to US carriers.

However, the online discussions missed two very obvious points which could also justify the ban on electronic devices. The strong competition from Middle East carriers is not only due to government subsidies but also the service that they offer to their passengers. According to a survey of millions of airline passengers conducted by Skytrax, the international air transport rating organisation, Emirates and Qatar Airways were ranked as the best airlines in the world for 2016. Etihad and Turkish Airways were ranked 6th and 7th respectively.

Furthermore, their employment of staff from developing countries has encouraged more passengers from those nations to use the airlines to which the US and UK ban applies. US carriers are largely staffed by workers from the global north who sometimes “suffer from the burden of geo socio-politicisation”, especially in regards to their attitudes towards people from the global south. This continues to drive passengers away from US and European airlines. Moreover, the inflight service on board Middle East carriers, including food and entertainment, tends to accommodate the diverse preferences of their passengers.

Read: UK joins US in banning electronic devices on flights from Middle East

The ban will have adverse effects on the technological advancement of business travel. The advent of inflight Internet access on long-haul flights has changed how business is done; passengers can now work, take part in video-conferences and communicate by email whilst flying. Flights to the US from the Middle East are long-haul and most passengers utilise their time working rather than watching movies. The ban will have a negative effect on these passengers.

In conclusion, there is little that the passengers themselves can do to reverse these decisions by the US and British governments. It will be down largely to the Middle East airlines and countries directly affected to protest against the ban. There have been growing calls for these states to reciprocate and ban the carrying of such devices in hand luggage on board US airlines heading to the Middle East. Turkey has already voiced its discomfort and is “in discussion” with US officials in this regard. Transport Minister Ahmet Arslan told journalists that Turkey is seeking the reversal or softening of the US ban, but what about other countries in the region; what will be their reaction? There are suggestions that a joint approach against the ban involving reciprocal actions might get it changed, and tactics suggested include a boycott of US airlines.

What’s more, Middle East airlines are amongst the biggest customers of the airline manufacturers in the US, such as Boeing, General Electric and United Technologies. They too should be concerned at the knock-on effects of the US and British electronic devices ban. In a competitive market, there are always others waiting to offer better services to your customers. The home of the capitalist American dream should understand that more than most.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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