Bahrain's first-ever international air show, which began yesterday at the country's Sakhir Airbase, showcased 74 aircraft from suppliers representing 15 nations. The products on show included military aircraft such as the Russian Su-27 fighter jet, and civilian aeroplanes including the narrow-bodied Embraer that Gulf Air has added to its fleet. But commercial jets dominated the offerings.
Bahrain wants the air show, crafted as an event for businesses rather than consumers, to become a biennial date in the kingdom's calendar, bolstering its credentials as a regional aviation centre. Bahrain hopes to lure military buyers, with BAE Systems's two unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) - which greatly reduce the need for ground-based monitoring - garnering the attention of officials from across the region.
Alan Garwood, BAE Systems's business development director, expects strong sales interest for the company's UAVs. "Just one of our Herti UAV aircraft could cover the whole of the island," he said. "Bahrain pioneered aviation in the Gulf, from the first Concorde flight in 1976 to the foundation of the region's first international air carrier, Gulf Air," said Sheikh Abdulla bin Hamad al Khalifa, the chairman of the supreme organising committee.
The Bahrain International Airshow is competing in a crowded market; it is substantially smaller than the Dubai Airshow and the European big league of the Paris Airshow and Farnborough International Airshow in the UK. But Bahraini officials deny that they want to take the limelight from Dubai. "The economic benefits from the show are not just for Bahrain, but will benefit the whole region" said Talal al Zain, the head of the Bahraini holding company Mumtalakat, which owns Gulf Air.
The Middle East has witnessed unprecedented growth in the commercial and private aviation centres over the past decade. In 2007, more than 50 per cent of new aircraft orders globally were for the region, and in spite of the economic downturn, Middle Eastern airlines are forecast to continue expanding. The air show fits in with other strategic national projects that are designed to raise Bahrain's profile including a centre for major international events such as the Formula One Grand Prix, set to take place in March.