The Latest on the Blockade of Qatar

Aug 2, 2017

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Since June 5, several Gulf nations including Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia together with Egypt cut ties with the peninsular nation of Qatar, which led to a complete blockade of all land, sea and air borders between the four nations and Qatar. In addition to the immediate suspension of flights between Qatar and its hostile neighbors, they implemented an additional blockade by banning all Qatari-registered aircraft from their airspace as well as flight information regions, or airways (which can be thought of as the freeways of the sky).

It may sound unusual that a country (or group of countries) can simply decide to completely close off its airspace to another country’s aircraft — and it generally is. There are United Nations agreements already in place and signed by the majority of the countries in the world that are designed to prevent this kind of situation from taking place.

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During the past few weeks, in the midst of the political rift in the Gulf region, officials from Qatar have been meeting with the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) which is the UN body pertaining to global aviation. It’s an organization that tends to stay out of politics — it mainly issues directives relating to things such as aviation safety, the electronics ban and more. However, ICAO also negotiated the treaties that regulate the “freedom of the skies.”

These treaties essentially form the basis of today’s laws governing aviation internationally — two that are especially relevant to Qatar and its ongoing crisis are the Chicago Convention on International Civil Aviation and The International Air Services Transit Agreement. The State of Qatar has been meeting with ICAO in hopes of finding a solution to the airspace closure, since many Qatar Airways flights now must add significant distance and time to avoid flying through the closed airspace.

For Qatar, the closure of Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates’ airspace has been the most critical. Qatar’s own airspace is tiny, and thus the airline relies on traveling through Bahrain’s comparatively vast airspace.

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Image courtesy of ICAO.

Qatar even signed another, separate agreement with Bahrain stating that it would always need to use Bahrain’s airspace, as it’s quite literally the only way out of the country via air. With Qatar having such little airspace, you can see why it’s so important that ICAO agreements such as the Transit Agreement exist in the first place. However, ICAO hasn’t dealt with a crisis like this in its 70 years of existence, and a complete closure of airspace like what we’re seeing now is unprecedented.

Qatar has urged ICAO to remind the countries blocking its flights of the two aforementioned treaties that they’ve all signed, which, according to Qatar, renders the airspace closure illegal. While ICAO as such can’t enforce anything, it can issue directives. Its 191 member countries have always respected and upheld these directives, and enforce them as standards for international aviation.

Here’s a rundown of what happened at a recent meeting between ICAO and Qatar:

Qatar’s argument centered around the two treaties mentioned above — the Chicago Convention and the Transit Agreement. The Chicago Convention confirms the exclusive sovereignty of all states in the airspace above their territory, and is signed by nearly all of the world’s countries with a civil aviation industry. It also states that in the event of a humanitarian crisis, an airline would be able to negotiate permission to enter the airspace of a given country in order to operate a rescue flight or similar. All of the nations that have imposed the blockade of Qatar are parties to this convention. This treaty doesn’t really establish any strong ground in this particular case, other than highlighting the ownership of airspace. However, when looked at together with the Transit Agreement, things change a bit.

The Transit Agreement is a multilateral agreement that allows overflights, which means that international aircraft can pass through any country’s airspace. It’s an agreement that’s heavily relied upon, as it means airlines will benefit from taking the most direct route, and saves airlines from having to negotiate separately with several different countries if they are going to fly through their airspace. Three of the four nations imposing the blockade (Bahrain, Egypt and the UAE) are signatories of this agreement which means they have committed to permitting scheduled flights from the State of Qatar to overfly their airspace. Since the diplomatic crisis started, these countries have chosen to ignore the Transit Agreement altogether. However, since Saudi Arabia hasn’t signed the Transit Agreement, it has no obligation to allow Qatar Airways to access its airspace.

After a long hearing at ICAO’s headquarters in Montreal, the following was announced:

ICAO also issued a directive for the involved countries to adhere to the Transit Agreement (the one signed by UAE, Bahrain and Egypt.)

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This is the first clear directive from ICAO stating that Bahrain, Egypt and the UAE are bound to uphold the Transit Agreement. This is particularly good news for Qatar, as there is now an external, official body firmly re-stating the importance of these treaties, even though ICAO can’t actually enforce them. Following the ICAO directive, Qatar is expected to have access to routes over international airspace (Bahrain, Egypt and the UAE) in early August — great news for passengers, as flight times should be slightly shorter again.

Bottom Line

Travel and aviation are, unfortunately, sometimes affected by political controversy, and this has a disproportionate effect on passengers. Open skies are important to the growth and continued operation of the aviation industry, and with the latest move by ICAO, Qatar has made a relevant step toward easing the airspace bans against it.

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