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Jul 15, 2021

ICAO’s decision on Qatar’s airspace: A significant shift

Alex Macheras
Buildings are seen from across the water in Doha along with Qatar Airways Flight. Photo:
Buildings are seen from across the water in Doha along with Qatar Airways Flight. Photo:

The International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO), a United Nations special agency for aviation has, in its most recent meeting, formally agreed for Qatar to establish a new, expanded airspace area, known as a Doha ‘FIR’, for the first time in history.

The announcement of a new airspace area for Qatar is a significant shift for the skies above the Middle East — let’s look at what it means…

The ICAO is the UN agency with the authority to delegate which country is responsible for the operational control of a given ‘flight information region’ known in the industry as an ‘FIR’- essentially, an airspace area on the map of the skies.

The ICAO Council is responsible for standards adoption and other ICAO governance responsibilities while the agency’s full Assembly of 193 national governments is not in session. It is comprised of diplomatic representatives from 36 countries which are elected by each ICAO Assembly for a three-year term.

For decades, the skies above the Middle East have been disproportionally divided. While most regions on earth have airspace split up equally among countries, airspace in the Gulf is unusually shaped.

Bahrain, the smallest of all Gulf states, has held control of most of the airspace above the Gulf with its ‘Bahrain FIR’ that stretches from Kuwait, across the Gulf, to the bordering FIR of the United Arab Emirates.

The decision for Bahrain to retain control of most of the skies above the Gulf dates to when Bahrain gained its independence from Great Britain in 1971.
Airspace in the region had previously been determined based on where military radars had been installed, and with a history of good, ‘brotherly’ relations between Qatar and Bahrain, (and both being Gulf Co-operation Council countries, and being members of ICAO’s Transit Agreement, which permits freedom of the skies), Qatar had agreed for Bahrain to continue to control and manage its disproportionally large area of airspace.

It was also acknowledged that Bahrain would continue to profit from overflight fees (the fees airlines must pay for passing through a country’s airspace) of one of the busiest transit areas in the world.

In 2017, the sudden blockade on Qatar pushed the unusual distribution of airspace in the Gulf into the spotlight for the very first time.

While the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Egypt joined Bahrain in announcing the immediate closure of their airspaces to all Qatari registered aircraft (found later to be a breach of ICAO’s Chicago Convention), the announcement of the closure of Bahrain’s airspace had been the most critical for Qatar.

Recognising the risk of having skies controlled by another country, in 2018 Qatar launched a formal proposal to the ICAO for the establishment of its airspace, known as the Doha FIR.

Following three years of technical assessments, the organisation’s council has this summer given Qatar the green light.

The establishment of the new Doha FIR (airspace) will include Qatar’s existing sovereign airspace (which is essentially the skies above the land of Qatar) and will expand further out towards its neighbours the UAE, Bahrain, and Iran. The new FIR will see Bahrain return a small part of its airspace to Qatar.

Responding to the emerging aerospace and geopolitical development in its 223rd session, The ICAO described the green-light as an “achievement of a decision in principle on the establishment of a Doha Flight Information Region”.

The official ‘summary of decisions’ reveal the ICAO Air Navigation Commission review of the technical aspects of the proposal stated that the State of Qatar “possesses the capabilities and qualifications necessary to manage air traffic safely and effectively”.

Qatar has now started to communicate with Bahrain and ICAO in order to begin the implementation of the Doha FIR. It’s a technical process that will ultimately redraw the busy skies above the Gulf. During earlier council meetings, Saudi Arabia, among other states, expressed their willingness to work to support the co-ordination efforts between Bahrain and Qatar for the necessary implementation.

With a new FIR of its own, Qatar will gain much-needed airspace independence, and the country also can maximise the efficiency of air travel around Qatar to better meet the country’s air travel sustainability goals.

The country is already benefiting from the end of the blockade following the signing of the Al-Ula agreement, which saw the reopening of Saudi, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, and Egypt’s airspace to Qatari registered jets.

Qatar Airways flight times are now – on average – 20 minutes shorter than they were during the blockade, and services to key African destinations that rely on overflying Saudi Arabia have been since been restored.

The author is an aviation analyst whose opinion was published in Gulf Times and reappeared with credit. Twitter handle: @AlexInAir

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