Behind the story: How I got stranded in Abu Dhabi with Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock

Making-of is the name of our new format.

Behind the story: How I got stranded in Abu Dhabi with Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock

Making-of is the name of our new format. We want to give you a personal look behind the scenes, tell you about our everyday journalistic life and our research. We're starting a little series looking back at our moments in 2023.

It reminded me of one of those outside bets from “Wetten, dass…?”: Pilot A. claims that he will manage to land in Abu Dhabi three times in a government plane with the German Foreign Minister on board within 24 hours – and twice with 80,000 liters Spraying jet fuel over the Persian Gulf. He would have won the bet. But I had no way of knowing that when we first went into descent and my most absurd two days of 2023 began.

August 13th: We are flying to Australia, New Zealand and the Fiji Islands because of the Women's World Cup, the return of cultural assets, the opening of a German embassy - Germany is looking for new, close partners in the Indo-Pacific, for the minister it is one important trip. And I want to accompany her in the press team. On the way to Australia we are only supposed to make a quick refueling stop in the United Arab Emirates. Get out quickly, have tea and luggage in the VIP terminal, have a quick chat with the local ambassador - and take off.

Half an hour after the restart, the flight captain reports on the on-board radio. Technical problems, the take-off and landing flaps cannot be retracted, we return to Abu Dhabi. We just have to get rid of the freshly filled aviation fuel first, otherwise the plane would be too heavy to land. And suddenly you see through the porthole window a white plume of fog shooting out of a nozzle on the wing. Kerosene, right and left, one ton per minute, for more than an hour - 80,000 liters.

That doesn't feel good. What are we actually doing here, more or less directly above the place where the climate conference is supposed to take place in December? Sure, there's no alternative right now, but a few old bows for Australian natives, a greeting in the new embassy in Fiji - is that worth all the madness here? On the other hand, diplomacy is a political art form in which the performative part is extensively celebrated. The gesture, the ceremony, the personal conversation.

The extremely friendly flight commander comes to the back of the wooden class to explain and reassure us. There is no danger. And: It is a technical problem that has never occurred before.

What happens more often, however, are technical problems with government aircraft. In that regard, the past year seemed like a glitch show.

In May, for example, I was stranded next door in Doha, the capital of Qatar, with a flat tire. Annalena Baerbock too. The trip to the Gulf region had already started with a bad omen. Even before departure from Berlin, the plane reported a defect. All other government planes were fully booked. When the Chancellor goes on a trip, there is always his own spare machine, called a “hot spare”, which is inviolable for all other members of the government, even if they get into trouble.

Upper beats lower.

So the foreign office just acquired a gray Luftwaffe Airbus. It is often used when nothing else works. Last year, for example, he had to rescue a delegation from the finance minister that was stranded in Washington after a breakdown. That morning, the plane was supposed to transport soldiers - more precisely: Ukrainian soldiers who had completed their training on Leopard tanks in Germany and now wanted to return home. Now they had to wait for a replacement from Cologne-Bonn.

Upper beats lower. It should take revenge.

In Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, everything was still fine. The Airbus also flew to Doha, Qatar, without any problems. But when it was time to go back to Berlin: a flat tire. It hadn't burst, but so much air had escaped overnight that it had resulted in the same result: a flat tire.

People thought, no problem, an airplane like this would definitely have a spare tire with it. Answer: Yes. At least not for such short trips as the one originally planned to Poland. People thought, but at a huge hub like Doha they would be able to find a spare tire. No, at least not one that exactly corresponds to this prescribed super-special Bundeswehr specification. It had to be flown in. From Cologne-Bonn, where the Air Force's flight operations are based, which certainly made a lot of sense when the federal government was still based in Bonn. No matter, Berlin wasn't any closer from the Gulf.

What's the point of waiting a few hours, especially under the Arabian sun? True. But only for accompanying journalists. Anyone who has experienced how nervous the protocol becomes when the departure times of the delegation column are postponed by a few minutes will get an impression of how closely scheduled such trips are. Two capitals in one day is not uncommon. Major delays and mishaps can ruin weeks of detailed planning, as colleagues in office usually feel the same way.

August 14th: When most of the kerosene has been fogged up, we make our second landing in Abu Dhabi, this time in the middle of the night. The local embassy has long been informed. Thanks to their help, we now take the bus for a few hours to one of those luxury hotels that look no different in Singapore than in Rio. The technicians are trying to fix the problem. The diplomats are trying to save the trip. The journalists report back home.

The second attempt in the evening. The error was not found, but a test flight went without any problems. Second farewell at the airport from the German ambassador. As we got in, someone joked: “How do you say ‘see you soon’ in Arabic?” If only he hadn’t.

The start is normal, as far as one can judge from the wood class. But I wait in vain for the relieving whir that signals the flaps are being retracted. I look out of the window. No wonder, the flaps are still not retracted a bit. A little later the flight commander and the foreign minister come back to us again and the message on the small monitor on the back of the front seat reads: Takeoff: Abu Dhabi. Destination: Abu Dhabi. Of course, 80,000 liters of kerosene have to be misted first.

I haven't been to Australia yet. Instead, I took a taxi to Dubai - and that sentence alone made the trip worth it. Only one flight from the neighboring emirate was scheduled to take off that day towards Germany, not to Berlin, but at least to Hamburg. I booked the ticket that night. But that shouldn't help me either. The machine refused to check me and my luggage in. Instead, he started beeping frantically. A friendly airport employee accompanied me to a counter, where I was informed that the flight was overbooked. But you would have a nice hotel there…

As I later learned, the Foreign Minister had also rejected the plan to continue the journey by scheduled flight. She also flew back to Germany. Including an official delegation. From Dubai.

Upper beats lower.