Is the Trump administration’s new travel ban — not on people flying out of the Middle East but on their electronic devices — a sneaky game of economic protectionism dressed up as security?
It is a loaded question. Security is literally a matter of life and death. It is dangerous for laypeople to be overly sceptical of any government’s regulations, especially when they are ostensibly meant to keep people safe from terrorist attacks.
So, to the specifics of US President Donald Trump’s new travel ban.
In-cabin electronic devices larger than a cellphone will not be permitted on US-bound non- American carriers originating in Amman, Cairo, Istanbul, Jeddah, Riyadh, Kuwait City, Casablanca, Doha, Dubai and Abu Dhabi.
This is puzzling for a number of reasons.
Why single out nine Middle Eastern, North African and Turkish airlines, flying from ten airports in the Middle East?
Why include Abu Dhabi airport on the list of potentially dangerous originating airports when it is one of 15 across the world to employ US Department of Homeland Security preclearance techniques?
Why allow electronic devices supposedly too dangerous for the cabin to travel in an aircraft’s hold?
Could the device in the hold not be triggered by a determined passenger’s cellphone in the cabin? After all, many smartphones, which are not banned, have the same capabilities as larger electronic devices.
Do supposed terrorists only ever take direct flights to the United States and only from Middle Eastern airports?
Do supposed terrorists have a marked and demonstrable preference for Middle Eastern carriers?
The Trump administration has not satisfactorily addressed any of these questions. Instead, it has hinted vaguely at intelligence that al-Qaeda and others (perhaps Al Shabab in Somalia) have managed to miniaturise explosives and implant them to be more or less undetectable in electronic devices.
This is a terrifying thought and enough to silence anyone who flies internationally or has family and friends who do. So the fact that the Trump administration’s new travel restrictions have prompted vocal suspicion rather than quiet gratitude for the American president’s pastoral care speaks volumes of his perceived credibility.
Even though the United Kingdom has joined with the US in imposing similar but slightly different prohibitions on direct flights originating in some Muslim countries, it is Trump’s ban that remains under public scrutiny.
Its inconsistencies and partisanship are leading many to ask if the ban enshrines economic protectionism, a form of war, against the Gulf’s devastatingly successful airlines and airports.
Remember, Emirates, Etihad Airways and Qatar Airways — all three on the Trump list — are pretty successful. They outstrip US carriers in terms of value, service and positive customer image. Turkish Airlines, also targeted by Trump, is the world’s largest carrier in terms of number of countries served. In terms of airports affected by Trump’s ban, Dubai, Abu Dhabi, Doha and Istanbul have become important world hubs.
Last year, Dubai handled 83.6 million travellers, making it the busiest airport in the world in terms of international passengers. Its total growth in the last 16 years was a staggering 423%. Istanbul’s biggest airport, the main hub for Turkish Airlines, has been growing even faster than Dubai.
US carriers have long accused their Gulf counterparts of unfair competition in terms of massive subsidies from their governments. Is it a coincidence that just weeks before this new ban, US airline executives met Trump? Was it happenstance that he referred during the meeting to the “very unfair situation” created by competition “subsidised by governments, big league”?
Politics, not national security, has driven many of the Trump administration’s decisions. A rudimentary, rather Darwinian form of budgeting has led Trump to propose the slashing of programmes to prevent famines in Somalia and northern Nigeria. Trump’s budget director, Mick Mulvaney, justified the deaths that might result as follows: “The president said specifically hundreds of times… I’m going to spend less money on people overseas and more money on people back home.”
And raise money from overseas to spend on defence at home?
Trump’s new ban is likely to push many of the Gulf carriers’ most loyal customers towards US airlines, which will enjoy a new subsidy from the American government in terms of preferential security regulation. Passengers bound for the US from destinations outside the Middle East will start to shun Dubai, Abu Dhabi and Doha for European airports unaffected by the stigma of the ban.
The Middle East’s shining success — in flying high in the age of mass air travel — will dim somewhat.
The Fly America Act requires travel funded by the US government to use American carriers as far as is possible. This security restriction, a new form of protectionism, is a fly America act for the whole world.