Why is Bahrain asking for more Gulf seats?

Now you know

Thursday, 01 April 2010

THE ill-timed (because it was rushed and rammed down the government throat) air talks between the Philippines and Bahrain, to renegotiate, for the fifth time, their aviation agreement seem to find echoes in a lot of Holy Week themes, especially on betrayal and unconditional love.

This isn’t an attempt at blasphemy, but one is left wondering why the Philippine government allowed itself to be stampeded, in the first place, to renegotiate air talks with a tiny Middle East country with which air talks had been renegotiated four times earlier in just eight years.

In contrast, Manila renegotiated air talks in the same period, with Japan and Korea only three times; with the US, Singapore, Kuwait, Qatar, only twice; and with China, Canada, Australia, India, Hong Kong, Malaysia, Thailand, and several European and Asian states only once.

Thus, the conclusion keeps returning to mind, i.e., that the talks had to be rushed because the other party fears a next administration might not acquiesce to its request—er, demand.

So, after a bruising negotiations this week, Manila gave in and afforded Bahrain four new entitlements—a little more than half of the seven new ones it wanted. Before the renegotiations, its subsidized airline Gulf Air had 14 flights per week to Manila, much more than the nine operated by Saudi carriers into Manila (to think Saudi hosts over 1.3 million Filipinos); and about the same as the flights from Dubai (with 225,000 Filipinos); and certainly much more than the seven from Europe, where there are well over half a million Filipinos, and which gives Manila nearly 320,000 tourists every year.

Coincidentally, Bahrain’s demand for more entitlements came just as flag carrier Philippine Airlines (PAL) announced, at the launch of its yearlong countdown to its 70th anniversary, that it was resuming flights to Riyadh after a four-year absence, so it can serve the thousands of Filipinos going to and returning from Saudi each day.

So here comes Bahrain, with 14 weekly flights (before this week’s air talks raised this to 18 already offer over 200,000 seats per year for 30,000 migrant workers there) asking for more entitlements. For anyone wondering what’s the economic sense of acquiescing to Bahrain, the plot thickens.

Curiously, the main proponent of the talks is Ambassador Amable Aguiluz, Manila’s supposed roving ambassador to the Gulf, not the other way around. His private interests, primarily the AMA conglomerate, have a strong presence in Bahrain, and before the air talks this week, another company in his group was reportedly setting up a consortium with the Kingdom of Bahrain for a project in Clark. Whatever is his reason for pushing this week’s air talks, it seems quite unpalatable to have our own ambassador pushing it.

Sure, the open-skies diehards will say, well, why not? Why should Filipino carriers (primarily, PAL and Spirit of Manila) fear competition when they’ve decided to return to the Middle East routes anyway? That “competition” cannot be invoked when one is running up against a subsidized Arab airline.

After the Middle East, what next? Europe, which is probably the real target—so flights to Europe from Manila can take a longer, more expensive detour through the tiny island state in the Arabian Gulf ?

As Manny Pacquiao so quaintly puts it in his TV ad, now you know.

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