A new ruling by a United Nations court could help pave the way for a resolution of the three-year-old blockade of Qatar, experts say, which could cost Iran hundreds of millions of dollars it reportedly receives for aviation overfly rights.
"We welcome today’s decision by the ICJ that will see the Blockading States finally face justice for violating international aviation rules," said Jassim Saif Ahmed Al-Sulaiti, the Minister of Transport and Communications of the State of Qatar.
The U.N.'s highest court, at The Hague, declared that the International Civil Aviation Organization, the global agency that oversees international air travel, has jurisdiction over whether Qatar Airways can fly over the airspace of Qatar's Gulf neighbors.
Four of those countries -- Saudi Arabia, The United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Egypt -- imposed a blockade on Qatar in June, 2017 that among other measures banned flights from Qatar over their territory, forcing departures and arrivals to overfly Iran instead.
"We are confident that the ICAO will ultimately find these actions unlawful. This is the latest in a series of rulings that expose the Blockading Countries’ continued disregard for international law and due process. Step by step their arguments are being dismantled, and Qatar’s position vindicated,” the minister said.
The ICAO could rule that the air blockade is illegal and that the boycott breached an international convention governing international aviation. But the UAE seems confident that will not happen.
The UAE Ambassador to the Netherlands, Hissa Abdullah Al Otaiba, said the decision was “technical and limited to procedural issues and jurisdiction to address the dispute; it did not consider the merits of the case.” She said the UAE will explain to the ICAO why it imposed the boycott on Qatari planes.
Tehran is reportedly paid about $133 million a year by Qatar for use of its airspace by flights arriving and departing Qatar. Easing the blockade’s restrictions on Qatar Airways so that its aircraft would no longer fly over Iran would make travel much safer for U.S. troops stationed at the Al Udeid Airbase in Qatar and for American diplomats stationed in Doha, say observers. That restriction could be dropped. Under International Civil Aviation Organization rules that regulate global air travel, a blockade does not affect overflight rights, meaning the U.N. court has backed Qatar's position.
An agreement on the overflight issue would provide a small, but needed, first step toward Gulf reunification, say experts.
"An easy way to paper over the feud is to lift airspace restrictions. Right now, all Qatari Airways flights in and out of Doha pay a fee to fly over Iran since the feud closed other airspace," said Rebecca Grant, a veteran national security analyst and president of IRIS Independent Research in Washington, D.C.
"The U.S. has strong relations and major military relationships with Qatar, UAE, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia. The question is whether Washington (with Kuwait’s help) can exert the right leverage to get the boycott lifted," Grant added.
The ruling comes as one of the blockading nations, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), is said to not be responsible for the continued impasse.
"Unfortunately there has been no movement towards a solution of the Gulf rift," an Arab diplomat familiar with the issue told Fox News. "There is no resolution in sight mainly because we have not seen any attempts by Qatar to resolve the rift."
The Gulf nations cut ties and issued a list of 13 demands of Qatar including: shutting down the TV station Al Jazeera, closing a Turkish military base and scaling down ties with Iran, among other demands. The ties were cut over what the GCC members have long charged was Qatari support for Iran, the Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas, Hezbollah, al Qaeda and other radical Islamic groups, as well as other issues. Doha has always denied the allegations.
Analysts have been hopeful that the restrictions against Qatar could be ended as a way for the region to consolidate against the threat from Iran.
"The Qataris have not looked at the cause of their relationship with Iran. Qatar has chosen to prioritize its relationship with Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood over its neighbors. That is one of the many reasons the rift has not been resolved," the diplomat told Fox News. "The quartet has made its position abundantly clear with the 13 demands. Until today, not only has Qatar refused to address the demands, it has continued its support for extremists and terrorists throughout the Middle East."
For its part, Qatar has pointedly blamed its neighbors for the standoff, accusing them of making unwarranted demands that also violate international law.
"The State of Qatar welcomes all efforts to end this rift which has impeded GCC unity and complicated regional issues including those of importance to the United States," the Government Communications Office of the State of Qatar told Fox News in a statement.
"Qatar thanks both Kuwait and the United States for their efforts to find feasible solutions to the GCC crisis. From the very outset, we have engaged in dialogue with our neighbors in good faith."
The Associated Press contributed to this report.