Qatar Airways threatens to sue over 'illegal' Gulf blockade
Siege designed to choke Qatar has only pushed the country closer to Iran and Turkey and away from the GCC, analysts say.
Qatar Airways said it will seek compensation for losses sustained from an “illegal airspace blockade” imposed since 2017 by four Middle East nations.
The announcement on Wednesday came a day after the International Court of Justice ruled Qatar could challenge airspace restrictions imposed by Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Bahrain, and Egypt three years ago.
“Qatar Airways will pursue its case for appropriate compensation of the financial injuries inflicted on Qatar Airways as a result of the illegal airspace blockade,” the airline said in a statement.
“The arbitrary and abusive measures that these four states have taken against us have devastated our carefully planned, decades-long programme for investment and growth in those countries. They have arbitrarily prevented us from serving hundreds of thousands of passengers, and transporting tens of thousands of tons of cargo to and from each of these countries annually.”
The United Nations court’s ruling in favour of Qatar in the airspace dispute marks another setback for Saudi-Emirati-led blockading nations, but despite rising international pressure to end the three-year siege it remains to be seen if the group will finally relent.
United States-led mediation efforts have come to nothing amid reported opposition from the UAE, frustrating Washington, which has tried to unite its allies and focus on its main strategic goal – reining in Iran.
Tehran is reportedly paid about $133m a year by Doha for use of its airspace by flights arriving and departing Qatar.
On Tuesday, the International Court of Justice (ICJ), the UN’s highest judicial body, backed Qatar in the bitter dispute over the air blockade.
The ruling came after the World Trade Organization (WTO) last month rapped Riyadh for failing to protect intellectual property rights of Qatari-owned broadcaster beIN, as it refused to crack down on a bootlegging network.
“The ICJ decision marks another blow for the Saudi-led quartet,” Nabeel Nowairah, a Washington-based independent analyst, told AFP news agency.
“It reflects their weak evidence and justification when presented before these internationally recognised bodies.”
The ICJ ruling allows Qatar to challenge airspace restrictions imposed by the Riyadh-led group in a hearing before the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), a UN aviation body.
Qatar said the ruling meant the blockading states will “finally face justice” for violating aviation rules.
The forced rerouting of Qatar Airways flights does more than add to the airline’s fuel bill.
Qatar’s yearly $133m contribution to Iran for overflight rights undermines US President Donald Trump’s “maximum pressure” campaign to economically squeeze Iran.
“We have been focused and working on trying to patch up the Gulf rift,” David Schenker, the US assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern Affairs, told the Middle East Institute last month.
“We believe it is a distraction [and] takes focus away from our common threats… We do not think it is [productive] for Qatar to be paying airspace fees to Iran.”
Washington was close to brokering an agreement to end the blockade this month after high-level discussions with the leaders of Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the UAE, Fox News reported last week.
But at the last minute, the UAE asked Saudi Arabia to withhold support, it said, without giving a reason.
Saudi authorities did not respond to a request for comment.
If the secret talks are confirmed, it marks a second breakdown of efforts to end the rift after a similar Saudi-Qatar dialogue in late 2019 failed.
“Much of the animosity that generated the blockade in 2017 originated in Abu Dhabi more than in Riyadh, and … the rift can only fully end when the leadership in the UAE is ready to move on,” said Kristian Ulrichsen, a fellow at Rice University’s Baker Institute in the US.
With Riyadh “balancing US pressure to lift the airspace restrictions with Emirati pressure to maintain blockade unity, the Saudi leadership may prevaricate on the issue to avoid having to take a difficult decision either way”.
The quartet snapped diplomatic and economic ties with Qatar in 2017, accusing it, among other things, of forging close relations with Iran.
It issued a list of 13 demands for Qatar, including shutting down Al Jazeera Media Network and downgrading relations with Turkey, which American officials say were nearly impossible to meet.
But the blockade designed to choke Qatar and force it to align with Gulf interests has only pushed the country closer to Iran and Turkey, observers say. It has also hurt Saudi strategic interests.
The WTO ruling could scupper a proposed 300-million-pound ($370m) Saudi-backed takeover of English Premier League club Newcastle United.
Following the decision, English Premier League football chief executive Richard Masters admitted the proposed takeover was “complicated”.
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