Unbuckled seat belts and violent turbulence: ‘Open skies’ and trade

By Martin Edwin Andersen

Portrayed in advertising as akin to a chic airborne Bedouin-and-breakfast oasis, three Middle Eastern airlines are wielding power more like 19th century robber barons — exploiting their workers at home while shifting valuable U.S. aviation jobs overseas.

The story behind these state-owned carriers — Qatar Airways, Etihad Airways and Emirates — shimmers like an illusion in the desert, luring world-weary travelers to the inn of supposedly “Open Skies” refuge. Incredibly, during a decade in which this trio is estimated to have received more than $42 billion in illegal subsides from the United Arab Emirates and Qatari governments, official U.S. policy has been to embrace the illusion, casting aside our ethical and economic interests in the process.

The issue is disturbingly similar to the all-but-signed Trans-Pacific Partnership, the massive trade agreement riddled with concerns about enforceable labor standards, subsidization, non-discrimination and other international norms. While the Middle Eastern Open Skies saga deserves attention in its own right, the lessons it teaches on the dangers of rushed and insufficiently transparent trade deals are needed now more than ever. After all, at the heart of the TPP debate has been the question of fast-track authority. By prioritizing speed over deliberation, once more the United States risks reliance on misconceptions, both skillful and willful. Let us instead actively revisit the errors of Open Skies in the hope that by righting one wrong, far greater harms might be averted.Currently, U.S. legacy airlines — American, Delta and United — face competitors with unfettered access to the world’s oldest democracy, a phenomenon fueled by ill conceived and rapidly negotiated bilateral agreements. All this “generosity,” however, has served only to displace U.S. airline market share. While Delta and United each offer only a single daily flight to Dubai and none to Abu Dhabi, Emirates alone flies to nine U.S. cities from its Dubai hub, now the world’s busiest travel nexus.Open Skies was meant to limit government interference in airlines’ commercial decisions. Implemented fairly, everyone prospers. But with the Gulf States’s near-monopoly, Open Skies has become open season—on U.S. jobs, U.S. values and basic common sense.

Just this month, the United Nations’s International Labor Office found Qatar Airlines violated international law by flagrantly disrespecting women’s rights. CEO Akbar Al Baker responded: “I don’t give a damn about the ILO.” Perhaps this arrogance shouldn’t come as a surprise. Human Rights Watch has been pointing out for years that Qatari law codifies discrimination against women. Even marital rape is permitted.

Other labor abuses in the UAE and Qatar border on slavery; free speech is a profile left to the truly courageous; and ethnic, social and religious prejudices evoke the worst of the Confederate-flag-waving Jim Crow South. TheWall Street Journal recently noted that Emirates Airlines faces its most difficult labor challenges to date due to expanded shifts, restrictions on dress and mistreatment by supervisors — plus the fact that unions are illegal. While in the region, Secretary of State John Kerry correctly stated that such gross inequity “rips and tears at the fabric of the rule of law.”

In both Qatar and the UAE, the LGBT community faces state terror: In the former, gay relationships are punishable by death, while in Qatar—now mired in the FIFA scandal—2022 World Cup fans were told they might be screened to “detect homosexuality.”

With one of the world’s smallest native populations — slightly more than a quarter-million — Qatar has the largest percentage, 88 percent, of non-nationals. Counting only native citizens, it is the world’s wealthiest nation. This begs the question: Aside from subsidizing airlines and constructing artificial island playgrounds, where does all that money go? David Harris, executive director of the American Jewish Committee, recently described Qatar as “the ATM for jihadist groups.”

Beyond doubt, the United States is stunningly disposed to signing free trade accords that shock the conscience and are anything but free. That’s exactly why TPP should be receiving unprecedented scrutiny. The pact would affect roughly 40 percent of global GDP, including countries routinely condemned for violating human rights — e.g., Brunei, Malaysia and Vietnam. Some experts predict it is likely to decrease wages for 90 percent of America’s workers. Has Open Skies taught us nothing?

Senate Minority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) sounded that alarm two months ago in an official letter: “The three largest airlines of the Gulf states … are receiving substantial government subsidies … [giving] these airlines an unfair advantage over U.S. carriers. As such, I urge you to carefully review this situation and consider appropriate action to uphold the legacy of our Open Skies agreements.”

The Hadith (the sayings of Muhammad) points to the manumission of slaves as one of the most meritorious deeds available for the expiation of sins. Let us help ourselves, as well as the peoples of Qatar and the UAE, to do just that, opening the sky only for those who repent.

 

Andersen served as senior adviser for policy planning at the Criminal Division of the Department of Justice, where he received the U.S. Office of Special Counsel’s Public Servant Award, one of the highest awards for protecting national security information. He is also a former assistant professor of national security affairs at the National Defense University in Washington, D.C., the author of three books on international affairs and served as senior professional staff at the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

Originally published on The Hill: http://thehill.com/blogs/congress-blog/246656-unbuckled-seat-belts-and-violent-turbulence-open-skies-and-trade