Turbulence Ahead? Gulf Aviation's Political Woes
Ambitious aviation strategies in the Gulf could hit a traffic jam.
November 12, 2014There’s a new traffic problem in the Middle East, and this one is not in the streets—it’s up in the air.
Gulf air travel is surging, as airlines boost their regional and short-haul services. Gulf carriers have placed orders to double the size of their fleets in the next decade and are investing over $50 billion in airport infrastructure. On the opening day of the 2013 Dubai Airshow, Gulf airlines stunned onlookers by spending $100 billion on new aircraft in just 15 minutes.
But where can they go? About half of the airspace in the Gulf is restricted military airspace, and is therefore not available to commercial aircraft. Airspace over Syria and Iraq is effectively closed because of the ongoing wars in both countries, and many Gulf carriers refuse to fly in Israeli airspace. Iran has been a surprising beneficiary. Air traffic and revenues from overflight fees (exempt from U.S.-led sanctions) have more than doubled in recent months, reaching record highs.
Experts warn airspace congestion could soon lead to delays of 45 minutes or more for flights operating in and out of the region’s airports. That would put a cramp in ambitious plans to grow the aviation industry and make the Gulf a global aviation hub.
Better air traffic control protocols between the small states in the Gulf can help, but only go so far. During the recent spat between Qatar and Saudi Arabia, analysts speculated that the latter might restrict Qatar Airways’ access to its airspace. No technical system can overcome regional politics.
This piece is a part of Mezze, a monthly short article series spotlighting societal trends across the region. It originally appeared in the Middle East Program's monthly newsletter, Middle East Notes and Comment. For more information and to receive our mailings, please contact the Middle East Program.