Qatar Blockade Case Study
Extract from MA Thesis ‘Above Ground’

A man walked past me
Smelling of jasmine

Washed out dust
Hangs in the air
Blocks my nose

In the desert, dust diffuses the sky. It settles in a fine film, beige particles invisible in the air. It blows through the crack under the door, around window frames, makes shoes slip across the tiles.

On days when the dust hovers like mist, perception of space becomes abstracted and pared-down. The blurring that occurs across the horizon line warps one’s usual sense of depth and distance; everything coalesces vertically in one graduated stroke.

Perhaps one of the regions of the world in which the conflict between insular sovereign states and global networks is most apparent is the Arabian Peninsula. The nations in this region occupy a geographically central, and therefore “pivotal commercial and strategic position” (Ulrichsen, 2010: 1) in the balancing of East-West global powers. As the Gulf states have sought to diversify their capital streams from oil and natural gas, they have also strengthened political and trade ties bilaterally and multilaterally to further their means of economic and political development, suggesting that they “are prioritising internationalisation over continued regionalisation” (Ulrichsen, 2010: 20). 

The GCC (Gulf Cooperation Council) is a union and alliance (albeit an uneasy one) comprised of the Arab states of the Gulf region: Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates. The GCC established a common market trade zone, which aside from movement of goods and capital, also allows full equality among GCC citizens to work in both government and private sectors, have access to social insurance, real estate ownership, education, health, and other social services. The GCC has also launched multiple infrastructural projects, including linking electricity, water, and rail networks, to further enable trade across states, as well as plans for a common air transport service. This common market gives a framework for understanding the GCC, with its alliance of state powers and enactment of an overarching (if changeable) jurisdiction, as an extraterritorial entity in and of itself.

Ties between GCC member states became fraught, however, when Qatar, at the time being the world’s wealthiest nation (in terms of the highest per capita GDP), was perceived by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates as developing too powerful a network within the international community. Being the largest GCC nation, Saudi Arabia’s heads of state viewed Qatar’s ties to Iran as a potential threat to Saudi Arabia’s position as one of the main powers in the region (vying with Iran). Though preceded by several years of background manoeuvring at global levels, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, and several other non-GCC nations imposed a sudden blockade upon Qatar in June, 2017. In doing so, the blockading countries imposed a sort of reflexive extraterritoriality; a space of enforced political othering. Qatar’s sovereign territory is challenged through its effective isolation and avoidance by the blockading nations, creating an exceptional state alienated from its surrounding order. This state is imposed upon, and up to, the boundaries of sovereign territory, rather than having been created autonomously within Qatar’s own borders. The space itself presents a void in the regulated and standardised global airspace design.

The ongoing blockade saw GCC states cutting off air, sea, and land routes, as well as all diplomatic, trade, and economic ties. Qatar’s sovereign airspace, in particular, is highly affected. All flights, especially those of the state’s national airline, Qatar Airways, passing directly in and out of Qatar, were barred from the use of airspace that falls under the jurisdiction of blockading countries. The closure of Gulf FIRs to Qatar has also caused more circuitous flight paths, thereby increasing flight times, fuel requirements and costs, and negatively impacting ticket sales. This manipulation of territory and the imposition of the blockade as an obstruction to be circumnavigated demonstrates the malleability of existing airspace architecture. As a consequence of this obstruction, and somewhat ironically, Qatar has created an arrangement to utilise Iran’s juridical airspace and thereby access the small pockets of international air zones in the Gulf. Non-blockading Gulf states, such as Iran and Oman, have also been able to charge higher levies for use of their airspace. As another consequence of the imposed architecture, and as an attempt to design new routes around the blockade, Qatar has had to forge alternative political alliances, with the European Union, as the previous allegiance of large global powers such as the U.S. remained in question. To counter the isolationary tactics of the blockade, Qatar initiated visa-free entry to citizens of 80 nations in a move to encourage tourism and commercial air travel, and thus make Qatar “the most open country in the region” (Al-Ibrahim, 2017). 

The splintering of the preexisting political and geographic surface caused by the blockade is furthered by the FIR system in the Gulf. The Gulf states exist within a complex political architecture, one defined by a multitude of overlapping quasi-sovereign and global power networks. The blockade being created as an extraterritorial void within the region demonstrates the potential deterritorialisation of organised airspace when access is held solely by the authority state. Qatar’s sovereign airspace falls within Bahrain’s FIR, making it one such occurrence of an FIR being suspended above multiple sovereign territories. Qatar’s flight services therefore must be negotiated with one of the blockading nations, which in turn, could potentially ground all flights to and from the country. While states are not permitted to prohibit the aircraft of other states from their FIRs (because they do not have sovereignty over that airspace), this was a factor in the blockading countries’ exclusion of Qatar flights. Initially, the blockading nations prohibited Qatari flights from their FIRs, as well as from their national airspace. After discussions with ICAO, is was demonstrated that this was in violation of international law, and thus some restricted FIR routes were granted to Qatar - re-establishing the former airspace architecture. Qatar is currently seeking to amend the relevant regional air navigation plan in order to obtain its own FIR, as much of the FIRs in the Gulf region encompass international airspace, which under the terms of the blockade has severely limited Qatari flight routes. This, again, would present an opportunity for the existing design of airspace to be altered according to political and economic needs. 

The blockade demonstrates both the potential and obstructive nature of airspace when it is rendered tacit through extraterritoriality. Air power is distributed through military, financial, and political networks, both within and without the structure initiated by the blockade. This disrupted infrastructure produces new political alliances and altered geographical patterns and states of space. The blockade on Qatar raised walls and effectively hardened the borders of the nation’s airspace, demonstrating the potential for spatial manipulation by exterior forces and creating a state of exception within.

Al-Ibrahim, H. (2017). Isolated by Gulf neighbours, Qatar offers visa-free entry to 80 nationalities. Retrieved from https://www.straitstimes.com/world/middle-east/isolated-by-gulf-neighbours-qatar-offers-visa-free-entry-to-80-nationalities

CAOC. (2017). Combined Air Operations Center (CAOC). Retrieved from https://www. afcent.af.mil/About/Fact-Sheets/Display/Article/217803/combined-air-operations-center-caoc/

Ulrichsen, K. (2010). The GCC States and the Shifting Balance of Global Power. [ebook] Doha: Georgetown University School of Foreign Service in Qatar. Available at: https:// www.files.ethz.ch/isn/124456/No_6_KristianCoatesUlrichsenOccasionalPaper.pdf, pp. 1, 20.