For years, passenger jets have darted back and forth between Istanbul and Dubai, the two main hubs connecting airline passengers in the Middle East with destinations across the globe.
But when Turkish Airlines and Emirates began reviving their pandemic-depleted schedules a few weeks ago, that particular route remained closed except for a few scattered cargo operations. Emirates announced in June that the Istanbul flights would resume, but so far hasn’t followed through on that plan. For now, it doesn’t sell tickets to Turkey before Dec. 1, while Turkish Airlines posts the flights on its website — but then cancels bookings a few days prior to the travel date.
The Dubai-Istanbul journey, which takes between 4 and 5 hours, constitutes about 50 weekly flights, ranking among Emirates’ busier routes. For Turkish Airlines, the corridor provided a welcome way to attract budget-minded passengers headed for western Europe or North America through the country’s giant new Istanbul hub. While neither airline has said why the services remain suspended, it comes at a time of worsening relations between the two nations.
They are on opposing sides of a proxy war in Libya and disagree on issues ranging from Syria to Iraq and the eastern Mediterranean. The UAE supported a 2013 coup in Egypt that pushed out the country’s first democratically elected president, a member of the Muslim Brotherhood movement endorsed by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Turkey, meanwhile, backed Qatar in the face of a boycott by three of its Gulf neighbors, including the UAE, in 2017.
Emirates didn’t provide a reason for not resuming the service. Turkish Airlines and the UAE’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs didn’t respond to emailed requests for comment.
“The UAE is in a competitive space with Turkey for what limited tourism there is,” said Ryan Bohl, a Middle East analyst at Stratfor Worldview, a geopolitical intelligence platform. “In Dubai in particular, they don’t want to give Turkish airlines any advantages.”
Airlines are powerful assets for both countries. Turkish Airlines now offers flights to more countries than any other carrier, while Emirates is the biggest long-distance airline in the world, commanding an outsize fleet of Airbus SE A380s and Boeing Co. 777s from its sprawling base in Dubai.
Turkey has made no secret of its desire to position Istanbul as another mega-hub alongside Dubai. The new airfield inaugurated in late 2018 is designed to eventually serve 200 million passengers annually once all six runways are in use. The airline carried 2.6 million passengers in August, a 64.6% decline to the same period last year.
Turkish Airlines is winning some business from Emirates as it offers competitive pricing and “more options and flexibility to customers on its airline and through its alliance partners,” said Anne Correa, vice president for airline and airport services at aviation consulting firm Morten Beyer & Agnew.
The suspension of passenger services couldn’t come at a worse time for the aviation industry, which is only beginning to emerge from covid-induced hibernation and desperately needs every source of revenue. Turkish Airlines and Emirates have been particularly hard hit by the collapse because the long-haul travel in which they specialize has yet to make a comeback.
Turkish Airlines reported a loss of 2.23 billion liras ($303 million) in the second quarter, while Emirates received 7.3 billion dirhams ($2 billion) from its state owner and is eliminating thousands of jobs to preserve cash.
Turkey also risks suffering another strategic blow after the UAE and Bahrain agreed to normalize relations with Israel, setting in motion a potentially historic shift in regional politics and the flow of people. For years, Israeli travelers relied on Istanbul to connect them farther east and west, but the thaw between the erstwhile adversaries may now help Dubai win more of that business.
“The relationship is still very strained, and I wouldn’t be surprised if Covid was used as cover for a quasi-boycott,” said Steffen Hertog, a professor in comparative politics at the London School of Economics, who has specialized in Middle East studies. “The UAE have been pretty hawkish, and are economically less vulnerable than Turkey.”
–With assistance from Filipe Pacheco, Selcan Hacaoglu and Zainab Fattah.