Qatar has submitted complaints to the World Trade Organization against Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and the UAE, hoping to resolve an ongoing dispute that has seen its three neighbours close national airspace to Qatari-registered carriers, days after ICAO refused to intervene in the standoff.
In documents released on 4 August, Qatar formalised its complaints against Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates, accusing each country of engaging in “coercive attempts at economic isolation”, which it says breached several provisions of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade and the General Agreement on Trade in Services.
The complaints, which do not specify the losses incurred by the Gulf state, cite moves by all three countries to close their national airspace to Qatari aircraft and prohibit flights operated by Qatari carriers to and from their airports.
Those restrictions form part of a wider dispute, which saw Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, the UAE and Egypt sever diplomatic ties with Qatar on 5 June, after accusing it of supporting Iran and terrorist groups in Syria, which it denies. Aviation authorities in Saudi Arabia and Bahrain cancelled all existing licences granted to Qatar Airways the same week and ordered the Qatari carrier to close its offices in both countries.
By requesting dispute consultations at the WTO, Qatar has given the three countries 60 days to resolve the airspace and wider impasse or face potential retaliatory trade sanctions.
A United Arab Emirates government official denied the allegations, claiming the dispute does not violate WTO rules.
“The sanctions imposed by the UAE, Saudi Arabia and Bahrain did not contradict the agreements of the WTO,” Juma Mohammed al-Kait, an assistant undersecretary at UAE’s economy ministry told the Emirates News Agency.
He said the boycott adhered to WTO rules, which allow states to take such protective measures where national security is at risk.
All three countries have said previously that they were willing to negotiate with Qatar over the dispute, if it adhered to several wide-ranging demands and agreed to stop funding extremist groups.
Although Egypt also closed its airspace to Qatari carriers, it was not included in the WTO complaint. Qatar’s representative at the WTO, Ali Alwaleed al-Thani, has refused to explain the absence of Egypt in its request for consultations, but did not rule out doing so further down the line.
“All options are available, but we have not raised a consultation request with Egypt yet,” Al-Thani told Reuters.
The International Civil Aviation Organization, meanwhile, has refused to wade into the broader impasse, beyond imploring each country to abide by the Chicago Convention and cooperate on aviation safety.
Qatar asked ICAO to intervene in the standoff in June, petitioning its governing council to resolve the dispute by relying on a mechanism set out under the Chicago Convention, which would allow its council to vote on the validity of the airspace restrictions.
In an extraordinary meeting on 31 July, ICAO’s council refused to offer an appraisal of the airspace restrictions, reiterating that its remit only covers technical issues related to the industry and does not extend to wider political disputes.
ICAO’s response was praised by UAE’s General Civil Aviation Authority. Its chairman, Sultan Al Mansoori, who also serves as the country’s minister of economy, told the UAE’s Khaleej Times that the closure of its airspace was legitimate, supported by “numerous cases of precedent”, and had not drawn any safety concerns from Qatar.
“Our four states maintain that these airspace closures are a legitimate, justified and proportionate response to Qatar’s actions and are permitted under international law,” he said.
So as to protect international aviation safety in the region, Al Mansoori said the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Egypt have agreed to open nine emergency air routes across their airspace for use by Qatari carriers, following coordination by ICAO.