Life Begins at Forty for High-Flying UAE

Dubai International Airport.
Dubai International Airport, host of the biennial Dubai Air Show, predates the UAE's independence by 11 years.
November 10, 2011, 7:05 PM

The United Arab Emirates (UAE) celebrates its 40th anniversary next month on December 2, and aviation has always been at the forefront of the young country’s ambitious development plans. This week’s Dubai Air Show reveals just how far the Arabian Gulf state has come from being purely a consumer of aviation products to being a service provider and manufacturer of growing stature in the global industry.

The country–formerly the British-protected Trucial States–became independent in December 1971 as part of a unification move among neighboring sheikhdoms very much stimulated by the discovery of oil in the early 1960s. Since then, aviation and to a lesser, but growing, extent aerospace has contributed to the UAE’s diversification of its economy through national and local government initiatives, most visibly through airport and airline investment. In fact, airports serving both Dubai and Abu Dhabi pre-date UAE independence, having opened in 1960 and 1969, respectively. The emirates of Fujairah, Ras Al Khaimah and Sharjah are each served by their own airports, despite the relatively short distances between them.

UAE access to long-haul commercial air transport has been established at least since Abu Dhabi took a founding 25-percent stake–since relinquished–in Bahrain-based Gulf Air in 1973. International service really took off when Emirates Airline was formed in Dubai 12 years later as the UAE’s main flagcarrier.

Subsequently, Abu Dhabi set up Etihad Airways as the national UAE operator in 2003, the same year that Sharjah-based low-cost carrier (LCC) Air Arabia was formed. Following them as local operators have been Flydubai, another LCC, formed in 2008 and Ras Al Khaimah’s government-owned RAK Airways, which resumed service last year, after a shaky start. Eastern Express, a Fujairah-based joint venture between Abu Alhoul (Sphinx) and Hajjar Airlines reportedly plans to operate twice-daily flights to Abu Dhabi, hopefully starting in early 2012.

According to the International Air Transport Association, the UAE’s projected traffic growth of 10.2-percent over the next three years will be second only to that of China. The airline lobby group predicts that inbound passenger traffic during 2011-14 will be 82.3 million, stimulated by a region-wide growth rate of 9.4 percent in the period.

UAE carriers operate under the oversight of the Abu Dhabi-headquartered General Civil Aviation Authority (GCAA), created in 1996 to regulate the UAE industry, provide security, manage en-route air navigation services and upper airspace and oversee safety. Earlier this year in Abu Dhabi, the GCAA confirmed its influence by hosting–in cooperation with the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO)–the first meeting of Middle East directors general of civil aviation.

Investment in civil aviation is set to continue, with UAE companies and government agencies expected to invest AED 500 billion ($136.12 billion) over the coming 10 years to further diversify the economy and establish the country as a global transport hub, according to minister of economy Sultan al Mansouri. The nation plans to support the industry by backing the acquisition of new aircraft for the UAE’s five flagcarriers, investing in additional airport capacity across the seven emirates and establishing a regional center for aircraft maintenance, flight training and parts manufacturing.

Spending is not, of course, limited to commercial aviation equipment. Independent military aviation came to the area in 1968, when the United Arab Emirates Air Force (UAEAF) was established during British rule. The force has undergone dynamic development and today has more than 350 aircraft and helicopters, supported by some 4,000 personnel.

Four years ago, the UAEAF completed its largest procurement program, with delivery of 80 General Dynamics F-16E/F fighters and about 60 Dassault Mirage 2000-9s. Alongside Saudi Arabia, the UAE is expected to rank highly among buyers of defense equipment, according to a new Middle East military-market study by Frost & Sullivan.

The UAE’s planned investment is seen as “cementing our reputation as a key growth driver in global aviation,” said Mansouri. Leading the initiative to develop civil aviation and aerospace is Mubadala Development, Abu Dhabi sovereign-wealth-backed strategic investment company, which sees aerospace as a potential cornerstone of plans to diversify through long-term, capital-intensive investment.

At Al Ain, the Abu Dhabi Airport Company (ADAC) is working with Mubadala Aerospace to establish an aerospace cluster, which it hopes will attract “some of the most innovative names” in the manufacturing and service industries. The first such facility, the Strata composite manufacturing plant, has already shipped its first delivery of Middle East-manufactured aerostructures. Mubadala expects to put $500 million into Strata, which is planned to make components and assemblies such as spoilers and flap-track fairings before progressing to primary structures.

Mubadala also has established an after-market agreement with Hamilton Sundstrand covering for integrated component support and rotable parts financing. Mubadala’s Abu Dhabi Aircraft Technologies will service Hamilton Sundstrand components and systems on the Boeing 787. Sanad, launched by Mubadala last year to lease and manage spares assets, will provide component financing. Another Mubadala joint-venture partner is Sikorsky, which launched the Advanced Military Maintenance Repair and Overhaul Center in 2010.

Next April, an aerospace, aviation and space conference is planned in Abu Dhabi next April to promote “cross-industry thought leadership” and discuss growth strategies. Hosted by Mubadala Aerospace, in partnership with ADAC and Al Yah Satellite Communications (Yahsat), it will comprise two days’ discussion and two days of visits to related industry facilities.

The UAE also recognizes the need to provide aviation and aerospace education and training, partly driven by “Emiritisation” policies aimed at boosting the role of UAE citizens in the industry. Aerospace is among industries addressed by the country’s Center of Excellence for Applied Research and Training. The Emirates-CAE Flight Training joint venture, which is to be extended next year, provides (mainly flight crew and maintenance) courses for commercial carriers in Africa, Asia, Europe and the Middle East.

Set up in 2009, the Gulf centre for aviation studies (GCAS) at Abu Dhabi’s Al Bateen Executive Airport hopes to become the Middle East’s leading aviation training provider through a wide range of internationally endorsed courses covering airport operations, safety and security.

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