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.

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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.

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.

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.

The Syrian whirlpool

UN human rights investigators confirm outsiders, including jihadis, are present in Syria

On Monday 17 September the United Nations chief investigator for Syria, Paulo Pinheiro, said that “foreign elements”, including fundamentalist fighters, are operating inside the war-torn country. He also accused both sides of carrying out war crimes, although the list of atrocities alleged against the government was longer. Activists estimate that up to 27,000 people have lost their lives in the conflict so far. But what Mr Pinheiro was outlining was official confirmation of what many people have known and even admitted before: that overseas influences are being deployed inside Syria for outside political and religious objectives.

On Sunday 16 September General Mohammad Ali Jafari, the commander of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, confirmed that members of its special forces are in Lebanon and Syria providing “counsel and advice”. However, the commander denied that the existence of the commandoes meant that Tehran had a ‘military presence’ in either country. On Tuesday 18 September Egypt hosted Iran as part of a get-together of the ‘Islamic Quartet’, which also includes Saudi Arabia and Turkey. Cairo warned Tehran that the two countries’ relations are going to continue to stumble along unless the latter changes its stance on the situation in Syria.

It has long been understood that Iran has been worried that the Syrian civil war is having a negative effect on its alliances in the area. The government of Bashar al-Assad, which has been responsible for the worst bloody episodes of the conflict so far, has been one of Iran’s friends for a long time. The admission that the elite Iranian Quds Forces are also out and about in Lebanon is not a great surprise either, seeing as Hezbollah are based in that country.

All three parties – the Iranian state, the Hezbollah movement and the Syrian leadership – are linked by the Shia branch of Islam. They all have a mutual aim and a clear desire (as any political entity anywhere in the world would have) to continue to exist and to exert power where they can. At the moment, the civil war in Syria is stirring up all sorts of regional power and influence struggles and the Islamic religious dividing lines are one of the most obvious battle areas.

Saudi Arabia, the massive Sunni Muslim strongman, is none too happy about Iran getting involved and Riyadh is licking its lips at the prospect of kicking out the Assad Alawites (an offshoot is Shia Islam) and installing a new Sunni government in Damascus. Saudi Arabia has been flexing its muscles by arming the rebel fighters in Syria and while it is undeniable that the regime has acted in an unjustifiable manner in suppressing opposition to its rule in such a brutal way, you cannot simply characterise the rowdy rebels as ‘the good guys’ and thus, by default, laud Saudi Arabia for its actions. Paulo Pinheiro’s words on Monday condemning the violence from either side prove this.

The sheer abundance and complexities of the ethnic links, political unions, religious divides and linguistic differences in the Middle East illustrate how the situation in Syria is much more of a dizzying whirlpool than the less intricate conflict in Libya last year.

Here is a basic outline of which country thinks what and why they have made made the Syrian civil war so regionally significant:

Syria: 74% Sunni Muslim; 16% Shia, Alawite, Druze Islam; 10% Christianity (via CIA World Factbook – as are all religious percentages below). Kurdish community in north-east. Friends with Iran and Hezbollah. Loosely tied to Russia.

Turkey: 99% Muslim (mostly Sunni). Western-allied. Member of NATO. Wants Assad regime out. Has taken in up to 60,00 Syrian refugees, according to the UN. Large Kurdish community in north with which it is conducting an internecine war.

Iran: The major Shia powerhouse. 89% Shia Muslim; 9% Sunni Muslim. Friends with Syrian government and Hezbollah. Distrusts Saudi Arabia. Detests Israel and the West. Large Kurdish community in north. Quds special forces active in Syria and Lebanon.

Iraq: 60-65% Shia Muslim; 32-37% Sunni Muslim. Large Kurdish community in north. Fighting ongoing insurgency since end of war in 2009.

Qatar: Majority Sunni Muslim. Active in both Syria and Libya in arming the rebel fighters.

Saudi Arabia: The major Sunni powerhouse. Active in Syria in arming the rebel fighters.

Jordan: 92% Sunni Muslim. Expanding Zaatari refugee camp in north of country to allow it handle up to 80,000 refugees from Syria. Has welcomed Syrian fighter pilots and politicians defecting from regime.

Egypt: 90% mostly Sunni Muslim; 10% mostly Coptic Christians. Supports uprising against regime.

Israel: 76% Jewish; 17% Muslim. Friends with the West. Detests Iran and is highly suspicious of its nuclear programme.

Palestinian Territories: Mostly Muslim and at centre of Middle East peace process over territorial disputes with Israel.

Lebanon: 60% Muslim; 40% Christian. Hezbollah group is Shia Muslim and supports Assad regime and Iran. More than 60,000 Syrian refugees are in the country. Nation not wholly in favour of one particular side or grouping in the conflict. Risk of sectarian strife spilling over from Syria.

Diagnosis elections

Presidential health problems must be taken seriously as soon as they are uncovered

On 1 September, the president of Guinea-Bissau, Malam Bacai Sanha, was flown to neighbouring Senegal for a ‘medical check-up’, according to the government. He has had numerous hospital trips recently, normally to next-door Dakar. In December 2009, Sanha postponed a visit to Portugal ‘for health reasons’. He was hospitalised in Paris for ten days. When asked about his health, Sanha said: “It’s true that I also suffer from diabetes but that is not as serious as people want to make out.”

Popping in and out of the country over health concerns can make the people worry. Unsurprisingly, as a small West African state, Guinea-Bissau has suffered political turmoil and in March 2009 the then president Joao Bernardo Vieira was assassinated. Mr Sanha has provided some welcome stability to the tiny nation after a peaceful transition followed Vieira’s killing. But the balance could easily swing back a violent way if Sanha can no longer go on or dies.

If you look 1,600 miles to the east, a similar situation arose last year when Nigerian president Umaru Musa Yar’Adua died. He had suffered from a chronic kidney condition for at least 10 years. One health trip to Saudi Arabia, in November 2009, lasted three months. This left a power vacuum and Nigeria began to rock. Replacing him with the vice-president, Goodluck Jonathan, a Christian southerner, was far from a simple step: Mr Yar’Adua was a Muslim northerner. The Abuja presidency, on a regional and religious rotation schedule, was on its Muslim spin, though in subsequent elections, Mr Jonathan won a majority fairly.

The most well-known poorly president at the moment is Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez, who has cancer and completed his third round of chemotherapy on 2 September. He has been undergoing treatment in Cuba and the opposition has claimed that this has been putting national security at risk. However, Mr Chavez underwent his latest batch of treatment back home in Caracas. This was surely a move designed to prove his recuperating fitness and to warn both his deputies and the opposition that his full recovery is approaching. Chavez has been defiant so far, saying on Friday that he “feels better than ever”. He has warned his older brother and other ministers off eyeing up his office, saying he will contest and win next year’s elections.

The manoeuvring and electioneering that inevitably occurs as soon as the main man whizzes off to some overseas clinic is destabilising to a country. Fragile situations, such as those in West Africa, can be left on a knife-edge. In Venezuela’s case, there are worries over to what extent Mr Chavez really can run the country from his hospital bed, despite the president’s phone-ins to state TV. As enticing as triumphant returns from the brink of death can be for presidents lured by possible electoral boosts, the best health policy must surely be honesty from the start over the seriousness of the condition and clear planning for elections and successions if things get worse. And, of course, some of that fresh foreign air.

Kazakh cure

What can we expect from Kazakhstan’s chairmanship of the Organisation of Islamic Co-operation?

Kazakhstan is about to complete its first month in the hotseat of the OIC – one of the most important Islamic blocs along with the Arab League and the World Islamic Economic Forum. The OIC, (the ‘C’ recently changed from ‘Conference’ to ‘Co-operation’), aims to promote common understanding, ambition and to foster goodwill and unity between member-states.

When one calls to mind Islamic countries, Kazakhstan does not often roll off the tongue naturally. It is true that there are bigger voices in the Islamic world, namely Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Indonesia and Turkey, and their reach goes beyond the borders of the Muslim world. But other, smaller members are beginning to show a bit more bite to their roles. The African Francophone members of the organisation are starting to grow in confidence but it is probably the Central Asian nations that are set to be the most significant group in the bloc. Kazakhstan embodies the image of a modern, political driver-nation that many countries, both within and outside the OIC, aspire to be.

Kazakhstan has said it wants to advance the OIC’s aim of continuing peaceful development with the rest of the world. It also wants to address the economic imbalances that exist within the organisation: Somalia and Benin are minnows compared to Malaysia and the UAE. The Kazakh president, Nursultan Nazarbayev, outlined his proposals ‘to switch [the Islamic world] from commodity development to industrial innovation’, to develop a joint plan of actions in the energy sector and to create a nuclear-free zone in the Middle East, an idea which he hopes could kick-start international de-nuclearisation.

Kazakhstan comes into the chairmanship in the right frame of mind and at the right time. From a global point-of-view, it is a nation well-positioned in the main pack chasing the front-runners – it is a forward-looking and forward-thinking country. From an Islamic perspective, it will be a reassuring but not tranquilising influence on a bloc still rocking from recent challenges. Arab uprisings in the Maghreb and Middle East, (notably the ongoing conflict in Libya and violence in Syria), ethnic unrest in Kyrgyzstan, political violence in Ivory Coast and the war in Afghanistan are some of the issues confronting Astana.

But secularism is written into the constitution and Kazakhstan underlines the right to freedom of religion, although more than 70% of the population is Muslim. It has successfully modelled itself as a bridge-state: between Europe and Asia; between ex-Soviet nations and the West; and now, hopefully, between hardline Islamic nations and more open members of OIC. It is a time for a safe pair of hands. Kazakhstan has the perfect platform to press on with social, industrial and economic ambitions, backed up by a significant but not overbearing Muslim tradition.

A universal throne

How monarchies cross religious and political boundaries

All you have to do is glance at the guest list for the British royal wedding between Prince William and Kate Middleton on 29 April.

45 different members of foreign royal families were invited; from 25 different countries. There were representatives from absolute monarchies (Swaziland, Saudi Arabia), constitutional monarchies (Sweden, Spain) and excommunicated monarchies (Yugoslavia, Romania). Different European Christian denominations were on show: Lutheran (Queen Margrethe II of Denmark) and Eastern Orthodox (King Simeon II of Bulgaria). From Africa, there were Muslim (Moroccan Princess Lalla Salma) and Christian (Prince Seeiso of Lesotho) royals. And as for Asia, there were the Muslims from absolutist nations (Emir of Qatar) and Muslims from democracies (the Yang di-Pertuan Agong and Raja Permaisuri Agong of Malaysia), along with the Buddhist Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn of Thailand and Christian King of Tonga.

Far more countries have scrapped their palaces, tiaras and curtseys. But what can we learn from the ones who haven’t?

They span a broad politico-cultural spectrum, showing us that the monarchical system can be applied to differing extents across separate countries (think of the differences between Malaysia’s take on Islam and the Sunni teachings of Saudi Arabia: both Muslim monarchies, but with very different political agendas).

Monarchies can be a stabilising force for good in restive nations but this stability needs to be tempered by a willingness not to tamper with a country’s politics. Despite this, at times they can be wonderful mediators – think of the steady hand Spain’s King Juan Carlos provided during the rocky transition to democracy following the death of Franco in 1975. But sometimes the stability can become an overriding control and this is where the absolutist regimes suffer to maintain international credibility.

More trustworthiness is vested in those families which have taken a constitutional step-back. One area where they generally succeed is on the global stage. They act as patriotic symbols of their nation and can negotiate interests, discuss deals, or, seeing as many countries are more than ready to don rose-tinted glasses and think back to a former age, simply try to whip up attention for the oft-lampooned idea of a monarchy.

European monarchies have survived in more recent times by branching out from their inter-regal and cross-crown breeding. Mette-Marit Tjessem Hoiby, a single mother, met Norwegian Prince Haako at a rock concert before marrying him in 2001. In 2004 Australian Mary Donaldson married Denmark’s Crown Prince Frederik. And last week’s British royal wedding continued a tradition kicked-off in style by Grace Kelly’s marriage to Monaco’s Prince Rainier III in 1956.

Royal families have shown they can cross international political and religious boundaries. They also seem to have realised that they truly need to modernise and to understand and break down the remaining boundaries that still exist at home.