The chief executive of Qatar Airways, Akbar Al Baker is well known for being outspoken – in the not too distant past, he’s drawn criticism for making derogatory comments about flight attendants at U.S. airlines and was roundly lambasted for what he claims was an ill-conceived joke about the role of women in aviation.
But since a Saudi-led blockade on the State of Qatar started last year, Baker has become an important spokesperson for the Qatari government – using his role as the head of one of the largest and most well known airlines in the world to draw global attention to the political spat and make Qatar’s point of view heard.
In a way, Baker’s involvement in the geopolitical sphere just goes to show how flag carrier airlines (especially those which are owned and controlled by the government) still have an important role in a nation’s foriegn policy through the use of soft power.
Qatar Airways has used marketing videos onboard its flights to present its side of the story and Baker seemingly uses every opportunity to tell audiences his, and let’s be honest, the government’s take on the unfolding political situation.
Alongside Qatar’s famous (or perhaps that infamous) Al Jazeera television and online news network, Qatar Airways has become an important tool in the country’s soft power arsenal.
Akbar Al Baker on The Khashoggi Affair
In an interview last night on CNN International, Baker used the opportunity to tell the channel’s Richard Quest what he thought about Saudi Arabia and its involvement in the death of Jamal Khashoggi.
“I’m sorry, rogues don’t come in aeroplanes,” Baker said of a Saudi pushed theory that Khashoggi was killed in a rogue assassination plot which wasn’t authorised by the upper echelons of Saudi Arabia’s ruling classes.
“They don’t come in planned entry and exit, they don’t carry such acts, which is state-sponsored, so I don’t buy this rogue killer theory.”
As for the Trump Administration seemingly backing Saudi Arabia’s version of events, Baker didn’t mince his words:
“I’m sorry but let me tell you something – that (the sale of military) arms is playing a great part in the U.S. looking the other way and I don’t think this is as per the principles of the foundations of the United States.”
Akbar Al Baker on The Saudi-Led Blockade on Qatar
When asked about the Saudi-led blockade on Qatar, Baker went as far as to refer to Saudi Arabia as “terrorists”:
“Let me tell you something – who is practising terrorism? It was my country (Qatar) or them (Saudi Arabia)? Secondly, this shows that we are a victim of MBS’s (Saudia Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman) recklessness – he is not only becoming reckless for our region but he’s now also becoming reckless on the global scene and it is now time the West, especially the United States, put a real stop to it.”
“The whole world opinion has now changed against them (Saudi Arabia) and in our favour and I take a great pride with what is happening, that the world has now realised who is the victim (Qatar).”
Akbar Al Baker on A Possible Withdrawal from Oneworld
Admitting at the start of the interview that he “always likes making mischief,” Baker didn’t seem to be messing around when he again spoke about his airline’s possible withdrawal from the Oneworld alliance – again using the opportunity to criticise American Airlines and Qantas.
“You know Richard, whenever I say something I’m very serious – there is no point in us staying in Oneworld if we’re being bullied by the big boy (American Airlines) and continuously trying to undermind our progress and trying to pull the carpet from underneath us from having relations with the airlines.”
“The United States is the largest aviation market – there is business for everybody,” he claimed.
“But because they cannot keep up with the product, with competition, with the standards that we provide our passengers – and this is all about the quality of product we have.”
Akbar Al Baker On His Airline’s Stake in Air Italy
When Qatar Airways took a 49% stake in a small and relatively unknown Italian airline, Meridiana it didn’t take long for critics to claim Qatar was making the investment as a way to avoid concerns over Fifth Freedom flights.
A good example of a Fifth Freedom flight is a service operated by Emirates which goes from Dubai to Athens and then onwards to the United States. The service has proved incredibly controversial and opponents say Gulf airlines are using illegal subsidies to muscle in on markets which don’t belong to them.
As part of a recent Open Skies settlement with the United States, Qatari authorities said they had no plans to start any Fifth Freedom flights between Europe and the U.S. But… Qatar has since renamed Meridiana as Air Italy and has loaned the airline a number of planes to open new routes, including long-haul services to the United States.
“When we talked about taking a stake in Air Italy it was 2015, we signed the acquisition in 2016, we started applying and got permission to fly to the United States in 2017 and we did an agreement drafted by the United States government in January of 2018,” Baker says of Qatar’s involvement in Air Italy.
“And none of this issue was raised at that time but because now Air Italy is competing on the transatlantic route, that uh, the three big boys are complaining. It has nothing to do with our agreement, we have not violated, Qatar never violates an agreement it signs.”
And does Qatar Airways now plan any Fifth Freedom flight?
“We are flying to the United States directly from our hub, we do not and will not break our agreement that we have with the United States and this is all about fifth freedom and we are not doing any fifth freedom from Europe to the United States.”
“But don’t forget that these people (American Airlines) who are creating so much noise about Fifth Freedom over Europe don’t realise that we own 21% of their joint venture.”