By Alex Macheras
Back in June 2017, a Saudi-led unjust blockade on the State of Qatar pushed the distribution of airspace in the Gulf into the spotlight. Blockading states — the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and also Egypt — issued NOTAMS (notices to flight crew) announcing the immediate closure of their airspace to all Qatari registered aircraft, a breach of ICAO’s Chicago Convention.
For Qatar, the closure of Bahrain’s airspace had been the most critical. Qatar’s own “airspace” is very small, and thus its airline relied on flying through Bahrain’s comparatively vast “airspace”. When Bahrain announced it had closed its airspace in order to impose an air blockade on its Gulf neighbour — the Middle East realised the huge (air) territorial power Bahrain had possessed for the last 50 years.
Sovereign airspace by international law corresponds with the maritime definition of territorial waters as being 12 nautical miles out from a nation’s coastline. Airspace not within any country’s territorial limit is considered international. When I refer to ‘airspace’, I’m actually referring to a “flight information region” shape (FIR).
When Bahrain and Qatar gained their independence from the UK in 1971, there wasn’t any change to the FIR shapes in the Gulf region, which had previously been determined based on where military radars had initially been installed. These radars were positioned from a military efficiency perspective, without taking into account a future of thriving Gulf airline carriers. The key part to this answer is that the airspace shape formed for military purposes was maintained.
Why was airspace distribution in the Gulf kept the same? It was a matter of administrative convenience. Back in the 1970s, it was determined that equally distributing FIR areas (airspace) to each state would require flight crew to speak to four different air traffic controllers within the space of around 15-20 minutes. While there are some areas of the world where this occurs, the Gulf states didn’t see the need for a redistribution, given the hassle it would present to airline flight crew. With a history of good relations between Qatar and Bahrain, both being members of the GCC (Gulf Council Corp) and also being signatory members of International Civil Aviation Organization’s (ICAO — UN body for Aviation) Transit Agreement, Bahrain had committed under the agreement to always permit scheduled flights from every nation, without discrimination.
With Bahrain now being in breach of their ICAO treaty, Bahrain eased restrictions slightly in order to allow Qatari jets to fly in/out of Doha. Nevertheless, the majority of its airspace remains closed to its Gulf neighbour, and ICAO court cases disputing the matter are ongoing.
Putting the current Gulf Crisis to one side for just a moment, it’s worth highlighting that its very rare Bahrain was able to inherit such a vast amount of airspace — which it now uses to its advantage in an unprecedented geopolitical blockade, some 50 years later.
Can Qatar ever reclaim a fair portion of airspace? It’s never been done before, and so remains unknown.
This week in Doha, severe thunderstorms caused flight disruption at Hamad International Airport. HIA temporarily suspended all arrivals and departures, and arriving airline jets were forced to circulate at 4,000ft near to Qatar, waiting for the bad weather to clear.
Some Qatar Airways aircraft that were circulating for over 30 minutes needed to divert, but usual divert options of Bahrain, Abu Dhabi and Dubai were unavailable due to the ongoing airspace blockade. During the storm, some Qatar Airways aircraft were forced to divert Kuwait (over 1 hour away), and to Kermanshah in Iran.
With safety being the global aviation industry’s main priority, ICAO should call on blockading Gulf states to allow Qatari-registered jets to divert to their airports in an emergency situation. With the worst of this week’s storm lasting around 1 hour, Gulf states could have easily edited their airspace access notice, temporarily allowing Qatari jets to land in the interest of aviation and passenger safety — but this was not the case.
n The author is an aviation analyst. Twitter: @AlexInAir
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