The company’s CEO discusses the Gulf blockade and its effect on the aviation industry, as crisis enters its second week.
Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Egypt have closed their airspace to Qatari aircraft amid a deepening diplomatic dispute, forcing Qatar’s flag carrier to re-route its flights over Iran, Turkey and Oman.
The decision by the four Arab nations to sever diplomatic ties, and cut off sea and air links with Qatar has caused major disruptions to air travel across the Gulf and raised fears for the future of aviation in the region – home to several of the world’s major long-haul carriers.
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The countries that launched the measures against Qatar have accused it of supporting “terrorism”, a claim Qatar has called “unjustified”.
Qatar Airways is one of the victims of the crisis. However, the company just announced record profits: 22 percent increases, year on year. But it fears dark days ahead.
So what’s at stake for the company at the moment? And what negotiations are taking place?
Akbar al-Baker, chief executive officer of Qatar Airways, talks to Al Jazeera’s Andrew Simmons.
Qatar Airways record profit
Al Jazeera: Congratulations on your financial results, but it must be something of a bittersweet taste with all that’s been going on this past week, not just here in Qatar, but for the whole region, the effects. What do you think the level of seriousness is in this whole crisis?
Akbar al-Baker: On a positive note, let me just say, that I am delighted to announce that Qatar Airways profit of $541m. It is a record profit in the history of our airline, and at the same time, we have also had a robust passenger number growth – 20.1 percent increase year on year which, again, is one of the strongest growth figures in our industry.
So we are very resilient as an airline. However, I do agree that there are some dark clouds, and I should not be hiding my concern that we will underperform. But not to the extent of our neighbours, because Qatar Airways has a very strong growth plan. You know that, not too long ago, I announced that I was going to increase to 24 new destinations.
I couldn’t do it because I had capacity restraints. Now that we have a release, capacity from the 18 destinations, that we have been barred illegally from operating, we are now going to accelerate the other regions of the world, where we feel that we will mitigate the reduction in passenger numbers from this 18 destinations. So Qatar Airways has a robust plan B, to continue our march ahead.
Air blockade: What’s at stake?
Al Jazeera: Let’s just look back to June 5. Monday morning you were in Cancun, Mexico, at a major aviation conference. When you heard [about the blockade], what was going through your head?
Al-Baker: Well you know, this is the last thing any CEO of an airline would want to hear, that the airspace in which it operates, international airspace, in which it operates has illegally been blocked.
It was very difficult for me to find a way to come here quickly, but I did, because this is a call of duty for me to be in my country at such a time, where countries around our region have ganged up against my nation and made a land, sea, and air blockade. It is unprecedented in the history of any country at time of peace that such a blockade is conducted.
Al Jazeera: That’s what I want to pick up on. We’ve heard of air walls. This transcends everything. Do you feel that in effect you’re under attack, that Qatar is under attack?
Al-Baker: You know, Qatar is very resilient, and Qatar also has friends. And we have managed to make sure that life will continue as normal. For an airline, for us, the biggest priority is for us to have a gateway in and out of my country, which we are very successfully handling, and at the same time, it is our passengers for which it is our responsibility.
First, to re-route them, second to give them a full refund if they chose to do so, and thirdly, if they choose to travel on Qatar Airways, that we give them the highest amount of care, that we give to our passengers. Qatar Airways is very strong, financially, we will persevere. And at the same time, we will make sure that every single passenger is guaranteed, that if it chooses after booking on Qatar Airways not to travel on Qatar Airways, we will give them their refund. So they don’t have any risk of losing the money that they have invested in Qatar Airways. XXX
But let me tell you that as we are being affected, so are our neighbours who have gotten into this illegal act of blocking us. Their national carriers are also getting affected. What is also doing is letting the entire region’s air connectivity confidence to be lost. So, they are in the same basket. So, they should not think that they’ll be going laughing to the bank, while they are putting economic pain on my country.
Al Jazeera: I came across a market share pie of the [aviation] market in the region, and you’re up to 69 percent of it, obviously dominating the market. So there’s a lot at stake, isn’t it?
Al-Baker: Yes, it is a lot at stake when from this market size you’re removing 18 destinations that we have been blocked from flying to. So there will be an impact, but that impact will be mitigated when they go to new destinations as part of the growth strategy of Qatar Airways.
— Al Jazeera English (@AJEnglish) June 13, 2017
They ‘illegally blocked that airspace’
Al Jazeera: There’s a lot of confusion about just how the airspace works around Qatar, because Bahrain seems to have it all, when you look at the map. But then there’s this low-altitude arrangement you’ve got, can you explain please?
Al-Baker: Let me let me explain to you. Yes, Bahrain and the UAE have illegally blocked that airspace. The airspace that they have blocked does not belong to them, it belongs to the international community.
Bahrain and the UAE have illegally blocked that airspace. The airspace that they have blocked, does not belong to them. It belongs to the international community.
It has been given to them, the flight information region which is called FIR, which is by International Civil Aviation Organisation.
These countries have signed the Chicago Convention, in which they have agreed to comply with the air services transit agreement. So they are in violation of article one, section one, of that convention.
And they’re also disregarding an airspace that had been provided to them by a UN body to administer for the purpose of international air transport facilitation and safety. So, they do not have the right to blockade this.
However, we have another channel to go out. It is over the Qatar airspace into Iran. And, as it is, we were operating our flights, many of our flights over the same airspace in Iran, and we continue to do so, only that we have to have a detour.
So, all the acts that they are doing are illegal and it is a travesty of civilised behaviour, conducting international business.
Al Jazeera: What about Iran in all of this? Your flights are bringing in food from there, and also from Turkey, as we speak. Do you want to do more business with Tehran?
Al-Baker: You know, we have friends, and Qatar Airways will fly over these friendly territories. And, of course, it is my job, because I am the gateway when there is a blockade to the outside world. We have been successful: the Ministry of Transport has been successful transporting goods over the sea, and Qatar Airways has been successful in transporting goods by air.
And as you can see, you are living in Qatar, that all those rumours about food shortages and food queues are false. It is misinformation. Qatar Airways will continue to operate, and the state of Qatar will continue to rely on its friends because a friend can only be a friend when you require their services.
— Talk to Al Jazeera (@TalktoAlJazeera) June 13, 2017
Trump ‘standing on the other side against my country’
Al Jazeera: Do you think there’s a jealousy towards Qatar? Could there be a commercial motivation as well as a political one in what’s happening?
Al-Baker: There is a political motivation because this state of Qatar is always at the forefront of solving problems in our region, trying to bring a look at things in a very stable manner. Qatar is also taking high profile political initiatives and this is creating jealousy.
Actually, they want [to coax Qatar into] their sphere of influence. They want Qatar’s sovereignty to be under their control. And I don’t think the state of Qatar will agree to relinquish our foreign policy, and our sovereignty in hand of anybody.
Of course, I should not get into this, answering this question, because I’m not a politician, and I would like to stick to the impact that all this is making in my own life.
Al Jazeera: I realise that you’re in business, not politics, but what’s your view on Donald Trump?
Individuals have climbed on a tree which is very tall. And now to get down from this tree, they will be injured. My country will persevere.
Al-Baker: You know, when you live in a glass house, you should not be throwing stones. So I don’t want to get into that, but one thing I can say that I’m very disappointed in the leadership of the United States.
Al Jazeera: But Donald Trump, I understand, is a friend of yours?
Al-Baker: How can I call him my friend, when he is standing on the other side against my country – unfairly?
Al Jazeera: But you, I understand, did consider yourself to be an associate of his.
Al-Baker: I did, when it was only relating to American politics. But I cannot remain anybody’s friend, if somebody is standing on the other side of the fence, against my nation.
Al Jazeera: You did actually say, give him a chance when he was on the campaign trail … you sort of gave him the chance, but when did that relationship come to an end? During this crisis?
Al-Baker: Exactly. When you stand up against my country, what do you expect? My loyalty is to my country, not to any other individual.
Al Jazeera: Where do you think it leads?
Al-Baker: Individuals have climbed on a tree which is very tall. And now to get down from this tree, they will be injured. My country will persevere.
We have taken a moral high ground. We have not acted in the way others have acted. Emiratis, Saudis, Egyptians can live here peacefully. Emirates, Etihad, Saudi Arabian Airlines, Egypt Air they can operate their offices, openly. They can bring in and transfer money out normally.
I am very bitter about it, not because only what they did, but also the way they did it. To seal Qatar Airways offices with large stickers, as if we are a money-laundering business or a drug agency. Kicking people out of our offices, detaining our manager, not allowing us to give refunds to our passengers, not allowing even our staff to take personal effects.
So, we are taking the moral high ground, because the country has very wise leadership.
This crisis ‘will never be forgotten’
Al Jazeera: Setting all the corporate and the political backdrop to this interview aside, what’s in your heart right now when you see what’s going on?
Al-Baker: I am very bitter about it, not because only what they did, but also the way they did it.
To seal Qatar Airways offices with large stickers, as if we are a money-laundering business or a drug agency. Kicking people out of our offices, detaining our manager, not allowing us to give refunds to our passengers, not allowing even our staff to take personal effects.
On the other hand, we are going to stand by our staff in those countries. They will continue to receive their remuneration. We will always help them in any way.
So you can see how the other sides are operating and how we [behave], with the wise political leadership in this country. We have instructions of how we have to behave.
When our citizens were kicked out from those countries, we provided them free passage even when they were holding Emirates’ and other airline tickets. We have to honour human beings, at the time of need, and the need that has been created by them, not by us.
Al Jazeera: Do you get the feeling though, that this is not going to be over quickly?
Al-Baker: You know, when you split families, when you split loved ones, when you have to remove your children from schools, when you have to block your funds that you need to repatriate for your family that are on the other side out of needs – do you think people will forget?
This is a wound that has been created for a generation. This will never be forgotten.
I’m not a politician. Again. There are certain of parts of this question that should be answered by the political echelons of my country. But one thing I can tell you, regardless if this lasts, less or long, the wound has already been very deep, and people will not forget.
‘Qatar is being bullied’
Al Jazeera: Does it concern you these allegations, these suggestions in the media that Qatar is a sponsor of terrorism?
Al-Baker: Media is always biased … It is my duty now, to make sure that we get the correct messages. And when you also block the websites of the airline, so the airline cannot even give a normal message to a passenger.
Al Jazeera: You can’t connect, can you?
Al-Baker: You cannot connect. So, we have other channels which we are pursuing to give the message to our customers, to our passengers, and to our staff, that we are here, we are here to stay, and we will support them.
Al Jazeera: What measures are you taking?
Al-Baker: I don’t want to tell you what measures we are taking, but we are taking very aggressive measures.
Al Jazeera: I want to just touch on this, because whatever message is going out, whatever is biased or otherwise, your customers take in media, the consumers take in media and a lot of it is toxic towards Qatar. Do you not surely, as a businessman, fear now, that your brand could be slightly toxic?
Al-Baker: In this internet age, people are not ignorant. I think your view on this is misplaced.
You know, in Europe, if you commit a murder, you get a life sentence that is only 10 years. And ... just to talk about a country, and then to go 15 years in jail ... don't you think that this is a misuse of your power, and the laws, that you are supposed to implement fairly on your subjects.
There is a huge international sympathy by people on the state of Qatar. Everybody knows that Qatar is being bullied. But their opinion is misplaced, and I’m glad that it will never get bullied by anybody.
And I am glad that more and more people are now coming on the side of Qatar because of this illegal act imposed on my country.
Al Jazeera: The measures you’ve seen taken against people, such as laws passed both now in UAE and Saudi Arabia, which could put someone in jail, for between three and 15 years, for just supporting Qatar, were you shocked by that?
Al-Baker: As a person, yes, I am.
You know, in Europe, if you commit a murder, you get a life sentence that is only 10 years. And just to talk about a country, and then to go 15 years to jail. Don’t you think that this is a misuse of your power and the laws that you are supposed to implement fairly on your subjects?
FC Barcelona: Bringing sports into a political row
Al Jazeera: The famous Barcelona FC t-shirt with the Qatar Airways logo on is smudged out on billboards in the United Arab Emirates …
Al-Baker: Can you imagine this? Can you imagine somebody bringing sports into a political row, blocking Qatar’s name from the t-shirts? I mean, this is really an unprecedented action being taken by people that shows that they have absolute disregard.
Al Jazeera: Why is your sponsorship of Barcelona ending? Was it you who pulled out or was it the team?
Al-Baker: We pulled out because we will only put so much cash on the table. We are not a bank, we are an airline.
Al Jazeera: So now, moving on to Saudi Arabia, Ali, another great football club.
Al-Baker: They’ve just sent me a text message telling me that they’re pulling out from the sponsorship. Well, it is their call, they need us to remunerate them for this. And if they don’t want, then it’s up to them. We have no issue.
Al Jazeera: We’ve just heard that the president of FIFA is saying that the World Cup will be on 2022, here in Qatar. You [Qatar Airways] are now official sponsors. Are you convinced that, given the backdrop we have now, and the possibility that this could get worse before it gets better, you will definitely be there, cheering your team up?
Al-Baker: Sports is over politics. I am sure that 2022 will be conducted in my country, and I assure you, that it will be the best FIFA tournament taken place, ever, in this world. Similarly, when we launched IATA AGM here, people still talk about it, because in Qatar we are always doing our job to the best.
Al Jazeera: How is the business going with FIFA, now that you are officially a member of FIFA as a company, as an entity?
Al-Baker: We have just launched our sponsorship of FIFA. It is in its infancy. And yes, we will start reflecting our association with FIFA in the coming months in a very strong way.
‘The world is not only these four countries’
I can only say one thing, that at the and stable minds will prevail, and the international community will not allow this to escalate... Qatar will persevere.
Al Jazeera: It must be a rather surreal feeling, celebrating your very good financial results at this time, with a siege going on around your country.
Al-Baker: We will celebrate again a good profit next year by the will of God. We will grow into new markets. When we withdrew from one destination for example, we didn’t close the airline down. We looked at five new destinations, and this is exactly what we’re doing.
Al Jazeera: If you don’t mind me saying though, you are not giving a lot of data about what sort of losses you are making.
Al-Baker: Because this is in its infancy, and I don’t want to tell you my losses because it is just one week old. If I made a loss at the end of the year, I would tell you I lost, and I will give you the reasons why I lost.
But just give me some time. So, I don’t want to tell you a loss, and you know, raise an alarm, while I am as a businessman and as CEO of Qatar Airways finding other business opportunities, where I will mitigate these losses that I’m having in the destinations they have to withdraw from.
You know, the world is not only these four countries.
Al Jazeera: What feedback are you getting from your staff about all this?
Al-Baker: On the third day of the conflict, I sent a personal note to every single individual in the organisation that I handle, to give them commitment, and to give them confidence. And this was taken very positively by my staff.
Al Jazeera: Do you think that they’ve handled it well? I mean they must have been a lot of stress on everyone, with so many people in a very confused state, and some of them are very angry.
Al-Baker: Yes there will be uncertainty; there will be confusion. There will be some doubts in the people. But you know, as the head of this airline, it is my duty to get them confidence in the company that they’re working for.
Qatar will persevere
Al Jazeera: When you took over in 1997, there were five aircraft, and now 196.
Al-Baker: Actually, it is 206, to be precise.
Al Jazeera: An extraordinary thing that you must be proud of. Do you not now really fear that it could all start going the other way because of politics?
Al-Baker: No, I disagree. It will actually continue to grow, and I’m sure, like I told you, that if I make a loss next year, I will tell you, at the same time, I would also tell you how many more aircraft we have, next year than what we had this year.
Al Jazeera: Trying to look ahead, do you really think that this crisis is going to be resolved peacefully, and clearly and simply or not?
Al-Baker: I can only say one thing, that at the end, stable minds will prevail and the international community will not allow this to escalate.
Al Jazeera: And in your heart, again, that question of personal feeling on it.
Al-Baker: Yes. Qatar will persevere.