Saudi Arabia has agreed to reopen its airspace and borders to Qatar, allowing Qatar Airways planes to again take direct flight paths instead of having to fly huge detours.
Qatar has been at political odds with Saudi Arabia, as well as with the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Egypt, since June 2017. The four Middle Eastern countries decided in that month to severe all diplomatic ties with Qatar.
As a result, the land and sea borders between these countries and Qatar were closed, while Qatari planes were also barred from using their airspace.
The political dispute had severe consequences for Qatar. The country is situated on a peninsula in the Persian Gulf, only sharing a land border with Saudi Arabia.
With the sole land border being sealed off and sea routes with the neighbouring countries of the UAE and Bahrain being closed too, the country was left in relative isolation, having to deal with longer trade and travel routes.
Food and other goods could no longer be imported from Saudi Arabia or the UAE, and suddenly had to come by sea from Iran or more faraway countries.
Flights to and from Qatar suddenly were problematic too, given that the Saudi Arabian and UAE airspace surrounding Qatar was firmly closed for Qatari planes. This meant that Qatar Airways, one of the world’s largest airline companies, could no longer overfly these countries, forcing them to make huge detours.
These detours added lots of hours to flight times and thus increased fuel costs, which were an increasing burden for the state-owned carrier.
If you look at some recent flight paths, you can clearly see the problem. Take for example flight QR1416 from Lagos, Nigeria to Doha, the capital of Qatar.
When drawing the shortest possible distance between these two cities on a map, you get a flight path like this over Chad, Sudan and Saudi Arabia.
However, this fastest possible route as the crow flies was not possible for Qatar Airways. Instead, the airline was forced to take a bizarre detour, first flying north towards Tunisia and the Mediterranean Sea, only to fly from there to the east towards Turkey.
Only when Iraqi airspace was reached, could this Qatar Airways aeroplane head south again towards the Persian Gulf and Doha. Talk about a huge detour!
Reopening of Saudi airspace
According to Kuwaiti Foreign Minister Ahmad Nasser Al-Sabah, his country has now brokered a deal between Saudi Arabia and Qatar which sees the Saudis reopening their airspace again to Qatari planes.
The land border between the two countries would reopen as well according to media reports.
For the Qatari rulers, this was always a prerequisite before the countries could meet to find a solution for their political problems.
News producer Jamal Elshayyal of Qatari-owned Al Jazeera broadcasting network said that the reopening of the borders was “very significant“.
He said: “One of the pre-conditions the Qataris had was that it made no sense to discuss or sign an agreement as long as it remained under an unjust and illegal blockade.”
Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain and Egypt had long accused Qatar of supporting the terrorism on the Arab Peninsula. They also blamed the Al Jazeera TV network for advocating pro-Muslim Brotherhood views which are anathema to the rulers of the four countries.
Further complicating the political crisis is the deepening strife between the four Arab countries and Turkey, which has cosy relationships with the Emir of Qatar.
During the diplomatic crisis between Qatar and Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Egypt and Bahrain, Iran also vouched its support for Qatar, which further soured relations between the parties involved.
The spat between Qatar and the four Arab states therefore must be seen in the picture of a much wider geopolitical battle in the region.
What will happen next?
It is unclear what will happen next as the reopening of the borders and airspace is just the first step and real negotiations have yet to begin. I’m far from a political or Middle Eastern expert, but having travelled through the region quite extensively and having read quite a lot about the wider issues, I would expect the four Arab states demanding big concessions from Qatar.
The wider issue is not about Qatar itself, but is about Turkey and Iran. I would expect the rulers of the four Arab countries to demand Qatar to come back into the fold and to cool down its cosy relationships with Ankara and Tehran.
After all, there is so much more at stake here for tiny Qatar than for countries like Saudi Arabia and the UAE. The blockade is costing Qatar tons of money, and although the country has deep pockets due to oil and gas revenues, it does feel the strain, especially now in these times of economic hardship thanks to the corona pandemic.
Being a small country compared to its closest neighbours of Saudi Arabia and the UAE, as well as being dependent on the land and sea borders, Qatar simply does not have a lot of leverage.
I’m highly curious what the Qatari’s already had to concede just for the borders to be reopened. The role of the US should also not be underestimated here. Having already brokered unprecedented peace deals between Israel and some Middle Eastern states, it looks like the Americans are pushing hard as well here to contain Iran’s influence by trying to get Qatar back into the fold.
Any agreement which ends a political and diplomatic crisis is essentially good news. Although this certainly counts for the parties directly involved, especially Qatar, it is also great for airline passengers.
Qatar Airways flight are no longer required to make bizarre detours costing several hours of extra flying time. Although Qatar’s Government bore the financial brunt, it was certainly not sustainable in the long-run and could only meant an increase in ticket prices and Qatar Airways eventually becoming uncompetitive.
With the Saudi and UAE airspace being reopened, flight times are likely to be greatly shortened, especially some flights to Africa and South-East Asia.
Given that a final deal has yet to be reached, a lot can still happen in the meantime, so we just have to hope that the current agreement will stand.
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