Sheikh Majid Al Mualla was adamant. “We are a commercial organisation, not political. We leave all that to the politicians. As far as we’re concerned, this will enhance trade between the UAE and Iran, and will introduce new customers to Emirates airline. That’s the reason for it,” he insisted.
He was speaking in the VIP terminal at Mashhad airport, in the far east of Iran. He had just flown in on the inaugural Emirates flight from Dubai to Iran’s second city, and celebrated the new flight with prayers, photocalls and pledges of cooperation and friendship.
Of course, Sheikh Majid, as a member of the ruling family of Umm Al Quwain as well as a 20-year executive of Dubai’s fast-growing airline, will have been aware of the broader background to the Mashhad inaugural: the breakthrough in talks between the western powers and Iran that led to a deal in July to lift economic sanctions imposed because of Iran’s nuclear ambitions.
But Sheikh Majid was sticking firmly to the commercial case. “There may be reservations in some areas about the deal, but we do not get involved in that. It is wonderful to be here and very positive for all of us,” he told Iranian administrators and businessmen, as well as a cross-section of UAE media.
As if to underline his point, he made clear that the decision to fly to Mashhad had been taken months before the July deal to lift sanctions, and had only to wait for the final clearance from bilateral talks between Iran and the UAE. “We’ve had incredible support from government organisations on both sides, and I’d like to thank them,” he told the VIPs in Mashhad.
The commercial case for the new route – Emirates’ 148th – seems watertight. Mashhad has a population of more than three million, and a history of trade and commerce going back centuries to the days of the old Silk Road between China and Europe.
The city is an exporting hub in a region that has strengths in agricultural and craft industries, but which is also a growing manufacturing and assembly base for the car and other consumer industries. All this will get a significant boost if sanctions are finally and fully lifted in a few months’ time.
Mashhad is also a major centre for Shia Islamic tourism, with millions of visitors coming from other parts of Iran, as well as the Arabian Gulf and other countries that have big Shia populations, to visit its shrines. “And I’m convinced more non-religious tourists will come once they hear of the wonders of Mashhad,” said the Iranian ambassador to the UAE, Mohammad Reza Fayyaz, who was also on the inaugural flight.
There are other advantages too, as Sheikh Majid spelt out. His responsibility at Emirates is as senior vice president of commercial operations at the “centre” grouping of the airline, which includes the Middle East and south central Asia. But there has been something of a gap at the heart of that network, as Emirates has stayed away from some of the big countries such as Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan. The Mashhad service goes some way to filling that gap.
It will allow tourists and business travellers in central Asia to plug into Emirates’ worldwide network that serves the Iranian diaspora in Australia, Europe and North America. “By boosting air-transport links from Mashhad to the increasingly connected world economy, we are contributing to the growth of international trade, tourism and investment,” Sheikh Majid said.