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Saudi-owned TV news network Al Arabiya just broadcast a simulation showing what would happen, according to the network, if a Qatar Airways jet flew into Saudi Arabian airspace. The graphic animation shows a civilian jet being shot down by a missile. In an age when passenger aircraft have been turned into weapons — and when they have indeed been shot down by missiles, as happened to Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 over Ukraine in 2014 — that is, to say the least, unsettling.

Since the beginning of the diplomatic crisis between Qatar and its Gulf neighbors on June 5, all Qatari-registered aircraft have been barred from the airspaces of neighboring countries. Qatar Airways cannot take off or land there or transit through their airspaces, making flight times longer as aircraft need to deviate around prohibited areas.

It is safe to assume that the Royal Saudi Air Force would intercept any Qatari aircraft violating the airspace ban, but the Al Arabiya graphic goes further.

Watch the video below:

The simulation shows a commercial jet being intercepted and then another one apparently being shot down, with a voiceover saying that “according to international law, a state that bans flights from entering its airspace has the right to deal with the violating plane in any way it wishes.”

The International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), the United Nations body governing aviation, has issued a directive to all Gulf states, asking them to abide by the international treaties they have signed which mandate airspace openness.

While Saudi Arabia is not a party to the transit agreement treaty, which permits overflight, it has signed the Chicago Convention — which states in Article 9 that while airspace can be closed for exceptional circumstances, or during periods of emergencies, a country cannot discriminate against a specific nationality or origin of an aircraft.

See the extract below:

Screen Shot 2017-08-15 at 10.25.57

Since the Gulf crisis began, Saudi Arabia has ignored this part of the Chicago Convention, and Qatar Airways has been avoiding Saudi airspace, as well as other regions in the Middle East.

It’s worth highlighting that all commercial flights around the world file flight plans with aviation authorities before departure, and routes are outlined by airline operation teams that study weather, access, airways, flight information regions, traffic and more. For this reason, it is almost impossible that a Qatar Airways aircraft would suddenly find itself, barring a malfunction, in an airspace it should not be in. Passengers need not be alarmed.

Dubai-based Al Arabiya’s animation shows first a fighter jet forcing a Qatar Airways jet to land and its crew being detained, while the narrating voice says “the option in this case is to deploy a fighter jet that forces the aircraft to land, and then the flight crew could be prosecuted on several charges.”

The animation then shows another aircraft, this time an unmarked passenger plane, being chased by the same fighter jet, which appears to  shoot a missile in the passenger plane’s direction. The narration says “international law also permits states to shoot down any aircraft that violates a state’s airspace, classing it as a legitimate target, especially if flying over a military area.”

The report is, in fact, full of inaccuracies. For starters, it is not exactly true that a country has the “right to deal with the violating plane in any way it wishes.” While there is no rule in international law specifying directly what is and what is not acceptable in dealing with a seemingly rogue civilian aircraft, the prevalent opinion of international law scholars is that a shootdown is warranted only in cases where the aircraft poses a clear, immediate danger. These conditions would very likely not be met in case of a stray, or even intentional, overflight of Saudi airspace by a Qatar Airways passenger plane.    

Secondly, even a casual observer of aviation would notice some glaring mistakes in the animation. The fighter jet is clearly a Russian-made Su-30 Flanker, which the Saudis most definitely do not have, and neither does any Gulf country. The Qatari Airbus A320 sports some noticeably huge engines — a dead giveaway of the Airbus A320neo, which Qatar Airways did order, but has cancelled. Finally, I couldn’t help but wonder if the reason for the interception in the first place was because the Qatar Airways aircraft was cruising with its landing gear down….

Screen Shot 2017-08-15 at 10.57.24

Bottom Line

While this extraordinary video is full of inaccuracies, it’s important to stress to passengers that flying around the Gulf region is as safe as ever, and no Qatar Airways jet will just casually end up in Saudi airspace. Following a recent ICAO hearing in Montreal, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain have started to ease airspace restrictions for Qatar Airways aircraft, opening up a flight information region (FIR) to Qatari jets, which a Qatar Airways flight from Muscat (MCT) to Doha (DOH) used recently:

Screen Shot 2017-08-15 at 11.12.09

What are your thoughts on the interception simulation broadcast on international TV? Tell us below.

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