A historic decision has been taken for aviation in the Middle East. Qatar has won its long campaign. The International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) has agreed to establish a brand-new airspace known as the "Doha FIR - Flight Information Region" under the control of Qatar. Qatar has taken control of its skies and airspace for the first time in its history. For the first time in nearly 30 years, the world's airspace map has been redrawn.
The Qatari government has been long striving to withdraw from the current arrangement, whereby Bahrain had the control almost all air traffic over Bahrain's territory and establish its own free airspace. Qatar was set out to implement a plan for dividing the Bahrain FIR (Flight Information Region), extending along most of the Western Persian Gulf, from the UAE to Kuwait, with a new approximately 200 km long border between Bahrain and Qatar, thereby carving out its airspace.
The International Civil Aviation Organization ICAO Council announced at a session on June 21, 2021, that it agreed in principle to establish a new Doha FIR and invited Bahrain and Qatar to “collaboratively negotiate” technical arrangements. After long negotiations, Qatar succeeded to obtain what it wanted on March 25, 2022.
Why Qatar Needed an Independent Airspace?
Until now, Qatar airspace has been under the control of Bahrain, except for the terminal area of Doha Hamad Airport. Bahrain's taking the control of most of the Gulf airspace dates back to 1971, after Qatar and Bahrain gained independence from the United Kingdom. According to the good relations between Qatar and Bahrain, the decision about the airspace was primarily determined based on the fact that Bahrain was where the majority of military airports and radars were located. Qatar had agreed at that time Bahrain’s control and management of a disproportionately large airspace.
In the last 5 years, the balance in the region completely changed with the diplomatic disputes between the Middle East countries and the decision of many Gulf countries to impose an airspace blockade on Qatar.
On June 5, 2017, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and the UAE broke off diplomatic relations with Qatar and started to impose an economic embargo, accusing them of "backing various terrorist groups". While Qatar denied all the accusations of such countries, this situation led to a crisis in the Gulf region. The extent of the crisis deepened so much that Qatar Airways were banned from the airspace of four countries. Following the airspace blockade decision, the Qatari government first unveiled its plan to create its own airspace in August 2018.
Qatar justified in its plan that the existing FIR limits no longer serve its own interests and that its proposal will reduce the complexity associated with inbound and outbound traffic, increase efficiency to enable optimized approaches and departures, achieve more equitable distribution of the workload between Qatar and Bahrain air traffic control. It was also noted that the management of this coordination by a country other than Qatar would lead to trust issues in the region, which has historically been a difficult geography. Thus, the Doha administration initiated a legal struggle within the framework of international regulations to take control of its own airspace.
Necessary consensus could not be reached on Qatar's proposal for a long time and it was decided to conduct a wider international evaluation in January 2020. All four countries previously imposed an airspace blockade on Qatar, as well as Yemen, objected to Qatar's plan.
Who were the Objectors and Why were they Objecting?
While stating that Qatar did not provide technical or operational justification for the proposal, Bahrain also argued that in a complex, high-density traffic area, the provision of an additional air navigation service would create an "unnecessary" coordination workload, increase costs, and potentially reduce safety.
While Bahrain stated that Qatar did not provide technical or operational justification for the proposal, providing an extra air navigation service in a complex, high-density traffic area would create an “unnecessary” coordination workload; argued that it would increase costs and potentially lead to security risks.
Egypt argued the current arrangement has proven to be secure and sound for decades and that Qatar's proposal "contradicted" with recommendations for uninterrupted traffic flow.
The Saudi representatives stated that the separation of the airspace would have a "major negative impact" on traffic and would result in "serious" capacity reductions and a mess.
The United Arab Emirates argued that the proposal would not provide any operational benefits, on the contrary, would "jeopardize" the mature operational process throughout the region.
Meanwhile Qatar repeatedly advocated at ICAO meetings that a specific Doha FIR proposal would improve security and create economic benefits to the airline industry. Qatar explored all possible options for a consensus on the proposal and claimed that some parties used delay tactics to further prolong the process. Qatar also declared that only five of the 55 country delegates objected to the proposal.
All four countries that imposed an airspace blockade on Qatar lifted their restrictions on Qatar following the Gulf Cooperation Council summit in Al-Ula, Saudi Arabia, in January 2021.
Doha FIR will be Established in Two Phases
The establishment of a Doha FIR shrinks Bahrain’s existing airspace, and the control of one of the regions with the most intense air traffic in the world passes to Qatar. Upon the decision, around 70% of flights to the United Arab Emirates will be made over the new Qatari airspace.
Doha FIR shall be established in two phases. “Area A” of the Doha FIR is an “unlimited altitude” area to be controlled by Qatar. “Area B” will be controlled to an altitude of 24,500ft. for 2 years. Later Area B will join Area A, to become under the control of Qatar.
As no other example exists in the history of modern aviation for a country, not possessing its own airspace, to have obtained this right, this was recorded as an unprecedented decision in the commercial aviation world.
What is Airspace? Why is it Important?
Airspace is a term used for the portion of the atmosphere above any territory or territorial waters, the dimensions of which are determined by various laws, rules and treaties. Airspace in the skies is divided into “flight information region” known as “'FIR”, just like the borders on maps. The control of flights over these regions is provided by the country to which they belong. Airplanes pay a fee for the use of the airspace to the country controlling such region.
Each country's airspace is divided into one or more flight information regions, depending on the country's size, position and air traffic. For example, approximately 1 million square kilometers of Turkish airspace is divided into Ankara FIR and Istanbul FIR, and UK airspace is divided into two flight information regions, Scottish FIR and London FIR.
According to the Chicago Convention signed in 1944, every state has complete and exclusive sovereignty over the airspace above its territory. All signatory states must allow the use of their airspace by aircraft of other states (with the exception of scheduled international flights) “without prior authorization”.