The UAE is about to overtake Saudi Arabia as the Middle East's largest market for business jets, with sustained orders from wealthy individuals and charter operators pushing the sector to new highs.
After more than a decade of Saudi Arabian dominance, the UAE has drawn level with its neighbour, with almost 160 private jets in each country, according to the Middle East Business Aviation Association (MEBAA), and is growing at a faster rate.
"Saudi Arabia was far ahead in the business aviation market," said Ali al Naqbi, MEBAA's founding chairman, who opened the 2010 Middle East Business Aviation Show in Dubai yesterday. "But now the UAE is really catching up from every angle, including more fixed bases of operation, more charter operators and more aircraft."
The shift is being driven by the conversion of a military airbase on Abu Dhabi island into the Al Bateen Executive Airport, and continued growth in Dubai, where Dubai International Airport is now so busy it reportedly limits business jet take-offs and landings to certain slots. In addition, Sharjah International Airport now boasts executive flights after Gama Aviation set up shop there this year. Next year Al Maktoum International Airport is also expected to open a business jet facility.
"The UAE is larger in terms of numbers, which was not the case in the recent past," said Olivier Villa, the senior vice president of civil aircraft at Dassault Aviation, which delivers its 10th Falcon private jet to the region this month. The French manufacturer is also discussing setting up a maintenance facility for its business jets at Al Bateen airport and a training centre in Dubai next year.
Yesterday, Al Bateen airport, where five charter operators are based, announced it would cut landing fees by 35 per cent and parking charges by 17 per cent.
There are about 400 business jets based in the Middle East, including Turkey, according to Bombardier Business Aircraft, and this is expected to more than double during the decade. Bob Horner, the senior vice president of sales, said that 15 years ago wealthy individuals in the region relied heavily on large business jets for long-haul travel to the UK or US, but now had begun buying smaller jets for inter-regional travel.
Yet preferences for bigger aircraft remains. Boeing has sold eight of the new 747-8i, a stretched version of the original, to private entities, with several more sales anticipated in the Middle East.
Despite these big-ticket 747 sales, CaptSteve Taylor, the president of Boeing Business Jets, said the market had still not fully recovered from the lows of two years ago. "Once we think we've gained some traction it sputters along for a bit," he said. But while the crowds were slim at the aviation show yesterday, Capt Taylor echoed sentiments from other manufacturers that this week would be good for business. "There may not be many visitors, but it only takes a few of the right ones."