DOHA, June 6, (Agencies): Qatar’s state-of-the-art Hamad International bills itself as one of the most luxurious airports in the world — but on Tuesday, it was also one of the quietest. As a travel ban announced by Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) came into force, terminals and drop-off areas at Doha’s “gateway to the world” were deserted. “This is the emptiest airport I’ve ever been in,” said Katie, transiting Qatar en route to Thailand. “It’s exceptionally quiet, almost eerie.” Hamad’s cavernous three-year-old terminals, constructed at an estimated cost of $16 billion (14 billion euros), can seem relatively empty on normal days because of their massive size.
But the diplomatic crisis between Doha and Riyadh backed by its Arab allies that has isolated Qatar left Hamad International a shadow of its normal activity on Tuesday. With more than 30 Qatar Airways flights cancelled to and from Doha, there were neither traffic jams at departures where travellers are dropped off nor lines for taxis to pick up arriving passengers.
Inside, a calm air of weary resignation too hold. Passengers gazed at information screens inside the terminals with amusement and pointed at cancelled flights to and from destinations across the Gulf, including Jeddah, Dammam and Dubai
For most passengers, the experience was one of bemusement. “I have never seen it like this,” said the civil engineer, who was travelling home to New Delhi. “It’s crazy. I hope the crisis will finish soon.” Downstairs in the arrivals hall, Jaffa, a taxi driver from the Philippines who picks up passengers every day, chuckled at the emptiness. “I’ve never seen so few people here,” he said.
Scenes were more frantic elsewhere in the Gulf as desperate Qatar Airways’ passengers scrambled to find alternative travel arrangements. Scenes of long queues on social media showed travellers at Qatar Airways offices across the Gulf, as Saudi Arabia announced it had revoked the carrier’s license and would close all its offices in the country within 48 hours. Marsudi, an Indonesian trying to travel to Doha from Riyadh, told AFP he was holding a ticket, paid for by his employer, for a flight home to central Java via Saudi Arabia next Saturday. “They have to do something,” he said.
In the United Arab Emirates, the situation was just as bad for both those travelling on business and expats trying to fl y home. “It’s appalling, basically,” said Farrukh Hafez, trying to find a fl ight home to Manchester. “I won’t be able to use my ticket, I can’t travel,” he said outside a Qatar Airways office in Abu Dhabi. “It has just absolutely disturbed all my summer plans and I don’t know if I’ll find any alternative flight to Manchester.”
The Philippines has meanwhile temporarily blocked Filipinos from travelling to Qatar for work because of the possible “ripple effects” of several Arab powers breaking off diplomatic ties with Doha and “wild rumours” of what’s happening there. Labour Secretary Silvestre Bello said the ban would be in place until the government has completed its assessment. “I temporarily suspend the deployment of our OFWs (overseas Filipino workers) in the county of Qatar. This is for us to be able to assess the situation because there are so many wild rumours going around, saying things are not going well there,” Bello said in a statement on Tuesday.
Saudi Arabia, Egypt, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain severed diplomatic relations with Qatar in a coordinated move, accusing it of support for Islamist militants and Iran. More than 2 million people from the Philippines are working in the Middle East as domestic helpers, construction workers, engineers and nurses, with Qatar hosting 250,000 and Saudi Arabia hosting almost a million. Filipinos working in the Middle East sent home $7.6 billion in remittances in 2016, making the region a major source of foreign exchange inflows which help drive one of Asia’s fastest growing economies.
Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s spokesman said the government was concerned about the possible “ripple effects” of the Arab-Qatar rift on its workers abroad. “Concerned government agencies are looking at the matter and will extend assistance and other support for OFWs who may be affected by such action,” Ernesto Abella told a media briefing. The Philippines is one of the world’s largest recipients of remittances.
For the whole of 2017, the central bank expects remittances to grow 4 percent from last year’s $26.9 billion, which was equal to around 10 percent of gross domestic product. Egyptian officials say the diplomatic crisis between Qatar and its Gulf neighbors has yet to affect the 300,000 Egyptian workers in the tiny, energyrich country, amid fears they could be expelled or stranded.
Hundreds of thousands of Egyptians live and work in the oil-rich Gulf, sending money back to their families that is more crucial now than ever, as Egypt is mired in an economic crisis following years of unrest. Mohammed el-Iraqi, the spokesman for the Egyptian community in Qatar, has told Egyptian media that Egyptians in Qatar panicked when the crisis erupted but that so far it has had no impact on their businesses. But all direct flights between the two countries have been suspended.
Egyptian Charge d’Affaires Ihab Abdel-Hamid told The Associated Press he is returning to Egypt on Wednesday after being recalled. The Greek Foreign Ministry has agreed to handle Egyptian affairs in Qatar. “I myself have to find a third country, a transit point tomorrow,” he said. Many people are flying back through Kuwait, which has stepped in to mediate the dispute.
EgyptAir, the national carrier, has suspended all flights from and to Qatar. Egypt and Qatar have had rocky relations since the military overthrew Islamist President Mohammed Morsi in 2013. Qatar had strongly supported Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood group and his elected but divisive government, while Saudi Arabia welcomed the military overthrow and lavished aid on Egypt in the months afterward. Still, a 40-year-old Egyptian manager of an audit firm told The Associated Press by phone from Doha that “the situation of Egyptians in Qatar has never been affected by political relations before.”