The island's inaugural international aerospace exhibition proves a big draw and throws down the gauntlet to other leading shows around the world.
Bahrain show's future looking up
Covering an air show can present unexpected pitfalls for members of the broadcast media. One international TV crew, attempting an interview with Sheikh Abdulla bin Hamad Al Khalifa, crown prince of Bahrain and the chairman of the supreme organising committee of the inaugural Bahrain International Airshow, was reluctantly forced to stop as the roar of jets performing a display repeatedly drowned out his words.
But the noise could not obscure the clear message emanating from the kingdom's Sakhir Airbase, where the three-day air show ended on Saturday. Bahrain is making a serious pitch as a host of major events, drawing on its long-standing strengths as a place where international business people like to come to do deals. And the organisers of the Bahrain Airshow, put on in association with Farnborough International, the team behind the famous biennial UK air show, can boast several impressive deals, some done with unlikely partners.
For instance, Yemen's flag carrier, Yemenia, sealed a contract with Airbus to snap up 10 A320 aircraft for US$700 million (Dh2.57 billion) - equivalent to six months worth of the poverty stricken country's oil revenues. Bahrain's equally cash-strapped regional carrier, Gulf Air, announced the leasing of a couple of the Brazil-built Embraer 170s, the thin-bodied, medium-range aircraft that will allow greater flight frequency within the region.
For the exhibitors, which included BAE Systems, Boeing, Sikorsky, Airbus, Rolls-Royce and Russia's Rosoboronexport, it was a chance to entice wealthy Middle Eastern buyers with cutting-edge products. The region's security preoccupations - "we live in a dangerous neighbourhood," as more than one Bahraini official said - ensured pride of place for BAE Systems, Mantis and Herti, unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs). These "intelligent" surveillance drones dispense with the need for a ground-based joystick operator to continually guide and monitor them.
The British-made drones are competing with the US Predator, which has inflicted serious damage on al Qa'eda and Taliban units operating in Iraq and Afghanistan. These UAVs are highly prized by regional defence chiefs. "This is the future of warfare," says Alan Garwood, the group business development director at BAE Systems, adding that the Gulf is an important market as one of the world's biggest spenders on defence equipment.
"You can programme one of these UAVs to cover a whole area. It is able to spot changes in the environment without someone having to monitor it continuously. Given the gaps in human attention spans, this is particularly useful." There are number of more prosaic uses for UAVs. They can provide real-time images for the surveillance of large crowds, for example. Despite the defence focus on display, most of the technology in evidence at Sakhir was geared towards the commercial end of the market, with potential buyers from the Gulf and Middle East taking a closer look at the latest corporate jets, alongside the bigger commercial load bearers on offer from Airbus and Boeing.
The region's growing customer sophistication has ramped up the specification requirements for most modern carriers, even Gulf Air's new Embraer 170 sub-100 passenger models. Inflight entertainment (IFE) systems are now important to passengers, even on short-haul routes like Manama to Abu Dhabi. "Most planes now have hard disks that can store hundreds of hours worth of content," says Tracy Lee Powell, a US-based provider of IFE with the global aerospace technology company Thales. "But customers now want do some gaming on their flights: that's why these Embraers have USB connections."
Such connections enable passengers to plug in personal computers, for instance, and play video games. The air show proved a big draw for Bahrainis and expatriates alike, and is shaping up to be another major date in the Gulf's crowded calendar. Bahrain's leaders are confident that the country's long association with air travel - it was the destination for the first-ever Concorde flight in 1976 - will enable it to compete alongside the Dubai Airshow.
"We are pioneers in aviation," says Sheikh Abdulla. "But this show is to the benefit of the whole region. Remember, 50 per cent of all aircraft ordered in 2007 were from this region. The appetite is strong and there are big opportunities to be had here." Bahrain pulled off an impressive feat in bringing together some of the world's top fighter jets and commercial aircraft for the assembled business leaders and defence chiefs.
With the former seven-times world champion Formula One driver Michael Schumacher preparing to make his comeback on Bahraini soil in March, it could be a big year for an island that likes to punch above its weight. @Email:firstname.lastname@example.org