A flight guide to Middle East politics

Flight schedules also tell you what Sunni states in the area are not part of the alliance against Iran and even hostile toward the anti-Iranian alliance.

By
July 1, 2019 21:03
A Qatar Airways flight.

A Qatar Airways flight.. (photo credit: REUTERS)

One of the burning issues in the Middle East today is how firm the tacit alliance is between Israel, Saudi Arabia and other Sunni Arab states against Iran.

A look at flight schedules (departures or arrivals because of the necessary symmetry between them) of the major airports in these states is an excellent way of answering this and other questions related to Middle East politics.

How does one know that the most important of these Sunni Arab states regards Iran as a major danger? Just try booking a direct flight from Cairo to Tehran, a mere 1,230 miles away (less than the distance from New York to Miami). These are two of the three major megalopolises in the Middle East, along with Istanbul. You will quickly discover from the flight-arrivals site of Cairo International Airport that there are no direct flights between these capitals – and there haven’t been any for at least the past decade.

Lest you think that this is due to economic reasons, there are 20 flights daily between Cairo and more distant Dubai, which is a city-state in the United Arab Emirates 1,500 miles away. Even to far poorer Khartoum, 1,000 miles south, there are four flights daily from Cairo compared to zero flights between wealthier Cairo and Tehran.

Even less do economic factors explain why there are no direct flights between affluent Riyadh, the capital and largest city in Saudi Arabia, and Tehran, a mere 800 miles away. The proof that the lack of flights between Cairo and Tehran is political rather than economic can be found in the flight schedule between far poorer Cairo to Riyadh (compared to Riyadh-Tehran). There are 10 flights daily between Cairo and Riyadh, even though Cairo is more distant from Riyadh than Tehran is from the Saudi capital: 1,000 miles compared to 800.

The common denominator in the lack of direct flights between Israel, Egypt and Saudi Arabia to Iran’s capital is the enmity toward Iran’s aggressiveness. Israel is a key player in this alliance.

It goes without saying that there are no flights between Tehran and Manama, the capital of Bahrain, Saudi Arabia’s small client state to which it is linked by a 20-mile bridge. Bahrain is ruled by a Sunni dynasty against the will of its predominantly and arguably pro-Iranian Shi’ite population.

Flight schedules also tell you what Sunni states in the area are not part of the alliance against Iran and even hostile toward the anti-Iranian alliance.

Istanbul International Airport, one of the world’s largest and busiest, is Iran’s major getaway to the West. Its ally in regional affairs, Qatar, which is at odds with Saudi Arabia, runs six daily flights to Tehran, as well as flights to five other Iranian destinations, compared to none between the Saudi and Iranian capitals.

Of course, some states, for this-worldly reasons, do not mix politics with economics. There are on average eight flights from Dubai – which ranks among the busiest airports in the world – to Tehran, as well as flights to seven other destinations in Iran, despite the tense relations prevailing between the UAE and Iran, of which it is an integral part.


THIS AIR traffic reflects the large economic interchange between Iran and the UAE and, even more salient politically, represents a major loophole in the sanctions regime the United States has established over Iran.

Turkey is also similar to Dubai and Abu Dhabi in divorcing politics from economics. Istanbul International Airport might be Iran’s gateway to the West, but it is also, as many Israelis and tourists to Israel know, a major transit point for them between Israel, Europe and the Americas – despite Turkey’s support for Hamas and Erdogan’s harangues against Israel.

In Turkey’s case, the divorce is not as neat as in the UAE. Turkey pays for its hostility to Israel in the loss of Israeli tourists, who have increasingly been attracted to similar destinations in safer and friendlier Greece.

Air traffic is also an excellent measure of the intensity of civil war and the condition of failed states in the area.

Plotting the number and variety of flights to Syria’s two international airports in Damascus and Aleppo offers a quick way to measure the strength of the Syrian state. From 2012 to 2014, neither registered any flight traffic, as Damascus International Airport came under siege and Aleppo International Airport ceased operations altogether.

Aleppo, Syria’s largest city and its economic capital during those years, was divided between the western part controlled by the Syrian state, and the older eastern part, controlled by the rebels.

A look at flight arrivals or departures today from the two airports – both of which have been firmly under Syrian government rule since Russian air power in 2015 changed the balance of power between the government and the rebels – is an important indication of how much the Syrian state has managed to become its former self.

Judging from the data, Syria has a long way to go in attaining the relative prosperity that prevailed in the first decade of Bashar Assad’s rule. In 2010, there were 70 flights on average daily; today there are 11.

Significantly, only one of the flights departs from outside Tehran and the Arab world, whereas before the civil war there were flights from most of Europe’s major capitals. The exception, the flight from Moscow, is also a reflection of the primacy of politics: There is only one such flight a week.

Alas, Aleppo seems to remain closed to civilian traffic. The relevant site apologized for lack of information. Before the civil war, the airport registered 30 flights daily.

Airport traffic even captures the larger historical picture. A half-century ago, Cairo and Beirut international airports were the two dominant gateways to the Middle East. Today, they are literally dwarfed by two airports: Dubai’s and Abu Dhabi’s.

The eclipse of Cairo International Airport reflects the sharp decline of Egypt in Arab and foreign affairs; the decline of Beirut, the succumbing of the Arab world’s “Switzerland” to prolonged civil war; the rise of militant Shi’ism; and the control of the country by Iran through Hezbollah, its militia proxy.

On an even larger scale, the flight data reflect the growing salience of the non-Arab regional powers in the Middle East – Turkey and Iran relative to the Arab states – and Israel’s importance to the Western world of keeping Ankara and Tehran at bay.

The writer is a professor in the Departments of Political Studies and Middle Eastern Studies at Bar-Ilan University.


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