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JULY 2017

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Political screws tighten in the Gulf

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by TOM BALLANTYNE 

July 1st 2017

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For some time several Middle Eastern states have expressed disquiet about Qatar’s apparent closeness to Iran, a country alleged to be funding global terrorism. Read More » But the decision last month by the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Egypt to deport Qatari diplomats and, in effect, place a blockade on their neighbouring Gulf state took everyone by surprise.

Banning all flights by Qatar Airways and closing their airspace to the carrier violates a basic tenet of global aviation – freedom of overflight.

So for carriers in the Gulf and elsewhere the bans were a pointed reminder that politics can so easily shift the goal posts for airline operations. After the ban was announced, Emirates Airline, Etihad Airways and several carriers in the Gulf had to scramble to adjust their schedules to the new overflight circumstances.

They and Qatar Airways had to cancel flights and their passengers had to revise their travel itineraries. Qatar was a particular loser in the process. The airline itself, which has posted a healthy profit for its latest fiscal year, is certain to be losing money, given the loss of custom and the additional expenses for the fuel required to circumvent airspace now unavailable to the carrier.

The states that acted against Qatar have provided scant details about the rationale for the bans, for obvious reasons. But they have said it is their airspace and they are free to choose how it is controlled.

Qatar has countered that it is being subjected to a blockade. Qatar Airways group chief executive, Akbar Al Baker, has asked the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) to intervene on its behalf, but the bottom line is the four states cannot be forced to reverse their decision. They said it is not a blockade because Qatar can still fly elsewhere – even though it has to use more fuel - and added the emirate’s ports are open to shipping.

At press time, an early resolution seemed unlikely after Saudi Arabia and the three other states issued 13 demands. They want Qatar to shut down the global Al Jazeera news agency, cut back its diplomatic relations with Iran and sever all ties with the Muslim Brotherhood. Qatar has firmly rejected the demands.

As with any political disruption, unearthing the truth can be difficult. Qatar’s perceived friendship with Iran is its choice, but allegations that it is backing terrorism remains to be proven.

But political action can be taken without closing airspace. The freedom to fly the world’s skies is not only important to airlines, but is critical to the health of the global economy.

It is hoped that mediation and common sense will ultimately prevail and that the present political impasse can be brought to a satisfactory conclusion for both Qatar Airways and the airlines affected by the bans.

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