x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Khalid al Buainnain, ex-airforce top gun who now drives a think tank

A former UAE fighter pilot, he now heads an influential military research group, and his company is on the brink of a big defence contract.

After a 33-year career with the UAE Air Force and Air Defence in which he rose through the ranks to became its top commander, Khalid al Buainnain might have been expected to take up fishing or some other gentle pursuit.

His friend, Abdullah al Hashimi, who has known Major Gen al Buainnain since 1973 when they trained as cadets, and later served as his assistant commander with the Air Force, advised him that if he must go into business he should "do something short term". The advice went unheeded.Since his retirement in 2006, Major Gen al Buainnain has become president and shareholder in a major UAE think tank on regional defence and security, the Institute for Near East and Gulf Military Analysis.

He is also the chairman of a holding company that provides spare parts and support to the nation's fighter jets through joint ventures with French manufacturers. "Khalid was always unique, he was always working," recalls Major Gen al Hashimi, who is also retired from the military. "When we were captains and in our 20s, all of us would go out and play some sport after flying. But Khalid would go to the workshop and study the latest avionics, or radar, or electronic warfare."

Major Gen al Buainnain says it was pure motivation that helped him rise from the son of a fisherman in a remote island village near the Saudi border, to become entrusted with the nation's air defence. As a boy, he shared twin dreams of either becoming a pilot or studying nuclear physics. "But at that time, I could not even think about it because there was no school, and no job, and nothing about this business," he says.

His father sent him to study in Qatar until 1966, when the late founder of the UAE, Sheikh Zayed, became ruler of Abu Dhabi and transformed its education system. The family moved to Abu Dhabi island, his father took up a job with the Government, and Major Gen al Buainnain entered the Air Force, entering his cadetship with Major Gen al Hashimi in Egypt. It was then that he began flying French fighter jets such as the Mirage, and later, as he became promoted, oversaw a major acquisition programme to upgrade to newer versions of the aeroplane.

It was in the 1980s that he had his Top Gun moment. He was on patrol and came within metres of an Iranian fighter jet in UAE airspace. UAE pilots were on guard at that time because the Iran-Iraq war often drew Iranian fighters to survey ships entering the Gulf and on the lookout for war material heading for Iraq. Occasionally, they ventured into UAE airspace. And when that happened, they needed to be escorted out.

Major Gen al Buainnain admits a little nervousness during this first interception, although there would later be more. The exchanges, spoken in English through their radios, were always carried out with decorum. "We had to be careful because we didn't want to be involved," he says. He participated in other combat events. In the early 1990s, he was stationed in Riyadh to co-ordinate the GCC support for the First Gulf War, known in the region as the Kuwait Liberation War, while the Air Force also participated in humanitarian support in Kosovo and Afghanistan during his tenure.

But the legacy that Major Gen al Buainnain left the Air Force was an emphasis on investing in advanced aircraft platforms and weaponry, often demanding manufacturers provide a capability at the forefront of technological advance. "He had a real vision," Major Gen al Hashimi says. "A lot of things he discussed would take more than 10 years to become reality." It took nearly a decade to evaluate fighter jets from the US, Europe and Russia, with the UAE finally choosing an F-16 jet that included more advanced components than the ones being used by the US.

Now, in private practice, he could be on the cusp of his biggest deal yet. The UAE is considering buying up to 60 Dassault Rafale fighter jets worth ?10bn (Dh49.02bn). If the deal goes through, his company, the Baynuna Group, could become suppliers to the programme along with the various overseas partners of Team Rafale. This alliance with French industry has prompted the nickname, The French Connection, but Major Gen al Buainnain says he is an equal-opportunity businessman.

"Some people call me this, I don't mind," he says. "But I am open. I'm having discussions with other companies from all over the world." Baynuna has also partnered with Elettronica, the Italian electronics warfare company, and Denel of South Africa. But Major Gen al Buainnain says his company, like his position with the think tank, isn't just about financial rewards. "When I established my joint ventures, I looked at it from a national interest point of view," he says. "It was mainly built around the transfer of technology into the UAE."

Such "technology transfer" is a major focus for the Abu Dhabi Government's 2030 plan, which seeks to diversify the economy away from a volatile oil and gas sector, and into high-tech industries. Baynuna Group and its Team Rafale associates have pledged to train UAE nationals in aerospace manufacturing, to handle local production of the jet or other Dassault aircraft in Abu Dhabi. For Major Gen al Buainnain, his work is about repaying a debt to the UAE after being given so much.

In that sense, his companies are not so much logistics businesses, but building blocks for new industries and capabilities, he says. "If I had value as a commander, due to my professionalism or education, this is because of my country," he says. "So now, I have to pay it back." igale@thenational.ae