Business Aviation’s Middle East Boom Set to Continue, Alnaqbi Says

alnaqbi
Ali Alnaqbi, founder of MEBAA.
Credit: MEBAA

Eighteen months into the post-COVID age and the effects of the pandemic on business aviation are largely well known and understood. And while the specifics may differ from region to region, the broad brush strokes all flow in the same direction. So it is little surprise to find that the story of resilience and recovery familiar from the U.S. and Europe also applies to the sector in the Middle East. 

“The Middle East, North Africa and the UAE are no different than what happened in the rest of the world,” says Ali Alnaqbi, founder of the region’s trade group, MEBAA (Middle East Business Aviation Association), and chair of the governing board of IBAC (International Business Aviation Council). “Business aviation has recovered quicker than any other aviation sector. We can go back to normal operations quicker and easier than the airlines. And the nature of business and private aviation is always to respect social distance and privacy, so we had no problem adapting this new normal into our operations.”

Across the region as a whole, Alnaqbi says that early data for September and October 2021 suggest activity has already returned to pre-pandemic levels. This is despite continuing travel and visa restrictions, and still covers a period when true business travel—as opposed to private flying by business users for personal or leisure purposes—has not fully returned. 

Activity has been buoyed by a large number of new entrants to the sector: people who, previously, would have traveled first- or business-class on scheduled airlines, but who have turned to private aviation either because the route they wish to fly is not presently being served by airlines, or because of concerns around possible infection when using airports or commercial airliners. Alnaqbi believes the region’s operators can be cautiously optimistic about retaining a considerable amount of these new customers, even as airlines resume pre-COVID routes.

“When they try business aviation, they realize that business aviation does not only provide luxury, but also saves a lot of effort,” he says. “Here in the Middle East we have a [lot of] wide-body aircraft, so there is a significant difference in the charter price. I don’t think 100% will go back to their old normal, because they realize that three, four people traveling for business in a small jet is not so bad compared to the airline.”

In global terms, the region accounts for a small proportion of the business-aviation fleet—Aviation Week’s 2022 Business Aviation Fleet & MRO Forecast includes the Middle East in its Asia-Pacific figure, which totals just 3% of anticipated aircraft deliveries over the next decade. A detailed forecast of the Middle East’s bizav fleet by age expects some 63 additions over the next 10 years [see graph]; at present, 379 aircraft are active in the region. But a higher proportion of those aircraft are larger corporate jets or VIP-configured airliners, so the value of the market is higher.

This year’s Dubai Airshow may prove to be one of the most important editions, not just because it is the first of the world’s major aerospace shows to take place in person after the disruption caused by the pandemic, but because it arrives as the region is undergoing a crucial geopolitical realignment. Agreement was reached in January to end the four-year dispute that had seen Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain and Egypt sever diplomatic links with Qatar; and this will be the first edition of the show to take place since the UAE and Israel formally normalized relations. As well as opening up the region to inward investment and new external markets, these factors will have a positive impact on business aviation, Alnaqbi believes. 

“Business aviation is commuting between countries; we’re here to serve people and take them safely to where they want to go,” he says. “As aviation, we love to see that there’s no issues and we can go anywhere the passengers want to go. The more we have peace between everywhere in the world, the better for everybody, and we can conduct flights in the safest and most economic way.” 

Similarly, nations in the region have been increasing commitments to reduce carbon emissions, which ought to help bizav entities to press the case for adoption of sustainable aviation fuels (SAF). Alnaqbi believes willingness exists among users of Middle Eastern business aircraft, but that bottlenecks in supply and high prices mean government intervention will be required. 

“Most of the aircraft meet the criteria, but we still have to encourage operators to start using SAF,” he says. “The problem here—and everywhere—is: which comes first, the egg or the chicken? We need to see a lot of demand before we provide SAF for everybody, because it’s so expensive. Without government support, nothing will happen.”