Emirates Airline, Etihad Airways, Saudia, Gulf Air, flydubai and Air Arabia were among the airlines that ceased flights to Qatar, effective June 5, after Middle East states surrounding Qatar severed diplomatic links with the country and closed neighboring airspace. Doha-based Qatar Airways suspended flights to Saudi Arabia.
Early Monday, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Egypt announced they were breaking diplomatic relations with Qatar and instructed their nationals to leave the emirate within 14 days.
The announcement coincided with Monday’s opening of the IATA AGM in Cancun, where the world’s airline CEOs and senior executives are gathered.
Qatar Airways CEO Akbar al Baker was among those attending the event and he was seen at the AGM’s opening reception Sunday evening chatting with fellow guests and seemingly not aware of the imminent crisis. On Monday morning, he left Cancun on a private business jet, several other airline executives attending the AGM told ATW. “This new scenario also means that Qatar Airways will have to do a lot of detour flights because it will be not allowed to fly over those countries like Saudi Arabia,” one executive said.
Asked about the situation during an AGM press conference, IATA director general and CEO Alexandre de Juniac responded, “We are not in favor of bans and we would like to see connectivity restored as soon as possible.”
The diplomatic row has been simmering for some years over Qatar’s alleged funding for and support of several Islamic groups, notably Islamic State and the widely outlawed Moslem Brotherhood; the latter favors the overthrow of several hereditary rulers.
The final straw came when a news report appeared on the official Qatari news agency website two weeks ago, apparently from Qatar’s emir, criticizing Saudi Arabia and taking a more supportive line toward Iran, Saudi Arabia’s main rival in the region. Qatar said the website had been hacked.
Qatar Airways said in a brief statement on its website that it had “suspended all flights to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia” until the early hours of June 6. A spokeswoman said she had no further information on how operations might be affected.
Qatar Airways, a oneworld global alliance member, operates to multiple destinations in Saudi Arabia, as well as to other Gulf capitals.
The closure of Saudi, Bahraini and UAE airspace poses potentially serious problems for Qatar Airways. Qatar is a small peninsula jutting out from the eastern seaboard of the Arabian Peninsula. Saudi Arabia lies to the west; the UAE lies to the south and east. That limits the inbound and outbound tracks of Qatar Airways flights to the north and northeast, out over the Gulf and, potentially, over Iran.
ATW understands from sources in the region that the situation is made more complicated by the fact that Bahrain manages the upper airspace over Qatar. Qatar still has ATC control over its own lower airspace. How this will affect operations of the country’s national carrier is unclear.
Like many of the Gulf states, Qatar relies on a large expatriate workforce. There are, for example, an estimated 180,000 Egyptian nationals in the country who will now have to depart.