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Qatar blockade ends: Egypt to resume flights to Doha, opening economic doors

Resumption of flights brings economic opportunities for both countries amid the Covid-19 pandemic
An Egypt Air Embraer 170 aircraft on the tarmac at Cairo International Airport, while another plane takes off, on 15 January 2021 (AFP)
By in
Cairo

Egyptian national carrier EgyptAir says it will start operating direct flights to Doha on Monday for the first time in three years. 

Egypt shut down its airspace to Qatari aircraft and suspended flights to Qatar in June 2017, when it joined Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain in imposing a blockade on the Gulf state, after they accused Doha of interfering in their internal affairs by allegedly supporting opposition groups. 

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Egypt reopened its airspace to Qatari planes on 12 January. The move came seven days after the four states and Qatar signed a document in al-Ula, Saudi Arabia, that opens the door for the return of their normal diplomatic, political and trade ties. 

In operating flights to Qatar and reopening its airspace to Qatari aircraft on 18 January, Egypt joins in doing the same as the other three states. 

Airports prepare

EgyptAir has already started receiving reservations from Egyptians who want to travel to Qatar. 

The Egyptian carrier says it will operate two flights to Doha from Cairo International Airport on a daily basis. 

The company's chairman, Rushdi Zakaria, said four additional flights would be operated to Qatar from Borg al-Arab Airport near the northern coastal city of Alexandria every week. 

"We can increase the number of daily flights to three when demand grows in the coming period," Zakaria said on Egyptian TV. 

EgyptAir used to operate three flights daily to Doha before the blockade on Qatar. 

Meanwhile, Cairo International Airport authorities have finalised permissions for the arrival of employees of the Qatari embassy in Cairo.

Once they arrive, embassy employees will coordinate the arrival of Qatari delegations to Cairo, local newspapers quoted some airport sources as saying. 

The Qatari aviation office at Terminal 2 of Cairo International Airport was closed soon after June 2017, as was EgyptAir's office at Doha International Airport. 

Arrangements were made in the past few days for the reopening of these offices in Cairo and Doha in preparation for the return of the aviation movement between the two capitals to normal, the same sources said. 

Cairo Airport's call centre has already started receiving dozens of calls from Egyptians asking about flights to Doha, Egyptian media said. 

Economic opportunities

These developments open up vast economic opportunities for Egypt and Qatar, specialists say.

This is especially true with Qatar racing against time to complete the infrastructure projects necessary to host the 2022 FIFA World Cup, the world's most important football event, which will be organised in the Middle East for the first time.

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"This development will create demand for Egyptian workers in the Qatari market," Hamdi Emam, the head of the recruitment companies division at the Cairo Chamber of Commerce, told Middle East Eye. 

Around 300,000 Egyptians work in different sectors of the Qatari economy, including in the construction of World Cup facilities. 

Qatari authorities were keen to keep these workers, even after relations deteriorated between Cairo and Doha. 

The reopening of the Qatari market for Egyptian workers will most likely bring relief to Egyptian economic planners, as they struggle to find jobs for hundreds of thousands of Egyptians who join the labour market every year. 

Around 7.3 percent of Egypt's workforce was unemployed in the third quarter of 2020, according to the Egyptian government.  

The reopening of the Qatari market to Egyptian labour is also important while jobs are becoming scarce in other Gulf countries in the light of their drive to substitute foreign workers with nationals, specialists said.

"This drive has caused hundreds of thousands of Egyptian workers to lose their jobs and return home," Emam said. 

Desperate for help

This may be a factor behind the Egyptian national carrier offering discounts of up to 20 percent on its flights to Doha. The carrier is also offering discounts for younger members of travellers' families. 

Encouragement by the national carrier for Egyptians to travel to Qatar, with possibility for relations with the Gulf state to improve further in the coming period, comes as Egypt continues to suffer from the toll the Covid-19 pandemic has had on its economy. 

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Egypt has sustained around 200bn Egyptian pounds ($12.9 bn) in losses because of the pandemic, according to the country's finance minister. 

The tourism sector, which accounts for 11.2 percent of Egypt's GDP and 9.5 percent of total employment, has been strongly affected by the pandemic.

The sector has been at the centre of Egypt's closures, including a three-month suspension of international flights from March to July 2020. 

Egypt continues to receive international flights, hoping the tourism sector will compensate for some of the losses it made in the first half of 2020.

In 2015, 17,814 Qatari tourists visited Egypt, the Egyptian Ministry of Tourism said.

"The operation of flights to and from Doha will hopefully encourage Qatari tourists to come to Egypt, even if gradually," Alaa al-Ghamri, a member of the board of the Egyptian Travel Agents Association, told MEE. "This is important for the Egyptian economy." 

Qatari investments in Egypt have already started coming back to life after they hit a snag in the wake of the diplomatic crisis between Cairo and Doha. 

On 5 January, Qatari Finance Minister Ali Sharif Al Emadi arrived in Cairo to open the St Regis hotel, a $1.3bn investment by Qatari construction giant Diar. 

Qatar invests $5bn in Egypt, including $3bn through Diar alone. 

Further raising prospects for increased Qatari business interest in Egypt, Egyptian authorities have introduced a series of reforms to investment laws to attract foreign money.

Economists in Cairo say the size of the Egyptian market, with a population of 100 million, is another incentive.

"These opportunities will encourage Qatari investors to come here," Bassant Fahmi, a former member of the Committee on Economic Affairs in the Egyptian parliament, told MEE. "With its location and the size of its population, Egypt is a true investment magnet."