No-fly zone

Are the changing fortunes of the Gulf carriers a cause for concern?

On my most recent long-haul flight, in December last year, the route took my fellow passengers and me across five countries, three continents and one ocean. Out of the European Union, through the African Union and into the Union of South American Nations. Trans-Atlantic and trans-hemisphere. North to south, winter to summer, three hours backwards in time zones.

A Qatar Airways flight takes off (QR official)

This happened smoothly and the few hundred of us on board had no reason to spend time thinking about the intricacies of international aircraft and airspace agreements. The hundreds of thousands of people up in the sky as you read this will rather be watching films, snatching a few restless hours’ kip or nibbling at a tray of in-flight food.

But when diplomatic quarrels escalate to include no-entry signs for the maligned airlines of regional foes, things come more sharply into focus.

Qatar Airways is having a bumpy old time of it at the moment. On the bright side, it has just regained its title as best airline in the world. The consumer website Skytrax also awarded it best airline in the Gulf.

On the other hand, the Saudi Arabia-led isolation of Qatar by several countries – nations from as far and wide as Mauritania, Mauritius, and the Maldives – has forced the airline to shift some of its routes. It has been banned, for the moment, from passing over certain countries – frustratingly for Doha, they include its three closest neighbours: Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.

An Etihad Airbus A380 plane (EY official)

This should be a red-letter day for its rival Gulf airlines, Etihad and Emirates, based out of the UAE cities of Abu Dhabi and Dubai respectively. It certainly offers some relief for the former, which has been enduring a torrid time relating to its investment in the Italian flag-carrier, Alitalia.

Last month, the struggling Rome-based airline filed for bankruptcy. Etihad pumped just shy of €2bn into Alitalia in 2014 but has seen its opportunity to make anything of the investment blow away in the wind.

Emirates is also on a bit of a come-down this year, recording profit before tax of $405m – an enormous drop from 2016’s figure of $2bn. The Dubai-based carrier explained the  challenges its margins faced as coming from “increased competition and overcapacity”.

An Emirates Boeing 777 (EK official)

It also complained that it had been hit by a drop in demand for flights to the US which it blamed on “the actions taken by the US government relating to the issuance of entry visas, heightened security vetting, and restrictions on electronic devices in aircraft cabins”.


So is the status of the Gulf as the world air hub in danger? It pounced on saturation in European airports such as Heathrow (UK), Schiphol (Netherlands) and Frankfurt (Germany) and promoted its geography. Racing economies in Qatar and the UAE boosted its position further, and with investment came expansion in routes, passenger numbers, aeroplane numbers and the size of their airports.

The dwindling price of oil certainly called this into question and the US ban mentioned above hit the area further. Now that the countries in the region have fallen out with each other it has derailed the upward curve the major Gulf airlines enjoyed. They are finding life a bit tougher at the top.

Their rise was cheered and this period of turbulence is useful in that it serves to remind them that it is always easier to be the challenger upstart, but pressure builds when you yourself turn into an established player in the world’s airspace.


Arab problems, Persian solutions?

Oman and Yemen share the southern coast of the Arabian Peninsula but not much else at the moment

In the latest trouble to rock Yemen, half a dozen people were killed and many others injured after security officials opened fire on a suicide car bomber which set off the device in the southern city of Aden on 28 January.

Aden has seen a spike in activity from both al-Qaeda and the so-called Islamic State in recent months, with gun and bomb attacks on the rise after the Sunni Muslim Saudi Arabia led a coalition to recapture the city from Shia Muslim rebels.

The internationally-recognised president Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi has managed to install himself in Yemen’s second city after he fled the capital, Sana’a.

This car bomb went off just outside the Maashiq Palace and the president was in the building – his Aden residence – at the time.

An affiliate of the so-called Islamic State claimed responsibility for the attack in a city that has descended into lawlessness.

Aden was once one of the most famous ports in the region but the former British colony is not top of many holidaymakers’ lists when it comes to visiting the area.

Hundreds of passengers sail on past the city, daunted by the pirates operating from Somali beaches and the instability brought on by the military intervention in Yemen last year.

1,500km to the north-east, Salalah is a more enticing stopping-off point for cruise liners.

The capital of Oman’s Dhofar region, the port is the centre for Arab and non-Arab visitors alike who come to experience the khalif, or monsoon.

Ringed by coconut palms that fringe the pristine beaches, Salalah and the mountains up back behind it are transformed by the annual summer rains into a verdant explosion of lush plains and rich waterfalls feeding sub-tropical banana plantations.

And, according to the Times of Oman, an Islamic tourist cruise connecting Iran and India with the Omani capital, Muscat, and Salalah is expected to be launched some time this year.

The paper was told by a representative of an Iranian shipping company that each planned cruise journey would be just over a week in length and would cater to both Iranian and Omani tourists.

The Sultan Qaboos is the supreme ruler in Oman, but he has used his consolidated power to oversee the modernisation and the opening up of the country.

Tourism is flourishing and Oman is looking to engage with actors across the region.

On 27 January, an official from an Omani sovereign wealth fund said it had signed an understanding with Khodro Industrial Group, the biggest carmaker in Iran.

That agreement would be for a $200m plant at the south-west Omani port of Duqm.

A gas pipeline between the two neighbours, who face each other across the Strait of Hormuz and the Gulf of Oman, is also a prospect now that international sanctions on Iran have been lifted.

That idea would be anathema to Saudi Arabia, the major power to the south of the Gulf, which has cut all ties with Tehran, after its embassy in Iran was attacked following the execution in Saudi Arabia of a Shia Muslim cleric.

Yet back to the south and is not all sweet dates and white sands in Oman.

The economy needs further diversification and the Sultan has to ensure that infrastructure spending is not only centred on Muscat and a couple of coastal, popular areas but reaches the mountainous and traditional interior as well.

The swelling and young population is outgrowing the number of jobs and the role of women in society can also be improved.

But there is much to celebrate in Oman at the moment and much to lament in Yemen, its struggling and unstable neighbour back down the Arabian Sea shore.

This blog will be reporting from Oman next month

Talk to the hand

There are few neighbourly relations between rival countries in Asia

What are the most successful negotiating techniques and where does face-to-face rhetoric come up short?

There are some particular cases in Asia that can show us the antagonisms and stumbling blocks in mutual talks between border rivals.

The Korean peninsula has seen its fair share of back-and-forth demands and conversations. When North Korea and South Korea get together it is normally set against a backdrop of military tensions and civil complaints. It was no different this time.

Both sides had traded artillery fire and Pyongyang put itself in a ‘quasi-state of war’. The South dusted off it border loudspeakers and blared out propaganda and K-pop over the frontier.

So when the aides came to the table to talk, it was on normal, unstable ground with a simmering strain on relations. After marathon negotiations, an agreement was reached and both sides backed down, a laudable agreement and a satisfactory temporary outcome to what had become a dangerous battle of rhetoric, music and shells.

Temporary – because these two nations still have not come to any firm peace agreement for the 1950-53 conflict. That ended in a truce, not a peace deal, and they are still technically at war.

Further west across the other side of the continent there is another infamous case of anxious neighbours. Where India and Pakistan are concerned it is no real surprise when any talks between the two rivals founder.

Constantly looking over their nervous nuclear shoulders, the two countries have once again hung up the phone – this time over peace talks which were meant to be held between the respective national security advisers.

There are examples of regional rivals across Asia and the situation around Iran is of interest. With the Saudis staring dagger-eyes across the Gulf, and the ayatollahs simply returning the glares of mutual distrust, these are two countries that do not get on.

In their positions, representing the powerbases of the two major denominations of Islam, they ought to do better as regards their dialogue duties, areas where they could be more engaged actors in regional and religious disputes.

Iran has been doing a lot of talking lately, but not with its neighbours. The six world powers that reached an agreement with the Islamic Republic over its nuclear programme have achieved a lot and have cautiously brought a pariah state in from the cold. An example to nearby nations of how to deal with a troublesome neighbour through successful, international chinwagging.

Holy Father in Holy Land

Pope Francis has completed a three-day tour of Israel, Jordan and the West Bank

This was the first visit of the pontiff to the Holy Land since he was voted into the bishopric of Rome last year. He began in Jordan, where he visited a Syrian refugee camp and the River Jordan itself, where many people believe Jesus was baptised.

He then crossed directly into the Palestinian Territory of the West Bank, where he provoked uneasy reaction from Israeli leaders by praying at one of high concrete separation walls built across the area. Spiralling around Jewish settlements, the controversial barriers either protect historically Jewish lands or divide Palestinians from each other, depending on the views from the two sides of the ongoing regional rift.

The Holy Father then went on to hold an open-air mass in Bethlehem’s Manger Square. I was there in the city a couple of days before and the video below shows preparations being made:

In the birthplace of Jesus Christ, along with the evocative notes of the Muslim call-to-prayer echoing out across Manger Square, you can see posters and banners celebrating the Catholic visit to the ‘State of Palestine’. In an interesting twist, the Palestinian Territories are one of only two entities to be afforded the diplomatic status at the United Nations of ‘non-member observer state’; the other is the Vatican City, or Holy See.

The Pope then moved on to Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. As the video below highlights, he arrived in the region on Saturday 24 May and would go on to visit the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, where he prayed jointly with the Orthodox Christian patriarch Bartholomew I.

The prayer that the pontiff offered at a section of the separation wall coated in anti-Israeli graffiti in Palestine was an unscheduled stop and lauded by Palestinians. However, for Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, it was an awkward moment and one he was keen to equal by highlighting the price that many Israelis have also paid in the conflict. On Monday 26 May, the Pope eased tensions by agreeing to stop to pray at a memorial to Israeli victims of terrorism on Mount Herzl, where Yad Vashem, the country’s national Holocaust museum, is located.

In such an old region, a land of sacred Jewish walls, revered Muslim shrines and Christian holy rivers, where cultures and religions have risen and fallen, it was always going to be a tricky trip to make, and one that was full of symbolic gestures. The view across the Western Wall, the holiest site in Judaism, was a fascinating shot to film, with the blue-and-white Star of David flags flying just below the gleaming golden Muslim Dome of the Rock, and the Islamic call-to-prayer gliding out from the Aqsa Mosque over hundreds of Jews praying at the wall below.

Palestinian protest in Haifa

During a visit to the Middle East, I visited Haifa, a town on Israel’s northern coast.

As the sun drooped towards the Mediterranean, the Friday evening restaurants started to bustle with pre-Sabbath trade. In the shadow of the Shrine of the Báb temple of the Bahá’í faith, pro-Palestine chants broke out among a group of people bristling with flags and placards. After several minutes of stationary protest, the group of demonstrators marched off articulating their support for imprisoned Palestinians.

Choose one of us

Saudi Arabia worries over changing US direction in the Middle East

Rapprochement with Iran. Watching Vladimir Putin do his own thing over Ukraine and Crimea. And – as Saudi Arabia sees it – forgetting the rebels in Syria. The US has been pursuing a controversial line of foreign policy over the past few months. Several countries have been glad to see Western noses bloodied but there are others who are getting cross with the American State Department’s actions, or lack of them. One of the angry allies is Saudi Arabia. And it has lambasted the global community’s lethargy over the civil war in Syria. As the major world Sunni Muslim power, a defeat for the Shia-allied government of Bashar al-Assad would suit Saudi Arabia well. One country who would rather see a regime victory is Iran, Riyadh’s foe across the Gulf. And the United States has been getting on pretty well with Tehran so far this year, after a landmark deal in January on Iran’s nuclear activities.

The House of Saud has been getting annoyed with all this cosying up to Shia Muslim actors. Last week, at an Arab League summit in Kuwait, the Crown Prince vocalised Riyadh’s annoyance that the Sunni-majority rebels in Syria and their political wing, the Syrian National Coalition, were being sidelined and forgotten in what has been the longest struggle of the ‘Arab Spring’. The war in Syria has been going on for more than three years, with the number of people killed estimated to be in excess of 100,000. But the war gains are becoming more marginal, and the front lines are remaining largely the same. The rebels still manage to shoot down the odd regime helicopter but with Lebanese Hezbollah man-power and Russian hardware, Bashar al-Assad’s armed forces are still strong.

It was timely then that over the weekend US president Barack Obama paid a trip to Saudi Arabia for what was surely a testing head-to-head with King Abdullah. Riyadh was angered by the stalling uncertainty from Washington over the chemical weapons attack in Syria in August last year, when Congress ruled out a bombing raid on Assad regime posts in response to the Sarin nerve agent attack on the outskirts of Damascus. Instead, Russia outflanked the US and brokered a deal with the Syrian president which would see him give up his stockpile of chemical weapons. In this weekend’s meetings in the Saudi desert, Riyadh would have wanted assurances that Washington was not going to give up finding a solution to the conflict.

Barack Obama, with two years left on his contract in the White House, will be focused on finding an issue to work on abroad in order to be able to secure some kind of international legacy. And although American officials in the Holy Land started work again yesterday to try to organise a framework to extend an April deadline for Israel-Palestine peace negotiations, it seems unlikely that the two-state solution will be achieved any time soon. Washington’s point-of-view on the war in Syria seems increasingly to be that the answer to the crisis must come from within the fracturing country. There are many other points of contention in the region (Egypt’s twisting and turning Army-led confusion, Yemen’s instability and Iraq’s continuing sectarian violence) but it appears to be Iran that whets Obama’s appetite the most. The White House sees the nuclear issue in the Middle East as one that it can get its teeth stuck into properly.

The problem for Saudi Arabia is that this means a focus from its US friends on spending more time in Geneva hotels with Iranian politicians. Yet Saudi Arabia wants a deal as well. A nuclear-armed rival in the region is anathema to Riyadh, who have talked up air strikes from Tel Aviv or Washington on Tehran’s dodgy installations before. But the crux is that in order for the Saudis’ American allies to nullify any nuclear threat from Iran, they have to speak to the Iranians, and spend time with them, and things are getting a bit too friendly for Riyadh’s liking. They don’t want any nuclear bombs being made in Iran, but nor do they want the West’s rapprochement to divert from support for the big Sunni power. It’s a hard choice, but as the US pivots towards Asia, and works on peace deals with Iran, Riyadh does not want to be left out in the cold.

Arab autumn woes

As the global wrangling over Syria continues, militant attacks go on in ‘post-Arab Spring’ nations

Two-and-a-half years on from the explosive revolutions that toppled dictators and forced deep re-organisations of countries’ politics from Morocco to Yemen, there seems to be no let up in the deadly instability that has rocked many of the nations that underwent upheavals.

Yesterday, the Egyptian air forces carries out raids on Islamist militant positions in the restive Sinai area – a double strike as part of an ongoing battle with insurgents in the region more generally and also in probable retaliation for two suicide car bombings on Wednesday 11. Six soldiers lost their lives and many more people were wounded in the twin assault: one targeted the intelligence building in the town of Rafah and the other hit an armoured personnel carrier. A little-known jihadist group called Jund al-Islam claimed responsibility.

There was another car bombing on Wednesday, to the east over the border in Libya. This time the device went off near the country’s Foreign Ministry in the city of Benghazi. There were no serious casualties but the explosion came on both the anniversary of the 9/11 attack in the US in 2001 and the attack on the American Consulate in the Libyan city. The U.S. ambassador and three others died as al-Qaeda-linked militants broke into the diplomatic mission last year.

At the start of the week, on Monday, the Tunisian security forces killed two Islamist fighters belonging to the Ansar al-Sharia extremist group. And just today there was another bombing of Yemen’s main oil pipeline in the central Maarib province. It is the fourth attack on the pipeline in a month.

Algeria has also been in the news over the last few days after the release of a report into a deadly siege attack in January on a gas plant in the country’s desert borderlands with Libya. 40 people were killed when Islamist extremists overran the In Amenas facility, which was home to many Western workers as well as Algerians. Statoil, the Norwegian company, published on Thursday the conclusions of an internal investigation into the militant assault.

But despite all this unrest across the region, the past seven days have been another week where the focus of the world’s media has been on Syria. There has now been an agreement between John Kerry and Sergei Lavrov over how to address the 21 August use of chemical weapons, but there remains a nervousness, with the use of force by the US not totally ruled out for all contexts. The world powers may be trying to deal with the Syrian crisis, but they are only looking into the chemical weapons side of that conflict, not the deteriorating state of the nation itself, wrecked by a war that shows no signs of stopping, and is becoming ever more complex regarding the ethnic and religious alliances and hostilities at play.

What this past week encapsulates is the overarching worry of the examples now being played out by the countries ahead of Syria in the ‘Arab Spring’ transition ladder. The war in Syria seems a long way from ending (if it ever technically does, that is), but even if it were concluding, the extremist elements on both sides of the conflict point to an ominous future for the country. If terrorist bombings can continue in countries that are perceived to have already gone through the ‘Arab Spring’, then the outlook for Syria, (which has had the longest war of all those countries, and thus more time for militants to weave their extremist aims into the region), is bleak – despite the Russia-US negotiations appearing to start to bear fruit.

Foreign drills, internal slicks

Foreign oil companies are being both courted and sidelined by Iraq’s central government

Love and favour can be achieved in the Iraqi energy market if you drill in the right areas. And, for the central government in Baghdad, the country’s semi-autonomous Kurdish region is certainly not one of those areas. Over the last week, temperatures have been rising between the government, the Kurds and external energy firms. Baghdad seems to be dishing out most of the orders, and all its demands seem to follow the theme of ‘Them (the Kurds) or Us’.

In 2011, the US oil giant Exxon Mobil was censured by the central government after it penned a deal with the Kurdish regional government. It has now been given an ultimatum by Baghdad; politicians have been trying to win the Americans over with the prospect of developing the lucrative southern fields. Exxon would like to be able to work in both the north and south of the country but the relations between Iraq’s national government and its restless, independentist Kurds up north have been deteriorating quickly recently.

The Kurdish semi-autonomous region is made up of three of the northern provinces along with parts of three more neighbouring provinces. It has been in charge of its regional politics and its armed forces since 1991. It feels that it is constitutionally allowed to pursue its own oil deals with foreign countries without Baghdad’s permission. The central government says that signing any such agreements behind its back is illegal.

The central government has already been weighing in when it comes to those sought-after southern fields. Earlier in the week, Baghdad signed a deal with the Kuwait Energy and Dragon oil group to explore an area near the Iranian border. However, the government stuck its oar in to ensure that the Turkish affiliate which had originally been involved was kicked off the team. Turkey has been one of the countries doing pipeline deals with the northern Kurds.

These arguments aptly demonstrate the power of the the growing black gold market in the Middle East. They also show us the contentious flare-ups that can arise when outside forces get involved in regional disputes. What may seem a simple problem (who drills where in Iraq) can be shown to be a serious undertaking despite an outsider’s first glance showing both sides to be part of the same country. The Kurdish issue is one of Iraq’s domestic fault-lines but we can find examples of bitter religious and cultural divisions across the region. The Kurdish example includes four nations – any future Kurdistan state would encompass land from Iran, Turkey and Syria as well as Iraq. Then there is the obvious conflict between Israel and Palestinian Territories, which is taking place on disputed territory. Syria, which is suffering from a devastating civil war at the moment that, on a simple level, pits Sunni Muslim rebels against the Alawite-led government (the Alawites are a smaller group, split off from Shia Islam).

In Bahrain, the Shia majority have been demonstrating against their Sunni rulers but their protests have been suppressed, in part, by Saudi Arabia. Despite being wary of Shia unrest in Bahrain, Riyadh has been more than happy to help Sunni rebels in Libya and Syria. In Egypt, Coptic Christians (who number about an eighth of the population) have been on the receiving end of attacks on their churches. The whole region is split up externally and internally along blurry fault-lines.

This is why the choices of companies such as Exxon Mobil cannot be taken lightly. The risks, pitfalls and blood-letting are clear when outside powers try to exert their hard influences on a particular place. But the reaction of the Baghdad government to this current oil argument also shows the significance of soft outside influences inside such unsteady countries. It is all very well planning (although in the case of Iraq it could be argued that the Western forces did not do that as well as they should have done) for the problems and transitions caused by international conflict, or hard pressure. But it is just as important to focus on the soft pressure side of foreign relations – be it who is supplying arms to whom in Syria or who is drilling where in Iraq.