The ‘Muslim laptop ban’: Real intelligence or plain stupidity?
Let us get a sense of perspective on what has been dubbed the “Muslim laptop ban.”
Unlike President Donald Trump’s attempts (so far stymied by the US courts) to impose total travel bans on some Muslim-majority countries in the Middle East and North Africa, this is only about the use of certain kinds of electronic equipment on trans-Atlantic flights.
It does not impede free travel, it does not split families apart, it does not lead to humiliation, detention and deportation at US airports. The only right of which a trans-Atlantic traveler is deprived is the right to watch your own movies, or play games, or conveniently catch up on work or emails, while in flight.
You might argue that 13 hours of in-flight movies constitutes cruel and unnatural punishment, though I doubt you would get very far in the human rights courts. But the bafflement and anger that greeted the announcements, especially from the Gulf, tells us that it is a matter that goes far beyond in-flight entertainment.
What were the motives for announcements by the US security authorities, followed later by a rather different one from the British? Was it a decisive action based on sound intelligence aimed at pre-empting a terrorist attack on an aircraft? Or an impetuous overreaction that fails to discriminate between friends and foes in the Muslim world and which will also fail to deter the would-be bombers?
In short, was it intelligence, or stupidity?
Lesson from Somalia
The US and UK stuck to the former. Terrorists have been increasingly seeing commercial aviation as the front-line in their attacks on the West; the Middle East and North Africa are home to a variety of terrorist movements that would like to carry out these attacks; and terrorist sophistication has increased to the stage where it is possible to conceal a device in something as small as an iPad.
What seems to have particularly spooked the West was an attack last year in Somalia in which explosives inside a laptop were used to damage an aircraft, though it managed an emergency landing.
Recent “evaluated intelligence” led both the US and UK to conclude that a ban was desirable, indeed essential to protect the lives of air travelers. The US and British governments have a duty to protect their borders and their citizens. International airlines have to respect and obey the interests of national security in the countries they serve.
Feeling of betrayal
But there the mutual understanding ended. Saudi Arabia in particular — given that the Kingdom has some of the toughest security measures and state-of-the-art equipment at Jeddah and Riyadh airports — is justified in feeling betrayed.
The Kingdom has been the one of the West’s staunchest allies in the fight against all kinds of terrorism. Just last week a highly successful visit to Washington by Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, where he met President Donald Trump, ended with a renewed determination to fight terrorism together.
The different approach taken by the US and UK begs the question of whether the Trump administration is making business more difficult for Gulf airlines.
Now, it seems, Saudi citizens flying to the US, or indeed anybody else leaving from the country’s international airports, cannot be trusted to read their Kindle in flight.
Equally galling was the fact that Saudi airports were thrown together with others in the region which have not invested so much in airport security, and which have a considerable domestic record of terrorist-inspired acts.
The UAE and Qatar, equally, have every right to be offended by the laptop ban. Along with Saudi Arabia, they are effectively told that they are likely terrorist boarding points, and that they are not to be trusted to detect suspects.
Anybody who has recently traveled through the expensive and well-equipped new airports in both countries, and compared them to the crumbling facilities in Britain and the US, will testify to the robust efficiency of their airports’ security systems.
Open skies row
Both the UAE and Qatar, home to the three airlines at the center of the battle going on in Washington as US airlines step up their campaign to get the “open skies” deal scrapped, can feel genuinely aggrieved that the Americans put them on the Muslim laptop list, while the British did not.
Is there something the Americans know about the UAE and Qatar they have not shared with their UK counterparts? Or has the administration of protectionist President Trump seen the opportunity to make business more difficult for the Gulf airlines?
The three big US airlines alleging unfair competition against their Gulf rivals are not subject to the laptop ban, of course. Not that it makes any difference, because they do not fly to the Gulf region anyway, despite all their moaning about loss of US jobs and business.
Finally, there are the dangers of putting all that inflammable electronic equipment, a veritable belly-load of lithium batteries, in the hold of an aircraft. That is surely a target any sophisticated terrorist would love to aim at.
The “Muslim laptop ban” is a clumsy knee-jerk reaction that will only alienate key allies in the fight against terrorism. Forget “evaluated intelligence;” this is plain stupidity.
• Frank Kane is an award-winning business journalist based in Dubai. He can be reached on Twitter @frankkanedubai