A plane from Qatar lands at Frankfurt Airport after dark on March 1, 2020. Photo: Boris Roessler/dpa

A bitter rivalry between the Gulf states of UAE and Qatar has taken a new twist in the era of Covid-19, with flagship airlines taking opposite approaches in a bid to come out on top.

In a dramatic announcement this week, Emirates said it would follow a government directive to suspend “all passenger services” in a bid to remain viable through a time of increasing global lockdowns and fears over pandemic spread.

The government directive also takes Abu Dhabi-based Etihad Air and budget airlines FlyDubai and AirArabia out of commission for the foreseeable future.

“As a global network airline, we find ourselves in a situation where we cannot viably operate passenger services until countries re-open their borders, and travel confidence returns,” Emirates said, noting that cargo services would continue.

“This painful but pragmatic move will help Emirates Group preserve business viability and secure jobs worldwide, avoiding cuts,” the airline summarized on Twitter.

Less than 24 hours later, rival Qatar Airways issued its own statement on Thursday, striking an entirely different tone.

Like the UAE, it is aiding embassies in organizing final one-off flights for expatriates seeking to return home. But unlike Emirates, Qatar appears to be digging in for the long haul, and ready to take a financial hit for market share.

On Thursday, Qatar Air pledged to not only step up capacity for thousands of global travelers seeking to repatriate ahead of quarantine orders, but to maintain its regular flight links for as long as airports were working.

The company said it flew 100,000 people home in the past week alone.

“We will always be about bringing people together – and that’s more important now than ever. As one of the only global carriers still operating during this challenging time, we are working closely with embassies around the world to help get their citizens home,” the company tweeted.

The state-backed carrier emphasized it would continue operating flights to 75 cities so long as it was able. Destinations still listed on its site ranged from Los Angeles to Tehran to Manila.

As an incentive against customers seeking refunds, Qatar Airways has offered a voucher for the original fare plus 10%. Emirates Airline is offering vouchers good for 12 months as an alternative to refunds.

For the leadership in Doha, however, this gambit may be seen as an opportunity to become the go-to global aviation hub when coronavirus fears eventually recede.

“It’s a gamble – short-term pain for long-term gain,” said James M. Dorsey, senior fellow at Singapore’s S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies and Middle East Center.

The UAE and key allies, namely Saudi Arabia, launched a blockade against Qatar in June 2017 over its support for the Muslim Brotherhood and cheering of regional uprisings in which Islamist factions were poised to gain ground.

The blockade notably banned Qatari planes from much of the Arabian Peninsula’s airspace, forcing the country’s flagship carrier to make expensive detours. Qatar Airways nevertheless managed to stay in the game.

Doha’s latest costly plan to seize market share for desperate travelers crisscrossing Asia, Africa, Europe and North America may or may not work out in its favor in the long run. In the short-term, Qatar can capitalize on sky-high ticket prices as expatriates and tourists race home against the unknown.

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Alison Tahmizian Meuse

Alison T Meuse is the Asia Times Middle East editor and correspondent.