Gulf Air, one of the Middle East’s oldest airlines, has seen its glory days eroded over the years with the rise of Gulf competitors, such as Dubai’s Emirates, Qatar Airways and Abu Dhabi’s Etihad.
The airline, which launched a turnaround programme in 2009, has faced even starker pressures since pro-democracy protests rocked the strategically-vital island last February.
The harsh crackdown on dissent in March was followed by orders for the carrier to halt profitable routes to Iran, Iraq and Lebanon, deemed potential sources of foreign aid for protests led by the majority Shia against the minority Sunni rule. Iraq and Iran remain off limits for the airline for the same security reasons.
But now Gulf Air faces an altogether weirder challenge: a directive from the country’s high-profile foreign minister, Sheikh Khalid bin Ahmed Al Khalifa, ordering all ministry to stop using the airline until further notice.
The curious stance stems from an incident in Malaysia as the minister returned to Bahrain earlier this month, reported in the local press.
The airline says the spat erupted when Gulf Air refused to give Sheikh Khalid his preferred seat, 1A, because a full-paying passenger was already booked into the first seat in business class.
The foreign ministry has denied this explanation, saying the order was administrative, owing to unsatisfactory service, including flight delays, and has nothing to do with the minister’s seating arrangements.
Bahrain’s US media attache, Saqer al-Khalifa, weighed in behind the foreign minister, tweeting: “with Gulf Air, about time someone stands up to them. Go MOFA!!”
(That’s a reference to the ministry of foreign affairs, by the way.)
Previous government directives have called on all officials to use the national carrier when travelling on matters of state, wherever practicable. Gulf Air last year also offered foreign ministry staff, including diplomats and their family, discounts of up to 50 per cent to allow them to travel more frequently.
It would be tempting at this point to allude to political machinations at the heart of government.
Gulf Air, as part of holding company Mumtalakat, is often identified as part of the reformist wing close to the crown prince, Sheikh Salman bin Hamad Al Khalifa.
Much to the chagrin of hardline loyalists, the airline was one of the first government bodies to announce that it would reinstate staff sacked for supporting the protests. The company says 147 staff have been reinstated, though some employees have complained about being marginalised since their return.
Since the crackdown, reformists have been edged out by hardliners, undermining the king’s apparent attempts to introduce conciliatory initiatives to save Bahrain’s international reputation as a welcoming business and tourism hub.
Observers have noted that the foreign minister, who describes himself as a bon viveur on his twitter profile, has positioned himself away from the reformist camp in recent months.
But it appears that, rather than another episode in the long-standing power struggle within the ruling family, the tale is either personal, or administrative, depending on who you believe.
Gulf Air’s regional competitors would be oozing schadenfreude – if they didn’t already feel so sorry for their beleaguered neighbour.