Ali Al Naqbi, Chairman of the Middle East and North Africa Business Aviation Association, MEBAA, has a visual presentation that shows, in four pictures, just how enormously business aviation has grown in the region in recent decades, from barren airstrips in the desert in the 1960s, to today’s modern international airports and gleaming FBOs.
By 2030, now just 16 years away, current predictions are for the region to be home to some 2150 business jets, with around 850 of these being in place by 2020. Growth, however, does not just happen, or if it does, it happens much more slowly when the regulatory environment is not business aviation friendly.
Ali Al Naqbi, Chairman of the Middle East and North Africa Business Aviation Association, MEBAA, has a visual presentation that shows, in four pictures, just how enormously business aviation has grown in the region in recent decades, from barren airstrips in the desert in the 1960s, to today’s modern international airports and gleaming FBOs. By 2030, now just 16 years away, current predictions are for the region to be home to some 2150 business jets, with around 850 of these being in place by 2020. Growth, however, does not just happen, or if it does, it happens much more slowly when the regulatory environment is not business aviation friendly..
It is a touch ironic that the great success enjoyed by a handful of the commercial airlines in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region has made the going tougher for business aviation by making it more difficult for local governments to look beyond the successes of commercial airline travel and to take seriously the rather different requirements of private jet travel. As Al Naqbi has pointed out on numerous occasions and at a variety of forums, it is taking a sustained campaigning effort by MEBAA and its member companies with strong connections to governments in the region to get the politicians and statesmen to look beyond the amazing strides being made by the major commercial airlines in the region, and to focus on the needs of the business aviation sector.
This, of course, is at the heart of MEBAA’s raison d’être. The organisation itself is a model of the growth, commitment and professionalism of the sector. Al Naqbi’s history with business aviation goes back to before the founding of Royal Jet in 2003. “During those initial two years in 2002 and 2003 I and some colleagues were in the process of trying to set up one of the first VIP charter operations in Abu Dhabi. It was something of an uphill struggle because the civil aviation committee in the country did not really understand what business aviation was all about. However, with the support of the Government we were able to set up Royal Jet. The difficulties involved in that process though, were a wake-up call to me, highlighting the amount of effort that would be required to raise the general level of awareness of business aviation in the aviation committee in the United Arab Emirates, and indeed, in all the surrounding countries across the Middle East and North Africa,” he recalls.
Al Naqbi says conversations with friends threw up the idea of forming an association for the region modelled on the NBAA in the US. “I thought it was a great idea and one that could play a vital role in the development of business aviation here,” he recalls. With characteristic energy, Al Naqbi set about the task of bringing MEBAA into existence. He spoke with advisors and consultants and appointed the consultancy, SH&E, based in New York, to assist in the process. “They have done an impressive amount of work in business aviation and they proved their worth by helping me to write the by-laws of the association,” he notes.
In 2005 the Association started to come together in earnest. It was formally founded in June 2006 after Al Naqbi made a stirring appeal to delegates during a presentation at one of the MEBAA Conferences in 2005. “At the conference I wanted to really test the water, to see the strength of the reaction from the community and the industry. We had a very good response and when we launched we had six of the major companies in the region, including Airbus and Gulfstream, and some handlers such as JetEx and Jet Aviation with its completions centre for green business jets, as members.”
The newly formed MEBAA then applied to become part of the international community through IBAC, the International Business Aviation Council. Within six months MEBAA won recognition from IBAC and a seat on the board followed shortly thereafter. “We were very pleased with that since it showed that the Association was properly grounded and thoroughly accepted by the international community. From that moment it was clear to all that MEBAA was the official representative of business aviation in the Middle East and North Africa.
From those initial six founding members, the Association has now grown to 230 members, but as Al Naqbi says, there are still plenty of companies out there that the Association needs to recruit as members. “We have so far captured somewhere between forty and fifty percent of the market as our members, but that still leaves a lot of companies out there that we need to reach and persuade to join.” At one point Al Naqbi thought that it would take a year for a strong marketing campaign to get MEBAA close to the 50% membership level. In fact it has been tougher than he anticipated and has taken four years. “MENA is a very big region, with 23 countries and many different languages and processes, so it has not been an easy ride,” he comments.
MEBAA adopted Arabic as its main language but is sensitive to the fact that North Africa has strong affinities in some countries to the French language. “It is not easy talking across borders, particularly where what you are dealing with is a collection of sovereign states with no equivalent to the European Union’s treaties and Commission. However, we tackled the task and while there are and have been challenges, we are making steady progress,” he comments.
Having launched in 2006, the Association held the first MEBA Show in Dubai a year later. “Dubai has a wonderful venue for shows. The Dubai Air Show has been a very successful event year on year so that was a natural choice for us,” he recalls. The first show saw MEBA attracting 89 exhibitors, 2500 visitors and some 27 or so aircraft on show at the static display. “This was a very satisfactory turnout for our first show and these were all serious attendees. It got the attention of the business aviation community and in 2012 we had some 8000 visitors and 383 exhibitors, with tremendous representation from across the whole industry. We had a lot of operators, some luxury products, helicopter and fixed wing OEMs, airports, completions centres and various suppliers to the industry supported the show, which goes from strength to strength every year,” he comments. Al Naqbi expects the number of delegates and aircraft on display in MEBA 2014 to be up by some 20%.
“Our message now goes around the world. We have a series of MEBAA Conferences that we rotate from place to place in the region, the most recent being in Morocco and in Amman. Despite the political turbulence in some areas, growth is continuing,” he notes.
So what effect is MEBAA having? Al Naqbi reckons that it has been a tremendous catalyst for putting business aviation on the map across MENA. “If you look back six years, there were no dedicated business aviation airports in the region. We worked with government and we opened up the first dedicated business aviation airport here. We have some real challenges of course. The outstanding success on the global stage of some of the commercial airlines in the region has put tremendous pressures on the main international airports. With them being so busy, access is a big issue, but there is tremendous infrastructure for these airports planned across the region. We are in discussion with governments in MENA wherever possible, and we work to convince politicians to include business aviation in their transport and air traffic plans. We are getting a very fair hearing and I am grateful and happy for that. In essence we are looking to replicate our relationship with the United Arab Emirates government across the region. The United Arab Emirates and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia are the biggest markets for business aviation and we are working hard to take the rules and regulations we are developing with these states to the civil aviation authorities in all of MENA. I recently recommended to the government of Morocco that they dedicate one airport to business aviation and they have done so. They are now inviting companies to invest in the airport and to use it as a dedicated business aviation airport, so things are moving forward.”
This is all about building MEBAA’s influence and bringing the attention of governments and civil aviation authorities to problems, as and when they emerge. “People see what is happening in the United Arab Emirates and the growth that business aviation is enjoying here and they want to replicate that model in their country. Other countries realise that they can gain substantially by following U.A.E.’s example,” he says.
“Already we have very stable rules for commercial and business aviation in MENA and a very easy and transparent flight approval system. The investment in this transparency is very clear, so foreign operators can come to the region and get their approvals to operate in a lot of countries in the region. We have a number of world class airports and FBOs and a lot of facilities in the region. In Morocco alone there are 24 airports, 15 of which are international and 9 for national flights. We have many repair and MRO facilities in the region which can maintain business jets, so the future looks bright”, he concludes.