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A blockade by blockheads

Vijay Verghese, Editor, Smart Travel AsiaQatar Airways forges on, planning rapid expansion with redeployed aircraft and more of that smoked salmon. It's hard to keep a good oryx down.


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by Vijay Verghese/ Editor

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THE BLOCKADE of Qatar by five Arab nations, led by Saudi Arabia, is yet another example of the fragility and, perhaps, futility, of a Middle East concordat. Egypt, Bahrain, Yemen, and the UAE have followed the Saudis in demanding Qatar change its ‘evil’ ways – by shutting down outspoken television station Al Jazeera, and abandoning its support for Iran and assorted ‘terrorists’.

While the intent is clear – to throttle dissenting speech and to isolate Iran, which is seen as a Saudi nemesis – several have been caught in the crossfire, including Qatar Airways, a frontrunner in aviation, that has picked up numerous global awards for excellence. It also just produced a record 22 percent increase in annual profit of about US$540m – an ebullient graph, now imperilled by the US electronics ban and a peevish Saudi stunt.

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The air blockade is not as tight a noose as it might seem as access to Qatar in the Persian Gulf is available via Iran (to the west and north) and through Turkey, but it involves a circuit. Airlines from India and the East may take an hour extra to execute the loop, while carriers from London still take around six-and-a-half hours.

Qatar Airways chief executive, Akbar al-Baker described things as “business as usual,” while asking ICAO (the International Civil Aviation Organisation) to declare the blockade an “illegal act”. While the airline has undeniably taken a huge hit, it remains committed to the opening of 24 more destinations by 2018 and has redeployed its regional fleet – barred from neighbouring airspace – for this expansion phase.

{Qatar Airways remains committed to the opening of 24 more destinations by 2018 and has redeployed its blockaded regional fleet for this expansion

It also plans to set up a domestic airline in India with a fleet of around 100 narrowbody jets, to take advantage of the liberalising air regime there.

Qatar, which hosts a large US military base where over 11,000 coalition personnel and 100 military aircraft are deployed for ISIS strikes, has been mystified by the US response, harsh at first, then with emerging mixed signals as cooler heads attempted damage control.

Trump weighed in instantly with a customarily bizarre tweet: “During my recent trip to the Middle East I stated that there can no longer be funding of Radical Ideology. Leaders pointed to Qatar - look!” Shortly after, the US State Department’s Heather Nauert told the press, “Were the actions really about their concerns regarding Qatar's alleged support for terrorism or were they about the long-simmering grievances between and among the [Gulf] countries?

Qatar-Saudi tensions came into the open in 1995 when Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani took over in a quiet coup from his father and adopted an independent tack to move swiftly and decisively out of a perceived Saudi sphere of influence. Rivalry over wooing America, which has long favoured Saudi Arabia, has played its role too while Qatar’s enormous natural gas reserves have enabled it to punch well above its class.

Qatar Airways remains popular with passengers and has developed a strong brand in a short span of time. Yet, as it builds its international reach and muscle, another muddle is brewing in the United States where the airline plans to take up to a 10 percent stake in American Airlines – its Oneworld alliance partner – much to the public dismay of American CEO Doug Parker.

With Qatar Airways suggesting an initial 4.75 percent passive stake in the US company, Parker went on record to say, “While anyone can purchase our shares in the open market, we aren’t particularly excited about Qatar’s outreach, and we find it puzzling given our extremely public stance on the illegal subsidies that Qatar, Emirates and Etihad have all received from their governments over the years.”

US airlines have long groused about alleged government subsidies that favoured the Middle East’s big three – Qatar, Emirates and Etihad – and have lobbied hard for the US government to take action against them. American will be eating humble pie now if Qatar’s stake is approved, the US$808m investment far from small beer as the isolated emirate attempts to win friends and influence people.

Perhaps it may not be such a bad thing for Qatar Airways to seek more participation in an airline that consistently delivers America’s worst on-time performance and where cabin service might include a smack on the face with a pram, as one male attendant recently demonstrated in the ‘Strollergate’ incident.

If anything, the list of bullying demands by Arab neighbours seeking to enforce compliance, will compel Qatar to take a more non-Saudi line, bringing it into head-on conflict with more conservative states who see Qatar’s open-door approach as a mediator for rough outfits like the Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas, and al-Qaeda, as a direct threat to their own way of life. Al Jazeera will forge on and the candid Doha Debates aired periodically by the BBC are likely to continue examining prickly issues that many Arab governments would like to sweep under a Bedouin carpet.

Meanwhile, let’s look forward to that smoked salmon with goat cheese crumble aloft.

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