In March 2017 both the U.S. and the U.K. instituted a ban on large electronic devices being taken onto flights as hand luggage on flights coming from a variety of Muslim countries. Whilst phones are still permitted on these flights, larger items, such as Kindles, tablets, and laptops are prohibited and have to be checked into the hold before take-off. The countries that have been targeted are some of the West’s greatest allies in the region and there has been criticism that this decision will be deeply unpopular and put more strain on already fractious relationships.
The Department of Homeland Security (U.S.A.) released a statement explaining the ban, arguing that terrorists were still targeting commercial aviation and other transport hubs in their attacks. They went on to say that “terrorist propaganda has highlighted the attacks against aircrafts in Egypt with a soda can packed with explosives in October 2015, and in Somalia using an explosives-laden laptop in February 2016.” They also pointed to the airport attacks on Istanbul and Brussels within the last year.
The U.K.’s decision to support the U.S. in this ban has been linked by commentators to Teresa May’s desire to align herself more closely with Donald Trump following Brexit. It is noticeable that no other European countries supported the U.S in this legislation and as such, the U.K’s decision might be regarded in relation to the growing need for the country to establish new trade deals. The U.K.’s ban focuses on flights from Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, Egypt, Tunisia, and Saudi Arabia, and so differs from the U.S. ban which leaves out Tunisia and Lebanon but adds U.A.E, Kuwait, Qatar, and Morocco. Despite slight variations in the specifics of the ban, this should still be seen as a united front by two of the West’s leading nations in the Middle East that will only serve to create further division.
The move has already been criticized by the affected countries with Turkish Transport Minister Ahmet Arslan suggesting that it was “not the right move.” He went on to emphasize that “this will not benefit the passenger and that reverse steps or a softening should be adopted.”
Phillip Baum, the editor of Aviation Security magazine, attacked the security process itself. He told the BBC: “If we cannot, in 2017, distinguish between a laptop that contains an IED [improvised explosive device] and one that does not, then our screening process is completely flawed. And encouraging people to check laptops, and other such items, into the luggage hold simply makes the challenge even harder. Cabin baggage can, at least, be inspected piece by piece and the accompanying passenger questioned.”
There has also been an argument that the ban will affect English passengers more as it applies to budget airlines. Travel editor Simon Calder of the Independent stated: “It’s easy for the Americans, they don’t have as many flights as us coming in and furthermore they don’t have things like low-cost flights where I’m not going to pay to check in a bag. And suddenly I’ve got my laptop, I’m going to have to put that in a little bag and hand it in. Oh, and by the way, good news for petty thieves all over the airports of the world because lots of rich pickings are going to be around.”
Perhaps the most worrying aspect of the ban on electronic devices is that it affects everyone flying in and out of the aforementioned countries. Business men coming over from the Middle East to America will no longer be able to work on the plane. Emirates airline has already attempted to rectify this by lending passengers US Microsoft Surface tablets to use in-flight. Regardless, this is still a considerable hindrance to the millions of people who fly through the Middle East every year.
The ban operates on the assumption that if you are flying from one of the chosen countries your laptop may contain a bomb and displays a serious lack of trust in Middle Eastern security services. Any individual flying from Turkey or Lebanon might see the ban not only as arrogant, as it places the security of the U.K. and U.S. above all other countries, but also as offensive as the ban has only singled out some specific countries.
Andrew Marr noted that it was ‘strange’ that the ban only applied to some countries when the technique for making laptop bombs could be shared with terrorists all over the world. Indeed, perhaps the biggest issue with the ban is that it was not applied to all flights coming into the U.K. and U.S. as this would at least have been an approach that would have treated all countries equally. When asked whether the U.K. would eventually ban laptops on all flights Amber Rudd stated: “It’s difficult to see how far this will go, whether we may at some stage arrive at that place.”
More recently, on the 28th of May U.S. Homeland Security Secretary, John Kelly, said to Fox News Sunday that the United States planned on increasing airport security. “That’s the thing that they are obsessed with, the terrorists, the idea of knocking down an airplane in flight, particularly if it’s a U.S. carrier, particularly if it’s full of U.S. people.” If the ban was extended to all countries then this would be fairer, but in many ways, the damage has already been done by the original selectivity of the ban.
However, there is some indication that in time and under the right supervision the ban will gradually be lifted. On the 3rd of July, Abu Dhabi International became the first airport to lose the ban after implementing new security procedures under the control of American officials. This is a step in the right direction, but also demonstrates the impatience of the United States and the U.K. in working with Middle Eastern countries to provide greater aviation security. Had they worked with each airport for a few months to provide greater checks on electronic equipment they would have been able to avoid instituting a laptop ban and as a result wouldn’t have embarrassed ten of their closest friends in the Middle East.
In the future, the U.K. and the U.S. must tread more carefully in their diplomacy with the Middle East and focus on working towards practical solutions rather than making sudden decisions. If there is any possibility of restoring stability and peace to Syria and Iraq among other Arabic countries, it will only happen if the West trusts their allies instead of treating them with skepticism. The knock-on effects of this legislation will affect relations between Islamic nations and the West; in 2013 the World Islamic Economic Forum was held in London – the first time it was held in a non-Muslim country. However, if humiliating sanctions, such as the laptop ban, continue into 2018 we may see a decline in economic and political integration between the East and the West.