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ICJ Sides with Qatar on Gulf-Rift Air Blockade

Court upholds prior decision made by the International Civil Aviation Organization

The UN’s International Court of Justice (ICJ) 15-judge panel in The Hague sided with Qatar on July 14 in its air-blockade dispute, upholding the 2018 decision by the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO).

Doha hailed the decision, quoting Qatar’s Transport and Communications Minister Jassim Saif Ahmed Al-Sulaiti in a press release:

“We welcome today’s decision by the ICJ that will see the Blockading States finally face justice for violating international aviation rules. We are confident that the ICAO will ultimately find these actions unlawful. This is the latest in a series of rulings that expose the Blockading Countries’ continued disregard for international law and due process. Step by step their arguments are being dismantled, and Qatar’s position vindicated.”

Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Egypt asked the court to take up the matter after the ICAO agreed with Qatar that by imposing an air blockade, the four countries had broken the 1944 International Air Services Transit Agreement (IASTA). The international treaty, also known as the Chicago Convention, permits airline carriers to enter the air space of different countries and formed the ICAO to act as global arbiter over foreign air travel.

The blockade imposing countries contend that the ICAO lacked the authority to arbitrate this decision, an argument that the ICJ rejected:

“The competence of ICAO unquestionably extends to questions of overflight of the territory of contracting States, a matter that is addressed in both the Chicago Convention and the IASTA,” the court held.

In response to the decision, the UAE said in a statement responding it “will now put its legal case to ICAO supporting the right to close its airspace to Qatari aircraft. … The Four States will continue to exercise their sovereign right to cut ties with and close their airspace to Qatar and to work with ICAO to ensure the safety of aviation in the region.”

The case stems from the 2017 Gulf rift when Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, and Egypt imposed a blockade against Qatar, including not permitting Qatari flights to fly in their air space, over alleged support of radical Islamic groups. Qatar has avowedly rejected their accusations.

According to Nader Hashemi, director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Denver, the ICJ’s decision is an emblematic win for Qatar.

“This is a significant moral and symbolic victory for Qatar in its dispute with its Gulf neighbors. It’s also a major defeat for Saudi Arabia and the UAE, the key countries that have imposed a blockade on Qatar,” he told The Media Line. “On the international stage, the UAE and Saudi Arabia have sought to portray Qatar as a rogue regime that supports terrorism and extremism throughout the region. This ruling by the International Court of Justice in favor of Qatar undermines the claims of the UAE/Saudi Arabia.”

The US originally sided with the Sunni bloc against Doha, when President Donald Trump declared Qatar a “funder of terrorism.”

However, US-Qatar ties have improved since 2018, when Washington pulled out of what is colloquially called the “Iran deal” and has needed Doha to serve as a check against Iran’s hegemonic ambitions in the region.

This is a significant moral and symbolic victory for Qatar in its dispute with its Gulf neighbors. It’s also a major defeat for Saudi Arabia and the UAE, the key countries that have imposed a blockade on Qatar

The US had tried to mediate the dispute abroad, with mostly Kuwait and to some extent Oman acting as local intermediaries. They have made some strides, particularly in the realm of soft diplomacy.

For example, last November there of the four countries in the Saudi-led coalitions sent soccer delegations to the 24th Arabian Gulf Cup, one of the most important sporting events in the region. Egypt was not eligible to participate.

The US State Department has yet to release a statement on the ruling. However, Gen. Kenneth McKenzie, commander of US Central Command, said, “We did not get into that subject at all,” after being asked during a July 14 phone briefing at the State Department’s Dubai Regional Media Hub whether on his recent trip to Saudi Arabia he had discussed with Riyadh the Gulf Cooperation Council dispute.

Dr. Kristian Coates Ulrichsen, fellow for the Middle East at Rice University’s Baker Institute, believes that the court’s ruling will not have a large effect on the Qatar-Gulf rift.

“I do not foresee the IJC ruling having any immediate impact on the rift within the GCC in part because there could still be a lengthy appeal process ahead and because the leadership in Abu Dhabi appears unwilling to cede ground on the issue, which is believed to have led to the failure of a US-backed proposal to restore overflight rights to Qatar Airways in the past week,” he told The Media Line.

Hashemi agrees, adding: “I don’t think this substantively changes very much as decisions by the ICJ, while binding on the signatories have no enforcement mechanism. Thus, I predict that this conflict will continue,” he said.

The minimal impact the ruling has on the GCC conflict is also evidenced in the UAE’s statement following the ICJ’s decision, which quotes UAE Ambassador to the Netherlands Dr. Hissa Abdulla Ahmed Al-Otaiba as saying, “This crisis will not be resolved in ICAO or in any other international organization.”