The build-up to the Qatar Airways press conference at Dubai’s Arabian Travel Market on Monday was breathless: “We have multiple announcements, get ready for headlines,” the compere instructed.
Akbar Al-Baker, the airline’s chief executive, certainly had headlines in mind, but I am not sure they were the kind the corporate communications team expected. His version contained the words “wicked,” “swindle” and “bullies.”
After Al-Baker had dutifully gone through the official list — a record number of new destinations, high-speed Internet at 37,000 feet, a revamped website and an exciting new app — it took only one question to set him off on real headline writing: “Do you know whether President Trump will be persuaded by the lobbying of the US airlines over Open Skies?”
What the assembled reporters really wanted to hear, and what the CEO really wanted to talk about, was the ongoing row between Gulf carriers (Emirates and Etihad, as well as Qatar) and some parts of the US airlines industry about allegations of unfair subsidies and anti-competitiveness.
The battle has now spread over two US administrations, with President Trump considering the demands to scrap the “Open Skies” deals that his predecessor kicked into the long grass during the election campaign.
“Mr. Trump is a very wise individual and businessman, and he will not give in to bullying… The three US airlines (United, Delta and American) only operate to places where they can swindle their customers… throwing paying passengers off flights just shows how wicked they are,” were among the Al-Baker soundbites.
In a way, it was more of the same in the war of words that has gone on for two years now, and been conflated and confused in the public mind by other tiffs in the aviation relationship between America and the Gulf: The president’s still-unimplemented proposals to limit entry to the US from some Muslim countries, and the ban on in-flight laptop and tablet use from some Middle East countries including Saudi Arabia.
But Al-Baker is a shrewd old warrior, and in the detail of his vitriolic rant at the Americans were three key nuggets that give an indicator of how this affair might go.
First, he said that Qatar was preparing to release, in unprecedented detail, profit and loss accounts and a balance sheet that would give the lie to the American claims on unfair subsidy. When those figures appear — “soon,” he said — they could be decisive in the war with the Americans.
Second, he hinted that he had hot information from the White House of an imminent change of stance by the anti-immigration US president. “I’m sure a new strategy will come from Donald Trump’s office to encourage people to travel to the US,” he said.
And third, even if no such change of heart was forthcoming, Qatar would continue with its global expansion regardless. Of the 26 new destinations the airline will serve over the next two years, only one — San Francisco — is in the US. “The USA is not the entire world,” he said dismissively.
By Frank Kane
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