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Saudi Arabia Set to End Qatar’s Airspace Ban
In 2017 there was a diplomatic escalation in which Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Egypt decided to cut flights to and from Doha, and to which Saudi Arabia added the closure of its airspace. The denial of the use of Saudi airspace created multiple inconveniences for Qatar, which had to program longer routes to circumnavigate blocked airspace. But with the signing of a major deal for the region, the latest in a series of Middle East deals sought by the United States aimed at building a united front against Iran, that blockade could finally be lifted.
As part of the agreement, Saudi Arabia will reopen its airspace and all land and sea borders with Qatar starting Monday, Kuwait’s Foreign Minister Ahmad Nasser al-Sabah said on Kuwait TV. The Saudi state agency SPA quoted Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman as saying that the annual meeting of Gulf leaders would unite member countries “in the face of the challenges facing the region.”
The ruler of Qatar, Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani, will attend, the royal court said. Jared Kushner, the US presidential adviser for the Middle East, said that the crown prince of Saudi Arabia and the emir of Qatar would sign the agreement. While Saudi Arabia made it clear that it intended to lift the blockade, the other three countries did not, but Kushner said “we expect” that they will also join together to lift the blockade. Under the emerging agreement, Qatar will suspend lawsuits filed in international courts related to the blockade, the official said.
In June 2020, the International Court of Justice (ICJ) ruled in favor of Qatar, rejecting an appeal of a 2018 ICAO decision to dismiss their challenge of jurisdiction. A minor victory, since it was based on procedural questions rather than advancing throughout the merits of the case presented by Qatar in 2017, but analysts deemed the dismissal as positive for the country’s position in the litigation.
In the current state of things, any measure that eases conditions for carriers is more than welcome. If this relaxation of the blockade finally takes place, steep overcharges will be avoided by Qatar Airways, as flight extension to elude Saudi Arabia was penalizing both fuel quantity and crew expenses. These costs impacted severely in 2019 results for the company, which reached -$639 million, ten times the losses accrued in the 2017-2018 period. Although not all expenses are to be attributed to the blockage, the combination of factors was a big burden in the fiscal year that ended in March 2020. It is expected that despite the severe drop of demand that occurred in the fiscal year that will end in March 2021, the overextended flight routes will still play a role in the carrier’s economy.
Qatar Airways’ reroutes have led to longer routes, more fuel expenses and more CO2 emissions. In fact, the CEO Akbar Al Baker confirmed some years ago their dissatisfaction with the blockade: “While this illegal blockade has been ongoing for more than three years, we should never allow these illegal actions to be normalized. Threats to the safety and normalcy of International Civil Aviation should never be an acceptable tool for political posturing, and the international community must not allow the current actions to set the precedent for using freedom of navigation as a weapon to harm our country and its people”.
It has been some very busy days for the Qatari carrier after receiving three new Boeing 777 freighters and their 53rd Airbus A350. Moreover, the carrier has agreed on many new codeshare agreements with different airlines to promote connections with Qatar. From now on, the airline will fly their aircraft without any airspace restrictions. As the Qatar Airways CEO said, “As global travel recovers, our passengers can rely on us to fly greener and smarter with more flights to more destinations via the Best Airport in the Middle East, Hamad International Airport.”
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