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The ‘aeropolitics’ of the Qatar blockade present new challenges

Qatar airways planes [File photo]
Qatar airways planes [File photo]

Since July 2017, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain and Egypt have closed their airspace to Qatar Airways and Qatari-owned airlines. They claim legitimacy for this by citing Article 1 of the 1944 Chicago Convention on International Civil Aviation which assures the sovereign right of states under international law to take any precautionary measures against parties threatening their national security. As Qatar was accused of supporting “terrorist” groups in the region, Qatari-operated flights from Doha to these countries were banned. Other airlines, though, can fly over the blockading states on condition that permission is sought 24 hours beforehand, and the details of the crew and passengers are passed to their relevant authorities.

Qatar has been experiencing this for almost two years but seems to be coping with the challenges thanks to its wealth from its natural resources and its own citizens’ approval for its foreign policy post-blockade. An air blockade is a great challenge to any country, and it has been a tremendous economic issue for the State of Qatar because of its location relative to the three main blockading countries, Bahrain, the UAE and Saudi Arabia. However, the latest news suggests that the blockade has had a favourable economic impact on states like Iran and Turkey. This month, Qatar signed the Doha Declaration as part of the CAPA Qatar Aviation, Aeropolitical and Regulatory Summit 75 years after the Chicago Convention. Since it became the first country in the Gulf region to achieve a Comprehensive Air Transport Agreement with the European Union, Qatar has marketed it as showing the EU’s trust in the country’s potential.

Thanks to the blockade, Qatar has lost two of its main markets and transport routes in Saudi Arabia and the UAE. This pushed the government in Doha to find alternatives very quickly. With no notice, Qatar Airways had to cancel 18 regular flights to Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and the UAE which were significant routes for Qatar given their shorter flying distance to North Africa and Europe. Since the blockade, flights that previously flew through the blockading countries’ airspace have left and arrived at Hamad International Airport via waypoints on the border between Bahraini and Iranian airspace. Flights for North Africa and Europe have had to fly over Iran, Iraq and Jordan. Longer flights to the north and west use Turkish airspace as well. Thus, the new routes have established Iran as an important partner of Qatar to ensure flight safety, and have boosted Iran’s air traffic by 20 per cent as well as its revenue from fees for using its airspace.

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Despite Qatar Airways being successful in finding alternative routes, operating costs have increased dramatically, placing an additional burden on the state post-blockade. The airline’s Chief Executive, Akbar Al-Baker, has already posted notice of significant losses for the 2017/2018 fiscal year. Nevertheless, Qatar has continued with its investment strategy and consolidated a 49
per cent stake in Meridiana in September 2017, and recently it became a new shareholder when the airline itself was rebranded as Air Italy. Qatar Airways now flies to more than 160 destinations every day, and provides visa-free entry for the passport-holders of 80 countries in order to counter the economic effect of the blockade. Larger aircraft have added to the airline’s capacity to cater for new routes, and it has ordered 225 passenger and cargo aircraft, including 42 brand-new Airbus A350-1000s, one of the largest, most fuel-efficient and carbon-composite aircraft on the market.

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Furthermore, according to Alex Macheras from Aviation Analyst, the blockading countries’ airlines have also been in the red. Emirates Airline’s profit dropped by 86 per cent in the first half of the 2018-2019 fiscal year. It has lost a significant amount of local passenger traffic as well as flights from Qatar going forward to a third country, such as Doha-Dubai-Osaka or Bangkok, causing it to cut its A380 airbus orders. Bill Law from Fair Observer says that the UAE airline struggling the most has been Etihad Airways, which has cut its number of pilots by 50, cancelled the purchase of 10 Airbuses, and lost $2 billion in 2016 and a further $1.9 billion in 2017. What’s more, its investment of $800 million in Air Berlin was lost when the company was declared bankrupt in August 2017. Hence, the air blockade has not only had an impact on Qatar’s economy but also the blockading states’ investments in the aviation sector. Interestingly, Qatar Airways has announced a 21.7 per cent year-on-year net profit increase in the 2018 fiscal year.

With the Iranian economy struggling due to US sanctions, it has been boosted by its improved links with Qatar. Despite Air France and British Airways cancelling their flights to Iran this year, and Etihad Airways also stopping its flights there, Qatar resumed and boosted its own flights to its near neighbour.

“Presently, a total of 955 foreign flights per day range over Iran’s airspace and the figure is likely to rise by 200 flights as Qatari airlines decide to choose the Iranian route,” explained an official at Iran Airports and Air Navigation Company to Mehr News Agency. Indeed, Akbar Al-Baker has confirmed that the latest changes are further evidence of Qatar Airways’ commitment to Iran, as well as the expansion of its network in this thriving market.

The Qatar and Iran partnership in the aviation market is a bilateral arrangement that benefits the Iranian economy and enables flights from Doha to reach most of the world, albeit at a greater cost. Iran’s cooperation places Qatar in a significant position in the “aeropolitics” of the blockade. The robustness of Qatar’s ability to withstand the blockade imposed by Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain and Egypt will be tested as long as the policy remains in place. How long can the latter maintain it, though, given its effect on their own economies?

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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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