Qatar Airways has announced plans to resume direct flights to Saudi Arabia starting with Riyadh on January 11, followed by Jeddah on January 14 and Damman on January 16. The decision to restart flights to the Kingdom comes less than a week after a landmark deal was reached between the two countries bringing to an end a three and half year diplomatic rift and extensive blockade.
A Saudi-led bloc which included Bahrain, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) imposed the land, air and sea blockade in June 2017 accusing Qatar of supporting Islamist terrorism in the region and cosying up with regional foe Iran.
Photo Credit: Qatar Airways
As well as cutting diplomatic ties with Qatar and closing their borders to Qatari citizens the blockading quartet also banned Qatar Airways from flying through their respective airspace. At the height of the troubles, one Saudi news station even suggested that the military could shoot down any Qatar Airways planes that violated the airspace ban.
After months of intense negotiation, however, a peace deal brokered by Kuwait at an annual summit of the Gulf Cooperation Council countries on Monday saw Saudi Arabia lift the blockade on Qatar.
Qatar Airways has said very little publicly about the development but on Thursday, Qatar Airways flight QR1365 from Doha to Johannesburg became the first flight to pass through Saudi Arabian airspace since 2017.
And now, the airline says it will move quickly to restore direct flights between Qatar and Saudi Arabia using an all widebody fleet of Boeing 777-300, Boeing 787-8 Dreamliners, and Airbus A350 aircraft.
In a statement, Qatar Airways said it was looking “forward to resuming a strong relationship with our trade and cargo partners in KSA, as well as the major airports in the country.”
“Passengers in KSA will have the ability to connect to the largest network in the region with over 800 weekly frequencies to more than 110 destinations, more than any airline in the Middle East,” the statement continued.
Akbar Al Baker, the often outspoken chief executive of Qatar Airways who had repeatedly labelled the blockade illegal and appeared on stage around the world to denounce Saudi Arabia attempted to put the disagreement behind him on Saturday as he struck a conciliatory tone in announcing the resumption of flights.
“We are very pleased with the positive outcome from the GCC Summit and the decision to reopen all borders with Qatar,” Al Baker commented, while not confirming whether Qatar Airways would now drop related legal action in London’s High Court and a claim at the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO).
In 2018, Qatar Airways reported an annual loss of $639 million which the airline blamed largely on the loss of mature routes to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, as well as being forced to fly longer routes to avoid blocked airspace.
Losses ballooned to $1.9 billion in 2019/2020 as Qatar Airways grappled with the continuing effects of the blockade along with the impact of the COVID-19 crisis.