Akbar al-Baker, group CEO of Qatar Airways, told MEED in January that he was very happy with the state of competition between the region’s airlines and airports. “Without competition, we would not be aiming to improve our services and expand our airport facilities,” he said.

Five months later, Al-Baker and Qatar Airways, the region’s second-largest airline in terms of fleet size, face the toughest test in the airline’s history.

The decision by Saudi Arabia, Egypt, the UAE and Bahrain to close their airspace to flights landing and taking off between Qatar and their respective countries, including potentially denying altogether the right of Qatar to overfly these countries’ airspaces, could deal the most damaging blow to the airline.

“Losing Saudi, Bahrain and UAE airspace would effectively ground Qatar Airways, save for any fifth freedom services,” said a report released on 5 June by the Australia-headquartered CAPA – Centre for Aviation. “Losing Saudi airspace is significant, but even worse would be losing Bahrain airspace since it practically encircles Qatar.”

The report added that most Qatar Airways flights to Europe can, and prior to the airspace ban did, track north of Saudi Arabia. The closing of Saudi airspace requires timely and costly diversions to other Middle East destinations as well as to most of Africa.

It is understood Qatar Airways operates more flights to the four countries than airlines in those countries have in Qatar.

A total airspace ban will mean Qatar Airways will lose its super-connector status. The state’s $17bn Hamad International airport, which opened only in 2014, could also lose its bid to become an aviation hub potentially rivalling Dubai.

With the exception of Saudi Arabia, the countries that have imposed a ban on flight landings and take-offs are parties to the 1945 Transit Agreement, which means they are bound to support and adhere to Open Skies principles. However, closing their airspace to other members of the agreement could be seen as an arbitrary decision with potentially little consequence apart from retaliatory actions.