Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 20 May 2019

Doha's expanded air transport links belie 'blockade' claims

Amid Qatar's dispute with Gulf neighbours, talks with EU over aviation deal remain on track

Qatar Airways aircraft at Hamad International Airport in Doha. Reuters / Naseem Zeitoon
Qatar Airways aircraft at Hamad International Airport in Doha. Reuters / Naseem Zeitoon

Talks with Qatar over an ambitious air transport agreement with the European Union are continuing on schedule with both the EU and Doha keen to show the impact of the Gulf crisis on regional air traffic has been minimal.

On June 5, Saudi Arabia, the UAE and its allies severed diplomatic, economic and air, land and sea transport links with Qatar over its support of extremist groups.

Since then, Doha has argued that it is the target of a “blockade”, although the measures undertaken by Saudi, the UAE, Bahrain and Egypt constitute a boycott as Qatar’s links to other countries remain unaffected. Its foreign minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al Thani says that Qatar is paying ten times as much to import food and medicine since the crisis started.

On the one hand, Qatar complains of a ‘blockade’, while on the other hand it has sought to show its ability to continue to expand its connections with the outside world. It has launched new shipping routes and announced new destinations for its national carrier, proving it remains unhindered in having access to other markets and regions. Hamad Port, south of the Qatari capital, is operating at "full capacity," the port's director, Abdelaziz Nasser Al-Yafei told AP. The port received 212 ships in June, with 24,000 containers, 4,300 cars, 61,000 livestock and 6,400 tonnes of construction materials, according to AP. On one evening earlier this month, five large ships docking in Hamad Port unloaded sheep from Australia, food from Turkey and cars made in South Korea. Yesterday, Turkey said it had sent 197 cargo planes, 16 trucks and one ship to Qatar since the dispute began, according to a Reuters report quoting economy minister Nihat Zeybekci. However, longer routes have to be taken, a matter which is having a financial impact.

As the Arab boycott continues amid the Qatar crisis, Doha has been seeking to expand its external relations, which would not be feasible under a blockade. It is unencumbered enough that the EU will not hold off concluding a key air transport deal with it. Violeta Bulc, the European commissioner for transport, who is leading efforts to review the block’s aviation regulations with a number of nations, said that the Gulf remained a priority in terms of finalising these pacts and that the row would not impact talks.

"Europe sees the Gulf countries as important partners and we intend to maintain excellent relations with each of them, including in the aviation sector. Negotiations for an ambitious air transport agreement with Qatar will therefore continue and I am hopeful that we will soon be in a position to start similar negotiations with the UAE," she said.

Ms Bulc said that she will meet with Sultan Al Mansouri, economy minister and chairman of the General Civil Aviation Authority board next month and extend an invitation for the UAE to enter talks with the EU.

Negotiations with Qatar had already made good progress by early June, according to the European Commission (EC). The current diplomatic row between Qatar and its neighbours has impacted Qatar Airways with it recently deploying spare aircraft in Europe to help strike-hit British Airways maintain its short-haul schedule. This month Qatar Airways said it would bring forward the launch of new routes to Sohar in Oman and Prague. Its chief executive Akbar al-Baker has claimed it is business as usual, pushing ahead with plans to invest at least US$800 million in American Airlines.

According to Saj Ahmad, chief analyst at StrategicAero Research, securing bilateral deals such as with the EU is key to the growth ambitions of Arabian Gulf carriers. However, the current political dispute does cloud the outlook for how Qatar’s neighbours might respond to the conclusion of a deal between it and the EU before the crisis is resolved. European aviation accounts for 26 per cent of the world market. Total seats on scheduled flights between the EU and the six nations of the GCC have more than tripled over the past decade to 39 million in 2015, according to the EC.

The EU’s negotiations with Gulf countries on air transport agreements also cover market access including addressing the allegations voiced by European airlines of unfair competition from Gulf carriers.

Mr Ahmad said that other issues may come in to play such as the future of Airbus’ A380 which is struggling to find new customers.

Updated: July 12, 2017 10:04 PM