Like goldfinches to suet, business jets are drawn to gold, and Abu Dhabi, arguably the richest member of the United Arab Emirates, is capitalizing on that feeding habit. The city/state is in the middle of a multi-year, $50 million-plus project to transform its original international airport into the region's premier executive jet facility, the only such dedicated airport in the Middle East.

Constructed in the 1960s just a few miles southeast of city center, Al Bateen served as the capital's primary airport until Abu Dhabi International opened for business 20 mi. east of the city in 1982. At that point, the close-in airport, which features a single, 10,499-ft.-long runway, began operation as a military air base, primarily handling transport and cargo aircraft.

In 2006, the Abu Dhabi Airports Co. (ADAC) was formed, charged with developing the Emirates aviation industry, including Al Bateen. The changeover from military to executive airport began two years later. Today, only a handful of UAE Navy and Italian air force C-130s remain, and these are scheduled to transfer permanently in the near future, thereby completing the transition.

While the military base featured an ornate, airside VIP reception building for visiting sheikhs and other dignitaries, there was neither a sophisticated fixed-base operation (FBO) nor business jet maintenance capability, which have come to be standard features in Western business aviation infrastructure. Eager to attract aircraft and passengers from Europe and North America, as well as the Middle East to what was renamed Al Bateen Executive Airport, ADAC began a major construction and commercial development program, which is still underway.

Among its first moves was to establish a Category 1 instrument landing system (ILS), a key element in guaranteeing the airport's promise of continuous operation, day and night, throughout the year, despite occasional sandstorms, fog and haze. The ILS also assures approaching aircraft will remain well clear of the blazing white, expansive Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque—eighth largest in the world—just west of the extended centerline to Runway 13/31. The airport also features non-precision approaches.

The next major undertaking was construction of DhabiJet, the ADAC-owned FBO. Similar in style and amenities to its Western counterparts, it offers a full range of features including pilot and passenger lounges, planning rooms, catering, concierge services, limousine service, and on-site immigration and customs support. The VIP reception and meeting terminal is adjunct to it.

While no other FBOs are planned for the airport, Jet Aviation has established a maintenance facility there. More recently, the operator refurbished three former military hangars, including upgraded offices and workshops. ADAC plans to develop a retail shop area, and lease office and storage space. And co-located on the site is the Gulf Center for Aviation Studies, another ADAC subsidiary, dedicated to training people for aviation careers.

The investment seems to be having positive effect. Three operators—Falcon Aviation, Rotana Jet and AJA—now base 11 aircraft at Al Bateen, comprising four Embraer Legacy 650s, two Embraer Lineage 1000s, two Gulfstream G450s, two Airbus ACJs and several helicopters. Those and transient aircraft accounted for 8,700 movements in 2011, which increased by more than 10% to nearly 10,000 last year. The airport operator anticipates the number of movements, along with the number of based aircraft will increase further in 2013.

In addition to its importance as a financial center, Abu Dhabi is becoming a cultural, tourist and vacation destination, with a number of museums under development, along with marinas, resort hotels and attractions and events such as Formula 1 racing. In fact, the Emirates has announced plans to invest $500 billion diversifying its economy and infrastructure “in the next few years.” All that impacts airport activity. For example, during the race event last November, there were more than 40 aircraft parked at Al Bateen and the airport experienced move than 150 movements.

And, according to Yousif Hassan Al Hammadi, general manager for Al Bateen and two other smaller ADAC airports, the former is becoming a draw for aviation events as well. The inaugural Abu Dhabi Air Expo, the region's only general aviation event, was held there last year. He says the second, planned for March 5-7, will have more visitors, exhibitors and display aircraft, likely to range from light sport models to intercontinental jets.

The airport operator notes that the UAE accounts for one-third of all aircraft in service or on order in the Middle East, pretty much ensuring Al Bateen's future.