Arab boycott fuels Qatar Airways expansion into Canberra

It was the announcement that took even the ACT government by surprise.

But weeks out from Qatar Airways' first international flight into Canberra, it can be revealed the airline's rapid expansion into Australia has been accelerated by the largest diplomatic crisis in the region since the Gulf War.

The Canberra Times was given the chance to explore the small desert nation ahead of the airline's inaugural flight into Canberra on February 12.

The carrier's entry into the Canberra market - making it only the second airline to operate international flights in and out of the Australian capital - puzzled many and even blindsided the ACT government, which had negotiated with Singapore Airlines for years to fly to the city before it commenced flights in 2016.

But the extension of Qatar Airways' Australian services comes as the country looks to separate itself from its Middle Eastern neighbours and diversify from the oil and gas industries that have made it the richest nation in the world per capita.

Last June, Gulf states including Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates and Egypt severed ties with Qatar, closing off their air space and borders, and cutting off imports of food, water and other supplies.


Saudi Arabia accused Qatar of supporting terrorist groups including the Muslim Brotherhood, al-Qaida, the Islamic State group and militants backed by Iran, allegations denied by the Qatari government.

The Gulf states also demanded the Qatari government shut down Al Jazeera, which is state owned and broadcasts from the capital Doha, and fall into line with its more conservative neighbours on political, social and economic issues.

Qatar branded their demands as unreasonable and the Saudi-led bloc cut diplomatic ties to the country.

Turkey and Iran extended a lifeline to Qatar, opening their ports to deliver food and water supplies to the region.

The government also spent millions of dollars establishing local industries, with Qatar Airways flying in 4000 Australian cows to supply its 2.6 million residents with milk and dairy products.

But visitor numbers have plummeted since the Saudi coalition's blockade.

Since the blockade, we have even more aggressively expedited our expansion plans. In Australia's case, even in pre-blockade days we have been steadily growing our presence here

Qatar Airways senior manager Australasia Adam Radwanski

One local put the decline at almost 90 per cent, as business between the Gulf nations dried up.

The Canberra Times was told of Qatari mothers forced to leave their children behind when they were deported from other Gulf states.

On a tour of the sand dunes that took us perilously close to the narrow inland sea that separates landlocked Qatar from Saudi Arabia, our guide joked that crossing it was the fastest way to commit suicide.

Qataris have praised the government for withstanding the pressure of the blockade, showing solidarity by displaying the face of the country's ruler, Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, as decals on car windscreens, on children's balloons and on buildings.

The images are ordinarily shown on Qatar's national day, December 18, but more than a month later can be seen 15 storeys high, surveying the city.

Each day local newspapers offer up new reasons for the blockade.

The front page of one shows a prominent sheikh saying the blockade is an attempt to seize Qatar's wealth.

The next day, another front page links the propaganda campaign that prefaced the crisis to the same company accused of tampering with the US election.

In Qatar, the media is controlled by the state and foreign journalists are closely monitored.

We are told this aversion to international media is easing and an approval process to get journalists into the country that once took five months took about five days for our trip.

However, the television crew travelling with us was stopped half a dozen times by security and asked to produce permits.

We are told this heightened security has only been in place since the blockade began, and the city does feel disconcertingly safe for their presence.

Locals we speak to are happy to share the wonders of their country, as the language barrier permits.

They are effusive in their praise of the government for withstanding the blockade, despite the hardships it has brought them.

However criticising the government in the press or on social media is a crime in Qatar.

Despite the geopolitical crisis, the city is going onwards and upwards - literally - as the 2022 FIFA World Cup draws closer.

A whole new city, Lusail, is being built ahead of the Cup and we count 14 tower cranes in one slice of skyline.

A labyrinth of roads, eight lanes across, stretches further and further into the desert (there are few footpaths in Qatar and most Qatari own four to five cars each) and the skeletons of huge stadiums can be seen like a mirage along their edge.

Doha's first public bus service is up and running and construction on the Metro train system is under way.

It's against this backdrop that the airline and the Qatar Tourism Authority has begun an aggressive campaign to tap new markets and fill flights, hotel rooms and restaurants left empty by the blockade.

The country is placing an increased emphasis on tourism, commerce and education as part of its so-called "2030 vision".

While tourism accounts for only a fraction of the economy (4.1 per cent in 2014), Qatar's tourism strategy seeks to triple the number of business event tourists by 2030, with tourism spending contributing at least half of the country's revenue. 

Currently petroleum and natural gas account for more than 70 per cent of government revenue, 60 per cent of GP and about 85 per cent of export earnings.

Part of this strategy is also convincing long-haul leisure travellers to extend their stay in Qatar as they use Hamad International Airport to connect to destinations like Europe and the UK.

It also means using Canberra Airport to circumvent the flight restrictions of the country's Air Services agreement with Australia, which limits its flights into Sydney and other major Australian airports. 

On our flight into Doha, only a handful of travellers came through arrivals - the rest continued on to other destinations.

Qatar Airways senior manager Australasia Adam Radwanski said the airline had been bumping up its presence in Australia even before the blockade.

"Since the blockade, we have even more aggressively expedited our expansion plans," Mr Radwanski said.

"Our European network has been strengthened with the addition of cities such as St Petersburg in December 2017, and soon to add Thessaloniki in March and Cardiff in May 2018.

"This expedited growth is not solely centred on new route launches, but also increasing flight frequencies in existing cities we serve in order to better benefit our customers.

"In Australia's case, even in pre-blockade days we have been steadily growing our presence here. In 2016, we launched Sydney and Adelaide in the space of three months."

Mondrian Doha opened last October, five months after the blockade began.

The luxury hotel was designed by Marcel Wanders and is one of only four Mondrians in the world.

With no end in sight to the blockade, Mondrian Doha manager and Australian expat Duncan Gray said they planned to hit the Australian market hard, using flights and accommodation packages to drive business.

"We want to bring everyone travelling to Europe as a destination into Doha," Mr Gray said.

"Qatar Airways is a great airline with great connections and if we can get those people to stay two nights, three days here, that would be the ideal sort of scenario for business."

Mr Gray said Qatar was working hard to change the perception of its country, and rapid social and political change had taken place over the last five years.

"Doha and Qatar have to set their own direction I think. The government is working really hard to change the perception and give people something that is going to be different to the rest of the Middle East," Mr Gray said.

With the World Cup on the way, Mr Gray tipped sports tourism as Qatar's next big industry.

"Equestrian and horse racing here is quite big, which probably quite a lot of people don't know about. There's camel racing, there's also very competitive falcon racing and training of birds which people don't know about," Mr Gray said. 

"Those are the things people should get to know because it's something that's different again from what the rest of the Middle East has to offer. It's just a destination people are going to be really surprised and blown away by."

This reporter travelled to Doha as a guest of Qatar Airways and Mondrian Doha.