By Alex Macheras
For a long time, the European Union was virtually silent on the ongoing Saudi-led air blockade of Qatar. While this could be perceived as perfectly normal, given the trade bloc itself has little connection to Gulf countries, it’s 28 member countries (which is set to become 27 countries, assuming Brexit takes place) are home to some of the Gulf’s largest foreign partner markets, including the UK, France and Germany. The EU itself is a champion of truly open skies, and henceforth, the air blockade imposed by Saudi, UAE, Bahrain and Egypt on the State of Qatar in 2017 was never going to be well-received by top EU leaders.
Fast-forward to now, almost two years of the ongoing blockade, the EU have spoken out — and against the blockading Gulf states. “The air blockade of Qatar was unthinkable to us. We cannot tolerate countries using civil aviation for political moves like this,” said the director of Transport for the EU Commission. His official comments in Doha was the first time an EU official publicly took a stance on the ongoing Gulf rift, calling out countries including the UAE and Saudi Arabia for violating signed airspace agreements, and attempting to ‘close in’ a fellow Gulf country.
The attempt from some Gulf countries to reduce and restrict Qatar’s aviation industry displeased the EU to such an extent that, in an unprecedented move, the trade bloc representing 28 European countries decided to work to establish an air travel agreement with Qatar that would boost its market access to Europe like no other Gulf country has ever seen, or had before. It’s here that the “Comprehensive Air Transport Agreement between the EU and State of Qatar” was born, a historic new partnership, and the first of its kind ever between the EU and a Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) member state. The agreement between both the parties states all air carriers from the 28 European Union member states and Qatar now have unlimited and unrestricted access to their respective territories. Crucially for Qatar, it means the national airline Qatar Airways can now fly to cities, including London & Paris — two of the airlines’ largest markets — in 28 European countries, without restriction, and in an unlimited manner. Ordinarily, foreign (non-EU) airlines wanting to expand their presence in Europe would be restricted to limits, but for the first time in history, Qatar has become the first country in the Gulf to have been given such access by the EU. In return, European airlines will be able to fly to Doha, without restriction — boosting the incentive for airlines wishing to fly to the Middle East.
It’s not a deal that’s been the easiest to negotiate, admits CEO of Qatar Airways al-Baker, but following almost 2 years of negotiations, hearings, and mutual agreements — the two parties are set to sign the agreement later this year, an agreement that will give Qatar Airways a competitive advantage over Emirates and Etihad Airways, all of which focus on carrying passengers between Europe and Asia via their Middle Eastern airport hubs.
Qatar Airways’ relationship with the EU has strengthened in the build-up to the agreement. The airline employs over 1,000 EU citizens and regularly purchases Airbus aircraft in deals amounting to €27bn. The airline already operates over 600 flights (more than 90,000 passengers) to Europe each week, and holds significant stakes in airlines based in the EU, including British Airways and Spanish flag carrier airline, Iberia.
It’s safe to say that this somewhat unique, new agreement focusing on the ‘freedoms’ of air travel for Qatari registered jets would have never have arisen had it not have been for the airspace blockade imposed by Saudi, and other Gulf states. European markets are fast growing, and the demand for long haul air travel climbs year on year. Once both parties are signatory to this new deal, Qatar Airways will be able to expand in Europe like no other airline in the Gulf has ever had the opportunity to do.
*The author is an aviation analyst. Twitter handle: @AlexInAir
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