13 June 2017

Uganda: Gulf Crisis Starts to Bite Uganda

Photo: Timothy Kalyegira/Daily Monitor
A Qatar Airways plane lands at Entebbe International Airport recently.

Kampala — The blockade of the Gulf state of Qatar announced by several Middle East countries is beginning to bite in very unexpected area.

Many passengers using Qatar Airways at Entebbe International Airport are either having to reschedule their flights or finding alternative means to deal with expensive delays arising from the diplomatic spat in the Middle East.

The airline which is one of the relatively low cost alternatives preferred by passengers in transit to Europe, the United States and other Asian countries is barred from among other things using the airspace of some of its neighbours.

This has forced the company to take longer routes to navigate the blockade.

On Monday, June 5, four countries; Bahrain, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab announced they had cut ties with Qatar accusing the Middle East country of destabilising the region with its support for Islamist groups. Qatar denies the allegations.

However, the four countries have since closed their borders to Qatar and put into place restrictions on both trade and travel, including a suspension of flights between these countries and Qatar, on any airline, as well as a ban on Qatar Airways' use of airspace belonging to the countries.

Qatar says the measures taken are unjustified and based on false claims and assumptions.

Reports indicate Libya, Yemen, and the Maldives have also cut political ties although flights are still arriving and departing Doha for the Maldives.

Flight delays

Before the crisis, the daily Qatar Airways flight spent five and a half hours to fly from Entebbe to Doha the capital of Qatar. It now takes the same flight, seven hours to make it to Doha.

Take for example, Qatar Airways flight QR1388 which was scheduled to depart Entebbe at 6:30pm on Sunday, June 11 and arrive in Doha at 11:59pm. However, because of the delays, the plane departed Entebbe 7:19pm and arrived in Doha at 2:19 am.

Before picking passengers from Entebbe to Doha, the aircraft drops passengers to Kigali, Rwanda. On Sunday it was scheduled to depart Kigali International Airport at 3:30 and arrive at Entebbe at 5:30pm. It instead departed Kigali at 4:10pm and landed in Entebbe at 6:10pm.

Sources at the Airport told Daily Monitor that the A320 Airbus plane with a capacity of 150 passengers with 12 travelling first class and the remaining 138 travelling economy which Qatar Airways operates at Entebbe would on a bad business day carry between 80 to 100 passengers from Entebbe to Doha every day.

However, that number has since the crisis, reduced by half. Daily Monitor has also seen a copy of flight manifest (documentation) of Qatar Airways flight QR1388 from Entebbe to Doha which had only 45 passengers. A frequent user of the airline who was on flight QR1388, reported "very many" empty seats on the flight.

Sources at Entebbe Airport also told Daily Monitor that Qatar Airways plane was fuelling more than the regular range despite taking fewer passengers because of the longer distance.

There are also reports of passengers at Entebbe paying more money than they would have paid if they used the aircraft. Qatar Airways and Emirates Airlines are said to be among the cheapest.

Qatar Airways has since the start of the crisis claimed that its operations are normal except in the four countries where operations were completely suspended.

When we contacted the Qatar Airways office at Entebbe, an official declined to comment instead referring this newspaper to the company's website.

"We are not authorised to speak to the media about this crisis. Check our website for official communication," he said.

Civil Aviation Authority (CAA), the government agency responsible for licensing, monitoring, and regulating civil aviation matters in the country also declined to comment on the impact of the crisis and specific measures, if any, being taken to help the customers.

However, CAA Public Affairs Manager Vianney Luggya in an interview said it was too early to make any conclusion on the impact of the crisis to the aviation sector in the country since the affected passengers may be using the available options out of Entebbe.

Other business

In April, President Museveni, spent three days in Qatar. He among other things, a State House statement noted, encouraged Qatar businesses to invest in Uganda.

Daily Monitor reported last month that one of Qatar's richest men, Sheikh Faisal Bin Qassim Al Thani and other top businessmen in the Gulf, had expressed interest in helping government revive the defunct Uganda Airlines, a national carrier that collapsed nearly two decades ago.

Dr Rashid Yahya Ssemuddu, who heads Uganda's Mission in Riyadh but also oversees Gulf states on special assignment disclosed that Qatar Airways was interested in helping Uganda to revive Uganda Airlines. Privatisation and Investment minister Evelyn Anite also confirmed the talks.

It is not yet clear if this and such other arrangements between Uganda and Qatar will be affected by the Qatar-Gulf crisis. Daily Monitor sought clarification from the Foreign Affairs Ministry on government position about the crisis.

"It is complex that our Embassy that covers Qatar is located in Saudi Arabia so physical travel is restricted. However, by the time I contacted them, there were no distress calls pertaining to Ugandans being stranded in Qatar," Margaret Awino Kafeero, the head of the Public Diplomacy at the Foreign Affairs Ministry said.

She advised any Ugandan stranded as a result of the crisis to contact Uganda's embassy in Riyadh so that "formal engagements can begin". Ms Kafeero explained that "Uganda still maintains ties with the State of Qatar".

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