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Many wings over the Gulf

The GCC/Qatar crisis is only the latest and most serious case of Gulf oil producers putting sovereignty above regional integration

There was a day when Gulf Airtayran al-khalij in Arabic, which literally means 'the airline of the Gulf'—was just that. Or nearly. In the final decades of the last century, Gulf Air was a joint venture involving the governments of Bahrain, Abu Dhabi, Oman and Qatar. Not a bad base to build on.

The formation of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) in 1980 had led to hopes that the national airlines of Kuwait and Saudi Arabia would come under the Gulf Air umbrella—providing an obvious early success story for the new regional grouping of oil producers.

Not only did those two states fail to sign up, but over the space of a few years Qatar, Abu Dhabi and Oman pulled out of the joint venture, leaving Gulf Air in the hands of Bahrain alone.

The departure of the three governments from the Gulf Air partnership should be seen in the context of the emergence of Dubai-based Emirates airline and its subsequent success story as a major global carrier. The other Gulf states envied Emirates' prestige and wanted their own national carriers.

Abu Dhabi, in particular, the dominant emirate in the UAE, felt uncomfortable about the success of the Dubai-based carrier. For its name, Emirates, and the prominence of the colours of the UAE flag on its aircraft, gave the impression around the world that it was the official airline of the whole country. So, when an emiri decree from the ruler of Abu Dhabi in 2003 announced the formation of Etihad Airways, it pointedly stated that the new airline would be the official flag carrier of the UAE.

So today, Gulf Air, Emirates, Etihad, Qatar Airways and Oman Air, not to mention Kuwait Airways and Saudia, are all in competition. The vision that was enshrined in the GCC charter has never been bright enough to eliminate the rivalry among the six member states—even when there was an obvious vehicle for cooperation and coordination like Gulf Air.

While the current dispute between Qatar on the one side and Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and the UAE on the other will doubtless be resolved eventually, the crisis shows clearly the limitations of the Gulf oil states' capacity to act as a regional body. Yet at a time when shale oil and renewables are posing an unprecedented threat to traditional producers there's never been a greater need for cooperation and coordination—in energy matters as much as anything else.

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