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Cablegate: Bahrain's Gulf Air Returns to Iraq

VZCZCXYZ0010
PP RUEHWEB

DE RUEHMK #0529 2461054
ZNY CCCCC ZZH
P 031054Z SEP 09
FM AMEMBASSY MANAMA
TO RUEHC/SECSTATE WASHDC PRIORITY 8901
INFO RUCNRAQ/IRAQ COLLECTIVE PRIORITY
RHMFISS/HQ USCENTCOM MACDILL AFB FL PRIORITY
RHBVAKS/COMUSNAVCENT PRIORITY
RHEHAAA/WHITE HOUSE WASHDC PRIORITY
RHEHNSC/NSC WASHDC PRIORITY

C O N F I D E N T I A L MANAMA 000529

SIPDIS

DEPARTMENT FOR NEA/FO - CORBIN
WHITE HOUSE FOR NSC - TALWAR, PHEE

E.O. 12958: DECL: 09/03/2019
TAGS: EAIR ECON PREL IZ BA
SUBJECT: BAHRAIN'S GULF AIR RETURNS TO IRAQ

Classified By: Ambassador Adam Ereli for reasons 1.4 (b) and (d)

1.(C) Summary: Gulf Air resumed regularly scheduled service to Iraq for the first time since suspending operations there in March 2003. Gulf Air will fly to Baghdad five times each week, and has announced plans to begin service to four other Iraq destinations. Iraq Foreign Minister Zebari has recalled senior Iraqi Ambassadors to help rebuild the Ministry. End summary.

2.(U) State-owned Gulf Air's first flight to Iraq since March 2003, landed at Baghdad International Airport on September 1. Aboard this inaugural flight were 90 government officials, diplomats, businessmen, and press. The group included Bahrain's ambassador to Iraq Salah Al Maliki, Iraq's ambassador to Bahrain Ghassan Hussein, GOB U/S for Civil Aviation Abdulrahman Mohammed Al Gaoud, and Gulf Air CEO Samer Majali (until recently CEO of Royal Jordanian.) This flight is scheduled to fly to Baghdad five times each week. Gulf Air's low-cost, privately-owned competitor Bahrain Air has also announced that it will begin two flight/week service to Baghdad and five flights/week to Najaf by the end of September.

3.(U) Majali announced in Baghdad that this route will be the first of many to Iraq. He stated that flights to Najaf and Irbil are set to commence on the 15th of September, and will be followed soon after by flights to Basra and Sulaimaniya. According to Gulf Air executives, the Baghdad service is primarily targeted at Bahraini and Iraqi businessmen, but there has been significant interest from European, Saudi, and Iranian travelers to travel to Iraq via Bahrain. Gulf Airways in London is currently booking tickets from London to Baghdad via a lay-over in Manama.

4.(SBU) Comment: Gulf Air's new service to Iraq has been big news in Bahrain over the past several weeks and has elicited varying reactions. Our Shia contacts are pleased that Iraq is becoming more accessible and that they will have regular access to Najaf, to which most look for religious guidance. Given the recent violence in Baghdad, others (mostly Sunni) were concerned that it wasn't safe to fly to Baghdad. (In fact, at one point, Gulf Air's pilots and flight attendants were demanding danger pay for those working the route. Management subsequently talked them down from that.) These reservations notwithstanding, Gulf Air expects their Iraq routes to generate healthy returns, which the airline sorely needs.

5.(C) Comment continued: The night before the flight, Iraq's Ambassador to Bahrain Ghassan Hussain told Ambassador Ereli that at the request of Foreign Minister Zebari he would remain in Baghdad for an undetermined period. According to Hussain, the Foreign Minister had requested that he and Iraq's Ambassadors to Pakistan and Oman return to the capital to strategize about how to rebuild the Foreign Ministry in the wake of the August 19 bombing. All three are among the MFA's most senior career diplomats. Hussain also said that Zebari had been especially active of late in arranging future assignments for his closest staff and advisors. He saw this as substantiating rumors that Zebari would be leaving the Foreign Ministry, and he said he expected it to happen within 3-4 months. End comment. ERELI

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