DOHA: Egyptian workers stranded in Qatar in the coronavirus lockdown have flown home, a community group said Monday, in the first of 18 repatriation flights that have overcome restrictions under a regional boycott. The flight with 174 passengers on board left late on Sunday via neutral Oman to comply with Cairo’s ban on direct air traffic from Qatar, Egyptian media reported.
It marks rare coordination between Doha and Cairo, which is part of a Saudi-led alliance of four Arab countries enforcing an embargo on Qatar. Riyadh, along with the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Egypt, cut diplomatic ties with Doha in June 2017, shut their airspace to Qatari aircraft and severed trade and maritime links with the Gulf country. They accuse Qatar of supporting radical Islamists and being too close to Iran, charges denied by Doha.
“The first Egyptian evacuation flights took off from Qatar… the rest will come in succession,” the Egyptian Association in Doha wrote on its Facebook page alongside an image of passengers on the first leg to Oman. Once in Muscat the group, who were among 300,000 Egyptians living in Qatar, then switched onto an Egyptian aircraft for the flight to Cairo.
Thousands of Qatar’s majority-expatriate workforce have lost their jobs as a result of a downturn caused by coronavirus disruption. Many have been unable to travel home on normal commercial flights which have been disrupted as countries have imposed restrictions on arrivals to contain the virus.
India has so far operated 33 special charter flights to repatriate almost 6,000 of its citizens stranded in Qatar, according to Delhi. The news site of Egypt’s state-run Al-Ahram newspaper reported that the 174-strong group had arrived in Cairo with passengers required to quarantine at home for 14 days. Last week Cairo’s emigration ministry said 18 flights would bring back home 3,000 Egyptians stuck in Qatar.
Sunday’s flight followed a rare street protest on May 31 by stranded Egyptians brandishing passports outside their country’s unoccupied embassy. Walid Abdo, a 26-year-old Egyptian graphic designer, said after the protest that he had “been living in Qatar without work since March 15”. “I lost my job due to the coronavirus crisis,” along with more than 200 others from his company, he said.
He told AFP that “almost 700 people” who had been employed by security firms “have been terminated and want to return” home. “There are families without a breadwinner here. We cannot (easily) return to Egypt because of the severing of ties and the absence of direct flights.”
As global recession looms, Qatar’s energy production, hospitality and aviation have been particularly hard hit, with top employers like Qatar Airways and Qatar Petroleum warning of major redundancies. A Qatar Airways memo seen by AFP on Monday said the company will slash the salaries of some of its pilots and make others redundant to offset the revenue collapse caused by the coronavirus pandemic. Doha-based sports broadcaster BeIN will also shed around 100 jobs and cut some salaries in response to the virus downturn and the fallout from piracy of its output, sources with knowledge of the matter said. – AFP