Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 July 2019

Avoiding Iran is a story as old as the first days of passenger flight

The first airport in Sharjah was built when Iran refused access to Imperial Airways

The Imperial Airways Hannibal Class Handley Page HP42 passenger plane Hanno, during a refuelling stop at Kuwait in the 1930s. Photo by Fox Photos/Getty Images
The Imperial Airways Hannibal Class Handley Page HP42 passenger plane Hanno, during a refuelling stop at Kuwait in the 1930s. Photo by Fox Photos/Getty Images

It is an old story with a very familiar ring today. Vital air services through the Arabian Gulf are disrupted and threatened by the belligerent actions of Iran.

In this case, the crisis that almost severed aviation routes between Europe and Asia happened almost 90 years ago, at the dawn of commercial passenger flights.

It underlines both the importance of the Gulf as an aviation hub and the continuing risk today to world travel due to political and military upheaval in the region.

The key players in the 1930s crisis were Reza Shah, then Shah of Iran, Imperial Airways, the predecessor of British Airways, the British Empire and the then Trucial States, in particular Sharjah.

At stake was the key air route between London and British India which would slash the journey time between them from several weeks by sea to just six days.

But it was the actions of Iran that threatened to cripple the entire project.

The twists and turns are revealed in a series of previously coded documents sent between India and the British government, marked “secret” and with the instruction “must be locked up when not in use”.

They were sealed from public gaze for 50 years, and finally declassified in 1983. Copies can now be read at the website of the UAE National Archives.

Imperial Airways was formed in 1924, at first carrying mail and passengers in Europe, but soon developing long haul routes.

The aircraft were propellor driven with unpressurised cabins. By today’s standards they were slow and flew low. They also needed to make regular stops to refuel.

The largest was the Handley Page 42, the Airbus A380 of the age. Powered by four engines, the bi-plane could carry up to 25 passengers with a top speed of 100 mph. It had a range of up to 500 miles.

Introduced in 1931, Imperial Airways planned to use the aircraft on its Eastern Route, connecting the airport at Croydon in the UK to India and on to Australia. The timetable shows 13 stops before landing in New Delhi, with a flight time of nearly 63 hours, and with several overnight layovers.

Back then, aircraft flew mostly over land, or hugged the coastline, in case of engine problems. From London, refuelling stops included Paris, Athens, Cairo, Gaza and Kuwait.

For the final leg to British India, a place to land along the eastern end of the Arabian Gulf was essential. It was here that the Iranians began to cause trouble.

Problems began in 1927, when the British attempted to extend a three-year agreement that allowed them to overfly Iranian territory on the way to Karachi.

A report to London from the British Legation in Tehran reveals that the Iranians had already torn up the existing agreement and were most unlikely to agree a new one.

The culprit was General Shaibani, chief of Iran’s general staff, and described as “an ardent and narrow minded nationalist,” with an “obsession” about British influence in the region.

The general, the report said, was particularly keen to extend Iranian “sovereign rights in…the waters of the Gulf”.

The British also suspected another motive, believing that the Iranians were going behind their backs to deal with an old enemy.

In May 1930, the British air ministry received an urgent encoded telegram marked “Secret”.

A local agent in Iraq had been in touch on behalf of the German aircraft company Junkers seeking information about landing grounds in the Gulf.

“Would suggest…foreign aircraft companies will establish themselves unless Imperial Airways show more drive and initiative,” it warned.

With the Germans showing interest in the region and its valuable oil resources, and the Iranian refusal to permit British aircraft to fly along its Gulf coast, a new solution had to be found - and quickly.

The southern coast of the Arabian Gulf might offer a way out, but was considered a desolate and underdeveloped place, with no landing spots or agreements to do so.

The best option were the so-called Trucial States, as the seven Emirates that make up the UAE were then known.

Under British protection for nearly 100 years, “friendly relations exist…with the Arab sheikhs,” a cable to London noted in August 1930.

A list of possible landing grounds was drawn up. Abu Dhabi could be used for flying boats. Dubai was “the most advanced place as regards civilisation and trade on the Trucial Coast. No difficultly in siting an aerodrome”.

Sharjah, meanwhile, was rejected in three words: “Unsuitable - too exposed.”

Yet it was Sharjah that proved to win the day. In April 1932, an urgent cable to London from the British agent in Sharjah reported: “Negotiations successfully concluded.”

Under the agreement, the British would pay the Ruler rent and landing fees, building the airstrip and other facilities, including a rest house, fortified because of fears of raids by bandits. The Ruler would also provide armed security from his men.

Flights began in October 1932, with Sharjah Airport named Al Mahatta, or The Station, passengers from London or Karachi would stay overnight in relative comfort and enjoy the only bath between India and Iraq.

Dinner was the “homely smells of Brown Windsor soup and roast mutton” accompanied by “giant bowls of oysters, good wines and sickly sweet pastries”, according to one contemporary account.

More modern aircraft removed the need for most overnight stops, but Al Mahatta remained a key regional base for the Royal Air Force until 1971 and is now Sharjah’s aviation museum.

More than 80 years later, the Gulf has become a major aviation hub, yet still risks being disrupted by the region’s conflicts and disputes.

The possibility that a passenger jet might be shot down has forced airlines to reroute numerous times down what is an increasingly congested corridor.

The US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) currently has warnings about the risks overflying all or part of more than a dozen countries, many in the region, including Libya, Yemen, and the Sinai peninsular.

The continuing conflict in Syria and Iraq has proved a particular headache, especially during the period when ISIS was most active.

Flights from Europe that would normally take the most direct route were forced to divert, largely over Iran, which greatly benefited from the fees paid by airlines to overfly.

Now airlines are turning to the Arabian peninsular for safe passage. The cause is the shooting down of a US drone in international airspace last week, with local airlines Etihad, Emirates and flyDubai among those adapting their routes to avoid the Strait of Hormuz and the Gulf of Oman.

The culprit, again, is Iran, which shot down the drone. It has also been accused by several countries of being behind the recent attacks on shipping in the region.

To avoid Iran, aircraft must now follow the same route along the southern Gulf that was pioneered by Imperial Airways. And so, history is repeating itself.

Updated: June 29, 2019 04:56 PM

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