Two years ago this week, a Saudi-led unjust blockade against Qatar prohibited all Qatari-registered jets from entering Saudi, UAE, Bahrain & Egypt airspace.
For Qatar, the closure of Bahrain’s airspace had been the most critical. Qatar’s own “airspace” is 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 flight crew. With a history of good relations between Qatar and Bahrain, both being members of the GCC (Gulf Co-operation Council) and also being signatory members of International Civil Aviation Organisation’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 later 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 attempted to resolve the matter, but was not successful.
Putting the current Gulf Crisis to one side for just a moment, it’s worth highlighting that it was very rare that 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.
Will Qatar reclaim a fair portion of airspace in future? It’s never been done before, and so remains unknown at this juncture.
Two years on, however, Qatar’s aviation industry has adapted well and continues to grow and expand, despite the attempts by some of its Gulf neighbours.
*The author is an aviation analyst. Twitter handle: @AlexInAir