Back in June 2017, a Saudi-led blockade on the State of Qatar pushed the distribution of airspace in the Gulf, into the spotlight. Gulf states UAE, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and also Egypt issued NOTAMS (notice to flight crew) announcing the immediate closure of their airspace to all Qatari registered aircraft, a breach of ICAO’s Chicago Convention.
For Qatar, the closure of Bahrain’s airspace had been the most critical. Qatar’s own “airspace” is very small, and thus the airline relied on flying through Bahrain’s comparatively vast “airspace”.
When Bahrain announced it had closed its airspace in order to impose an air blockade on its Gulf neighbour — the Middle East realised the huge (air) territorial power Bahrain had possessed for the last 50 years.
Sovereign airspace by international law corresponds with the maritime definition of territorial waters as being 12 nautical miles out from a nation’s coastline. Airspace not within any country’s territorial limit is considered international. When I refer to”airspace”, I’m actually referring to a “flight information region” shape (FIR).
This map above shows the distribution of FIR shapes in the Gulf, with Bahrain’s FIR stretching from near to the UAE, along with the coastline of Qatar and Bahrain.
How Did Bahrain End Up With All of This Airspace?
Given that I have covered the aviation side of the Gulf Crisis since the blockade was imposed, I’m asked this question once every few days.
When Bahrain and Qatar gained their independence from the UK in 1971, there wasn’t any change to the FIR shapes in the Gulf region, which had previously been determined based on where military radars had initially been installed. These radars were positioned from a military efficiency perspective, without taking into account a future of thriving Gulf airline carriers.
The key part to this answer is that the airspace shape formed for military purposes was maintained.
Why Was Airspace Distribution in the Gulf Kept The Same?
It’s purely a matter of administrative convenience.
Back in the 1970s, it was determined that equally distributing FIR areas (airspace) to each state would require flight crew to speak to four different air traffic controllers within the space of around 15-20 minutes. While there are some areas of the world where this occurs, the Gulf states didn’t see the need for a redistribution, given the hassle it would present to airline flight crew.
With a history of good relations between Qatar and Bahrain, both being members of the GCC (Gulf Council Corporation) and also being signatory members of International Civil Aviation Organization’s (ICAO – United Nations body for Aviation) Transit Agreement, Bahrain had committed under the agreement to always permit scheduled flights from every nation, without discrimination.
With Bahrain now being in breach of their ICAO treaty, Bahrain eased restrictions slightly (yellow line, in the image above), in order to allow Qatari jets to fly in/out of Doha. Nevertheless, the majority of its airspace remains closed to its Gulf neighbour, and ICAO court cases disputing the matter are ongoing.
Putting the current Gulf Crisis to one side for just a moment, it’s particularly fascinating that Bahrain was able to inherit such a vast amount of airspace, only to use it to their advantage in an unprecedented geopolitical spat, some 50 years later.