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Qatar’s move to take control of its airspace comes amid warming regional ties

As the United States is gradually retreating from the Middle East to refocus on Russia and China, a new level of cooperation has been witnessed among countries of the region.
A Qatar Airways Airbus A350 airplane takes off from Hamad International Airport near the Qatari capital, Doha, on Jan. 11, 2021.

The day is June 4, 2017. Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Egypt and Bahrain have just announced that they are halting all land, sea and air travel with Qatar alongside ejecting its diplomats and ordering Qatari citizens to leave the Gulf states within the next two weeks.  

Half a decade since the Middle East region was shaken by one of its biggest diplomatic crises to date, ties have been restored. Against the odds, Doha largely emerged as a winner, with the country most recently establishing its first-ever airspace, a goal it has strived for since 2017. This is a significant development for the Gulf country, as it represents the first time since it became independent that it will hold complete and exclusive sovereignty over its airspace.

In 1971, after Qatar and Bahrain gained independence from the United Kingdom, the sovereign nations signed an agreement in which Qatari air navigation services were delegated to Manama. The decision was primarily determined based on the fact that Bahrain was where the majority of military airports and radars were located. Although international law accordingly concedes countries’ right to establish and control their individual airspace, the 1944 Chicago Convention also allows governments to mandate these responsibilities to other nations. Consequently, Bahrain — the smallest Gulf state — has controlled the largest airspace portion above the region, which has implied that any aircraft bound for Qatar is first required to request its permission before flying over. Located in one of the world’s busiest transit regions, Bahrain has also continuously benefited from overflight fees, which airlines are charged in order to pass through a nation’s airspace.      

On March 11, the establishment of the Doha Flight Information Region (FIR) was approved by the council members of the UN’s agency responsible for aviation, the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO). These include Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Singapore, Greece, South Africa and the United States. The delimitation of this new airspace will be done in a two-phase approach, with the proposal for transition due in November 2022.

Speaking to Al-Monitor, Dean Mikkelsen, an aviation and geopolitical analyst at Hannibal Global Insight, says that it “will be the initial trial phase to show how Qatar will transition safely and effectively into their own FIR from the Bahrain FIR.”

The first phase dimensions will cover all of Qatar’s economic waters and lands as well as the international waters east of the country until UAE borders to an unlimited altitude. In addition, the airspace over international waters located north of Qatar up to Iran’s frontiers will be managed to an altitude of 24,500 feet (from sea level). By 2024, upon successful implementation of the first phase, the second one will be executed, which will see all zones of the Doha IFR expanded to an unlimited altitude.

Qatar initially submitted a proposal to the ICAO in 2018, one year following the blockade during which much of the focus was placed on the disproportionality of airspace allocation in the Gulf. As the idea came at a highly politically sensitive time, several Gulf states opposed it. The closure of Saudi, Bahraini and Emirati air borders and airports to Qatari-registered aircraft had several negative consequences on the country’s aviation sector. This included an overall disruption of its global operations alongside an important rise in the costs and flight times both for shipping and air travel, as Qatari planes were forced to fly in and out of the country through a small passage over the Gulf to and from Iran’s airspace. Only once aircraft reached Iranian air traffic control could the flights head to their actual journeys. To put this into perspective, air transport editor Alan Dron explains, “A flight from Doha to Djibouti would normally depart from the Qatari capital and head southwest across Saudi Arabia taking around 2.5 hours … with the Saudi airspace closed, the flight had to navigate out over the Arabian Gulf before turning south across Oman (neutral in the dispute), creating a four-hour-long journey.” Overall, Qatar Airways claimed that the blockade had cost it approximately $5 billion with the exclusion of the $100 million per year the state paid Iran to use its airspace.

With a rehabilitated political environment, the Doha FIR finally received a green light. To be established, it necessitated that Qatar successfully prove that it had in place effective and safe infrastructure and systems which it did in part by making immense investments into developing its air navigation structure. In addition, it required Doha to directly work with Bahrain to agree on appropriate technical arrangements, as the latter saw its airspace reduced as a result of the creation of the new FIR.

The creation of Qatar’s FIR also comes at an interesting time for the region, as it is undergoing significant geopolitical changes. As the United States is gradually retreating from the Middle East to refocus on Russia and China, a new level of cooperation has been witnessed among countries of the region with some extending their reach into North Africa and the Levant.

Mikkelsen said, “We are seeing the Gulf focusing on the pan-Arab world of the Middle East and North Africa. And although it will not happen overnight, we could eventually see the formation of a larger economic block through different agreements.” As things progress and the GCC slowly unites again, the rivalries previously witnessed should gradually dissipate.

Nonetheless, the new FIR will unarguably bring about several important implications. On the one hand, it is significant in that it is redrawing the world’s airspace map to include this addition while also reflecting a more evenly distributed division of the skies over the Gulf region. On the other hand, for Qatar, this was a critical step to take not only in terms of gaining airspace independence and reaffirming its sovereignty but also to enable its civil aviation sector to engender greater growth. With its FIR, Doha will now be able to charge airlines to use its airspace, as civil aviation navigation services represent one of the largest revenue-grossing businesses operated by governments. According to Mikkelsen, this will be the most significant and positive impact of the new FIR, as it “will force surrounding nations to conduct diplomacy and work together over conflict, something that has been missing for the past several years as the Gulf has been fragmented.” He adds that the region is ultimately stronger if Gulf countries cooperate together, an argument that Qatar has maintained in the past and throughout the blockade.

GCC states seem to have understood this concept and have recently shown a greater willingness to put aside previous important differences as to bolster trade and economic ties for the benefit of the region. In this regard, Mikkelsen points to the acceptance by the UAE and Saudi Arabia of Qatar’s close partners such as Turkey. During the blockade, both Abu Dhabi and Riyadh were firm in their request that Doha cut ties with Ankara — something it did not agree to do. And now the Gulf is increasingly engaging with Turkey for investments and technology.

Qatar will also be able to relieve some of the burdens of other Gulf states in terms of the flow of air traffic, as over 50% of flights bound for the UAE will now be flying through the Doha FIR. Whereas this previously proved to be challenging, the new airspace will help to maximize air travel efficiency. Lastly, the country hosting the 2022 World Cup next December, this move was imperative as to effectively prepare and have operational control over the expected increase in traffic the event will generate. With the Ukraine war causing severe increases in the price of fuel, the savings that Doha’s new IFR will create by decreasing flight times and paths will likely be welcomed by the region.

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