Dubai Airshow

U.S Security Measures Smack of Protectionism in Middle East

 - November 10, 2017, 9:00 AM
Gulf airlines such as Emirates had to implement special handling procedures to ensure it complied with a U.S. ban on small electronic devices in aircraft cabins. (Photo: Dubai Airports)

Some of the stiffest measures ever taken to augment homeland security in U.S. history, partly the result of a campaign promise by President Donald Trump to ban Muslim entry to the country entirely, hit the Middle East and its airlines hard this year. Executive orders issued in January and March and a presidential proclamation on September 24 effectively proscribed entry into the U.S. for nationals of certain countries. Although they met with stiff resistance from opposition lawmakers, their very existence sent a chill through the region and, as in the case of the so-called laptop ban enacted by the U.S. and the UK in March, discouraged travel to both those countries. 

The March executive order, titled "Executive Order Protecting The Nation From Foreign Terrorist Entry Into The United States," barred passengers from six Muslim majority countries—Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, and Yemen—without augmented visa documentation and demonstrable ties to the U.S. Its language lessened the scope of the original January order, which suspended the visas of citizens of seven countries in the region, banned entry of all Syrian refugees and suspended the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program for 120 days.

Following intelligence that suggested that Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) had found new ways to prime large carry-on devices with undetectable explosives, the Trump administration introduced an "electronics ban" on March 25 for several months on flights from 10 Middle East and North African airports, further serving to discourage many passengers from flying to the U.S. on the three major Gulf carriers (ME3). The U.S. removed the "laptop ban" the ME3 airlines’ flights in July, although not simultaneously.

News reports quoted Emirates president Tim Clark saying that he had to withdraw 13 aircraft from U.S. routes and might even need to ground them, potentially handing Emirates new capacity problems at a time when low oil prices already prompted a major dampening on travel from the airline's Dubai hub.

Alexandre de Juniac, chief executive of the International Air Transport Association (IATA), criticized the so-called laptop ban. “The current measures are not an acceptable long-term solution to whatever threat they are trying to mitigate,” he said. “Even in the short term, it is difficult to understand their effectiveness.”

People in the Middle East saw the measures as a reflection of the heavily protectionist rhetoric of Trump. In addition, they smacked of overt hostility to all Muslims in the populations of the countries singled out. However, North Korea, Chad and Venezuela underwent increased surveillance under Presidential Proclamation, and Sudan was removed from the original list.

Meanwhile, the Emirates public relations machine went into overdrive, as the airline reemphasized what it regarded as its benign relationship with the U.S. In a U.S. country backgrounder issued in September, Emirates stressed that its interest in a U.S. relationship centered on two elements: flying passenger aircraft into 12 U.S. cities and cargo haulers to two destinations, and its unprecedented support for Boeing.

That support took the form of the biggest single order for U.S.-made aircraft ever issued. The 2013 order, worth $76 billion, covered 150 Boeing 777Xs due for delivery in 2020. As of September 5, Emirates already operated 135 Boeing 777-300ERs, as well as 29 other Boeing types, comprised of 777 variants and freighters.

Emirates also put on record its achievement of feeding 383,000 passengers into the networks of U.S. partner JetBlue Airlines and Alaska Airlines in 2016 and basked in the support of officials from those airlines as well as, apparently, neutral players and the U.S. flying public.

Based on the findings of a study by Campden Hill Aviation Group, Emirates said that the revenue effect of its U.S. operations amounted to $21.3 billion in economic activity, and had added more than 104,000 jobs to the U.S. economy.

“Frankly, the whole thing stank from the word go, because it seemed to have very little rationale, not being a ban on the whole network, but just certain direct flights from carriers that have been the subject of a fair amount of anger from domestic market players,” said Teal Group analyst Richard Aboulafia.

“Having said that, sense prevailed. The inconsistency of it made very little sense. It was, effectively, protectionism by the back door.”