UN body decides in favor of expanding Qatari airspace

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The International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), a body of the United Nations, has given preliminary support to Qatar’s quest to take control of its airspace, just months after the Gulf state reestablished ties with its neighbors after years of rift. Doha would gain control of two new regions known as the Doha Flight Information Region (FIR), along with an additional Doha Search and Rescue Region (SRR). Qatar had previously ceded control of its airspace to neighboring Bahrain under a bilateral agreement.

Closing out the 223rd session of the ICAO Council on June 29, the official statement said it agreed “In principle” to the new mapping of the sky. After taking three years to review Qatar’s request, ICAO declared that the new “flight information region” over its sovereign territory and adjacent airspace was in compliance with the Chicago Convention.

Qatar will soon end its air navigation agreements with Bahrain, another Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) state, which provides it with air navigation services from its sovereign territory. But while Qatar will take over a larger region, Bahrain will relinquish its hold of some of its previous airspace to the Doha FIR.

During the session, Qatari Minister of Transport and Communications His Excellency Jassim Saif Ahmed Al-Sulaiti noted that the airspace proposal “demonstrates the massive investments Qatar has made to develop its air navigation system for the benefit of the region as a whole through safe, efficient and seamless air navigation services.”

Once the new plans are implemented, the Doha FIR and SRR will expand further to the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Iran and Bahrain. Notably, as aviation analyst Alex Macheras has pointed out, “About 30% of air traffic to the UAE will pass through the new Doha FIR (airspace) once established.” Therefore, Qatar will have a new source of income once the new flight route is operational, but Bahrain will lose the overflight fees and it could even affect the UAE.

Given that Qatar resolved its disputes with its four GCC neighbors just a few months ago, it may be treading sensitive ground.

In 2017, Saudi Arabia, UAE, Bahrain and Egypt had closed their airspace to Qatar as part of their diplomatic and economic boycott, even though it violated the ICAO Chicago convention. Although the blockade ended in January this year, Bahrain remained the outlier. and this new issue may complicate any further rapprochement with Qatar. Last year, four Bahraini fighter jets had Qatar’s airspace violated in December and Doha had reported the incident to the UN Security Council.

While Doha’s ties with Riyadh and Cairo have normalized, talks with Abu Dhabi continue, and Bahrain has not yet re-established trade and travel ties with Qatar. Last month, Bahrain’s foreign ministry also pointed out that Qatar has failed to respond to two invitations it sent for bilateral talks at delegation level in Manama on some unresolved issues.

The next day, Bahrain suddenly said it was ready to work on Qatar’s proposal to take control of its airspace, and this became the first sign of reconciliation between the two neighbors in media reports.

Apparently, behind the scenes ICAO members had supported Qatar’s airspace proposal before their council meeting, urging Bahrain and other Gulf states to discuss and agree “technical arrangements” for the Doha FIR.

Now, following the ICAO Council’s official announcement, Bahrain has once again moved up a gear, its news agency said tweeted“The Minister of Transport and Communications emphasizes that any change in the management of aviation in the Arabian Gulf must be carried out in coordination and agreement between the countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council.”

After participating in the ICAO meeting and agreeing to the resolution in favor of Doha, this is an unusual move by Manama. Other neighboring GCC states such as Saudi Arabia did not object to the new arrangement in previous council meetings, but are not directly affected by the new flight route like Bahrain.

To add perspective, Qatar had good reasons to approach ICAO.

Interestingly, while Bahrain is the smallest of all the GCC states, it controls the most crucial north-south air routes over the Gulf and has the largest airspace since 1971 when it gained independence from Britain.

The “Bahrain FIR” is unevenly distributed, stretching from Kuwait across the Gulf to the UAE, and Qatar has never had full control of its airspace. Instead, Doha had delegated its air navigation to Manama, as all British-era military airports were in Bahrain.

This would have remained the status quo if the Doha blockade had not happened. Qatar realized the shortcomings of its air route during the three-year blockade, when Bahrain allowed Qatar Airways to depart and land at Doha Hamad International Airport, but prevented it from using other routes in its FIR.

Facing major hurdles in reaching international destinations, the airline ran into a dead end as the narrow air corridor made the air blockade very effective. In that time, IranTurkey and Oman granted airspace access to Qatar Airways flights to Europe and Asia and helped bypass the blockade.

Previously, Qatar had never minded Bahrain managing or taking advantage of overflight fees in one of the busiest air transit areas in the world, as both countries were members of the ICAO Transit Agreement and GCC states. But this was when Doha started looking for a long-term solution to the problem.

In his interviews at the time, Qatar Airways CEO Akbar Al Baker had pronounced the blockade a “clear violation of civil aviation conventions”. Forced to take longer routes, such as through Southeast Asia, Qatar Airways drop 18 destinations from his network. Longer flight times led to higher fuel consumption.

By adding 24 new routes to offset the impact, the airline survived but had to correct losses as a major sector was cut off. About 17.5% of Qatar Airways’ weekly flights went to the same countries that had imposed the boycott. Finally, in early 2018, Doha sent a formal proposal to ICAO for the Doha FIR.

In the official notification, the UN called on Qatar, Bahrain and other “surrounding states with an interest in this matter” to “agree to technical agreements for the implementation of the Doha FIR/SRR.” Therefore, it is likely that Qatar will gain its airspace independence and ultimately achieve its air sustainability goals.

Bahrain is committed to following ICAO advice, especially those regarding sky redrawing, and has remained involved throughout the proceedings. Although the international aviation authority cannot impose its decisions on states, the regulators of the 193 member states almost always comply with its international aviation standards.

In addition, ICAO called it a “decision achievement”, facilitated by its council and, following an assessment by the ICAO Air Navigation Commission, announced that Qatar “possess the capabilities and qualifications necessary to manage air traffic safely and effectively.”

Shorter flight times from Doha to destinations in North America, Africa and Europe could give Qatar an extra boost as it prepares to host the 2022 World Cup.

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