Travel hub Qatar cut off from local routes

Camels caught up in feud reunited with owners

Camels cross Saudi Arabia’s remote desert border into Qatar, June 20, 2017. REUTERS/Naseem Zeitoon

QATAR, June 20, (Agencies): Sitting on an airplane from Qatar trying to get home to Dubai, I could only watch frustrated as a scrolling map showed my flight pass overhead of my skyscraper-studded city and continue further east. It’s typically an hour flight between Dubai in the United Arab Emirates and Doha, the capital of Qatar, cities that are home to two of the world’s biggest longhaul airlines. My trip would end up taking five and a half hours. The reason? It was the same one that got me on one of the last direct flights leaving Dubai on June 5.

The UAE, along with Bahrain, Egypt and Saudi Arabia, had cut diplomatic ties to Qatar and would soon shut down transportation links between them and the small, energy-rich nation. Suddenly, the air route between the two cities that typically saw dozens of daily flights had none. And as I finished up my reporting on the crisis, I suddenly had a new challenge in trying to figure out how to get home. I ended up deciding to try to fly first to Muscat, Oman, and then catch a connecting flight to Dubai.

To my surprise, most flights were fully booked. Agents offered me a sole remaining one-way business class ticket at 4,000 dirhams ($1,090). That shocked me. Flights between Doha and Dubai used to be under $100 and direct. Options on other airlines had me traveling over 10 hours.

That was too much. But I got lucky when a last-minute cancellation got me on an Oman Air flight to Muscat, the capital of the sultanate. That flight and another to Dubai cost 1,805 dirhams ($490). It still was a lot, but I was happy to get a ticket.

The airline has since increased the frequency of its flights to Doha. Doha’s brand-new Hamad International Airport, which cost over $15 billion to build, was quiet on Friday afternoon when I set out to return home. But the line at the Oman Air counters moved slowly. Staff there said most catching flights were those trying to go to Dubai.

Typically, business travelers and those working in the region routinely shuttle between cities with relative ease. Meanwhile, thousands of camels crossed Saudi Arabia’s desert border into Qatar on Tuesday and were reunited with their owners after being stranded for days at a frontier shut because of a feud among Arab powers.

Qatari men in traditional white robes waited in SUVs at the border to identify their camels as the beasts trotted across the remote frontier, braying and kicking up dust, under what the owners said was an informal deal with Saudi border guards. “Thank God I have my camels back!” said Ali Magareh, 40, waiting with his seven-year-old son at the crossing point. “For one week they kept them waiting there. The camels were starving. Some of the males were fighting and in very bad condition. My brother still has 10 or 11 camels in Saudi Arabia,” he said.

A June 5 decision by Saudi Arabia and other Arab states to cut diplomatic ties and all transport links with Qatar over its alleged support for terrorism has disrupted trade, split families and raised fears of military confrontation in the Gulf region. Qatar has denied accusations of links to terrorism.

Tribesmen in Qatar whose relatives span the modern-day borders of the Arabian Peninsula say the boycott is threatening traditions dear to them including camel herding and falconry. Hundreds of Qataris keep camels in desert areas in eastern Saudi Arabia during winter months to train and breed them for races and beauty contests — customs seen as an important link to a vanishing nomadic past. Prize camels sell in auctions for hundreds of thousands of dollars. Pictures of Asian workers tending to camels languishing on the Saudi side of the border were published in Qatari newspapers on Monday sparking outrage. The Qatari government sent a convoy of water tankers and trucks carrying grass to the border on Monday to nourish the camels that had crossed the border.

Before the discovery of vast natural gas reserves off Qatar’s coast that crowned the small Gulf peninsular country with skyscrapers, bedouin roamed the desert and depended on meat and milk from camels to survive. “We fought wars over camels,” said Magareh. “It’s one of our traditions. Not having camels in Qatar is like being a cowboy who has no cows.” He blamed leaders in the Gulf for falling victim to political bickering. “What can I say? Even if they have differences in politics, we are the people. Don’t push us into your fight,” he said. “We just want to live out our days, to go to Saudi Arabia and take care of our camels and go back and take care of our family. We don’t want to be involved in these political things. We are not happy.”

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