Qatar Airways will be oneworld's second member airline based in the Middle East, alongside Royal Jordanian, which became the first airline from the region to join any of the global alliances when it boarded oneworld in 2007.
The Doha-based carrler will also be the first of the Middle East's 'big three' airlines to join an alliance, although all three have developed strategic partnerships with other carriers. So far Dubai-based Emirates has maintained that it has no desire to join an alliance, while Abu Dhabi-based Etihad has indicated it could be open to joining one.
"Alliances are playing an increasingly important role in the airline industry today - and that will continue long into the future," said Qatar Airways CEO Akbar Al Baker. "Qatar Airways has carefully reviewed its strategic options and it is very clear that joining oneworld is by far the best way forward for us as we look to strengthen our competitive offering and give passengers what they fully deserve - more choice," he added.
Al Baker had been denying rumours for months that his airline would join oneworld, but ultimately he may well have wanted to create a new wave of interest by joining an alliance, breaking ranks with Emirates and Etihad, says analyst Saj Ahmad. "Qatar Airways realises that joining an alliance will bring it greater market access to points it doesn't serve at a fraction of the cost while deriving maximum financial benefit. It's a smart move, absolutely no doubt about that," he said.
EU carriers soften stance toward Gulf rivals
The new pact is one of several recent deals that reflect how international carriers have softened their stance toward their Middle East rivals. Just hours before Qatar Airways made its announcement, Air France-KLM unveiled a commercial partnership with Etihad, while last month, Emirates announced a wide-ranging tie-up with Qantas Airlines of Australia.
"In Qatar Airways, oneworld is pleased to welcome another great airline that will enhance oneworld's network and product offerings in one of the world's fastest growing regions for air travel demand," said Willie Walsh, Chief Executive of IAG, parent of British Airways and Iberia. "British Airways is delighted to be serving as the sponsor of Qatar Airways in joining oneworld."
Commenting on the recent deals made by Gulf airlines, the Centre for Aviation (CAPA) wrote: "Following hard on the heels of the Qantas-Emirates partnership announcement from Sep-2012, this means the three Gulf carriers — previously the bÍtes noires of the European airline establishment — will establish themselves at the core of the new global world order. It is difficult to imagine a more dramatic shift in the balance of power as is occurring now."
Ahmad agrees with the CAPA's assessment: "EU airlines have realised, albeit too late, that GCC airlines are here to stay - so the old adage of 'if you can't beat them, join them' has never rung truer. Had they cooperated with them earlier, maybe EU airlines would have had a better bargaining position, as it is, they aren't calling the shots here - Middle Eastern airlines are."
As to whether Emirates, the largest carrier in the Gulf, will follow suit and join an alliance, Ahmad believes the carrier is content to keep growing organically. "Emirates feels confident enough to continue this path, and with their continuous profits year on year, that's a hard act to follow let alone drop," he said. "Let's not forget that Emirates is still arguably the fastest growing airline in the world - with billions of dollars worth of aircraft on order, so it is in a great position to sit out alliances and continue its existing growth strategy."