One curious outcome of the years-long dispute over the US-Qatar Open Skies agreement was that all sides described the result as a win.

Announcing what he termed as an “understanding . . . on civil aviation,” US secretary of state Rex Tillerson stood alongside Qatari government representatives in Washington DC at the end of January and said US President Donald Trump had “made this matter a priority and the outcome we achieved will ensure a level playing field in the global aviation market.”

The Qatari government committed that state-owned Qatar Airways will release an audited financial statement within a year and will be more transparent regarding transactions, particularly transactions with other Qatar-owned entities. The Qatari government also made an assurance to the US that there were “no current plans” for Qatar Airways to operate fifth freedom flights to the US. 

The accommodation between the US and Qatar on aviation came after American Airlines, Delta Air Lines and United Airlines spent nearly three years—and some $10 million—on investigations and lobbying campaigns to persuade the US government to take action against what they allege are billions of dollars in illegal subsidies from Qatar to Qatar Airways and from the United Arab Emirates (UAE) to Emirates Airline and Etihad Airways. The three Gulf carriers deny those subsidy allegations.

Importantly, however, the US-Qatar Open Skies agreement stayed intact; it does not curtail Qatar Airways’ ability to expand its US city destinations or frequencies, subject to slots being available. It does not remove the agreement’s fifth freedom rights; the pledge for Qatar Airways to not begin operating fifth freedom rights (in this case, essentially transatlantic flights via a European city) appears more to be a government-to-government “honor” handshake.

This is what gave all sides the room to applaud the Trump administration and claim victory. Delta CEO Ed Bastian called it “a strong first step in a process for commercial transparency and accountability,” while United CEO Oscar Munoz applauded the Trump administration “for effectively representing the interests of the American aviation industry.” On the other side of the dispute, New York-based JetBlue Airways EVP corporate affairs and general counsel James Hnat applauded the White House for its “definitive finding that Open Skies treaties have not been violated and won’t be revisited. The legacy carriers’ attack on Open Skies has officially failed, enabling US airlines like JetBlue to continue to grow and create US jobs while giving customers more choice through our global partnerships.”

And the US Travel Association said it was “very pleased that the big three US airlines and their allies are embracing the administration’s wise decision to reject both a freeze on international flights and renegotiation of Open Skies agreements.”

With everybody seemingly “happy” with the Qatar outcome, the talks focus on the UAE. That’s a much harder negotiation. Abu Dhabi and Dubai are at least as important diplomatic, strategic and military partners to the US as Qatar. And Dubai-based Emirates is a powerhouse as a global carrier, a huge purchaser of US-built aircraft, engines and avionics, and a valued codeshare partner to airlines such as JetBlue. Significantly, Emirates is the only one among the Gulf carriers using the fifth freedom rights contained in the Open Skies agreements. It operates flights to the US from Athens and Milan.

That’s likely the main reason the anti-Gulf carrier faction sees the Qatar “understanding” as a win. If the fifth freedom pledge can be used as leverage to achieve the same with the UAE, then the subsidy and American jobs allegations will probably dissipate. It was Emirates’ treading directly into the all-important transatlantic market that most rattled the US majors.

But Qatar had nothing to lose in giving up fifth freedom rights; Qatar Airways does not use them. There’s no indication that Emirates will back off as easily on the issue; it started the Athens route last year at the height of the renewed campaign. And the US-UAE Open Skies fifth freedom rights are essential to US cargo carriers, including FedEx, that can hub through Dubai. Adding to the UAE negotiation’s complexity, there is an ongoing diplomatic dispute between Saudi Arabia (another critical US partner), the UAE and other Arab countries that have isolated Qatar. So there’s no reason to believe UAE government officials are in a mood to follow a lead set by Qatar. 

The Trump administration may find it much more difficult to deliver the all-round crowd pleaser that Qatar was willing to provide.

—Aaron Karp contributed to this article.