Gulf states spending billions to expand airports

February 19, 2013 4:37 pm

Over the past decade passenger traffic in the Gulf has far outpaced the global average as regional carriers have increasingly garnered a larger share of international traffic. Looking ahead, the International Air Transport Association (IATA) expects that in 2013 the Middle East will have the third-fastest regional growth rate for passenger numbers, at 6.6%, and will be the fastest growing for freight, at 4.9%. By 2020, Middle East airports are expected to be handling nearly 400 million passengers per year.

Much of the growth has been generated by the region’s big three carriers, Emirates, Etihad Airways, and Qatar Airways, each of whom expanded their networks during 2012, signing codeshares or making equity investments.

Their rapid expansion has further strengthened the Middle East as a global hub for travel and has created strong demand for new aircraft in the region. According to Boeing’s Current Demand Outlook, the Middle East will require 2,370 new airplanes worth an estimated $470bn, over a 20-year period ending 2031. Around 730 airplanes (31%) would replace current fleet assets; 69% of the demand is expected to be driven by the rapid growth of air travel in the region.

Long-range, twin-aisle airplanes will dominate the Middle East’s order books, reflecting the global network priorities of the region’s leading carriers. Significantly, airlines in the Middle East currently have a backlog of 882 airplanes, 62% of which are long-haul, twin-aisle and large aircraft.

The expansion across the GCC that has been led by these three carriers has put strains on the region’s airports. A study released last year showed that many Gulf airports are now overcrowded, with current capacity utilisation in the GCC running at 115% and reaching 130% in Saudi Arabia.

To help keep pace with the rapid growth that is taking place in the region’s aviation sector, GCC countries have been spending billions of dollars to expand existing airports or build new ones. Following is a look at some of the projects that are planned or underway in each country.


The Bahrain Airport Company has said it intends to launch an expansion of Bahrain International Airport this year. The project will include expansions to the main passenger terminal building and construction of a major service centre. Opened in 1994, the airport currently serves nine million passengers per year. Under the current plan, the airport’s capacity would expand to 13.5 million passengers per year.


Kuwait plans to spend $6bn to expand the airport’s capacity from six million passengers per year to 20 million passengers per year and turn the airport into a major passenger and cargo hub. The emirate’s Kuwait Airways and the no-frills privately-owned Jazeera Airways operate from Kuwait airport, which handled 8.5 million passengers last year.


Oman is in the midst of major expansion programmes at two of the sultanate’s international airports, Muscat and Salalah. The development of Muscat International Airport is said to be worth $1.8bn and Salalah Airport $765m. The Muscat International Airport development project is the largest project to ever be undertaken in the history of Oman. When the expansion of Muscat and Salalah is completed in 2014, the airports will be capable of handling 12m and 2m passengers per year respectively.


Qatar has announced that it will open a new airport on April 1. Located about four kilometres east of the country’s existing airport, Hamad International Airport will have an initial capacity of 30 million passengers. The head of Qatar’s Civil Aviation Authority Abdul Aziz al-Nuaimi said the cost of building the new hub over nearly eight years has exceeded $15bn.

Eleven foreign budget carriers will be the first airlines to use the new facility, while the emirate’s flag carrier, Qatar Airways, will join in the second quarter of 2013. Future expansion of the new aiport is expected to raise its capacity to 50 million passengers per year by 2020.

Saudi Arabia

Saudi Arabia is spending between $10bn and $15bn on building and upgrading its airports by 2020. The capacity of Riyadh’s King Khaled International Airport will be increased from 14 to 25 million passengers, while a new terminal being built at Jeddah’s airport for $7.21bn will expand capacity from 17 to 30 million passengers.


Dubai is spending $7.8bn under its Strategic Plan 2020 with the aim of boosting the capacity of Dubai International to 90 million by 2018. Dubai’s air passenger traffic has doubled in the last five years, and its airport is now the world’s third largest. The airport is gunning to the world’s biggest by 2015.

The airport recently announced the successful completion of the phased launch of its new $3.2bn Concourse A – the first airport concourse purpose-built for the Airbus A380. The new concourse at Dubai International increases the airport’s handling capacity by 25% to 75m passengers annually.

Also in the works in Dubai is the new Al Maktoum International airport, which began cargo operations three years ago. The mammoth airport, which is designed to cater to 160 million passengers, will open its long-delayed passenger terminal in October, it was recently announced. The Al Maktoum airport, part of the Dubai World Central logistics complex, was originally due to open for passenger traffic in March last year.

Abu Dhabi Airports Company is ploughing in a similar amount ($6.8bn) to expand Abu Dhabi International so that it can increase the number of passengers it can handle from 12 million to 32 million a year. This part of the expansion, the Midfield Terminal Complex, includes the construction of a midfield terminal between the airport’s two runways. The project has suffered a series of delays, but once ready, it will have a total built-up area of 630,000 square metres and the capacity to handle 20 million passengers a year.

Even the smaller UAE airports are investing in order to boost facilities and expansion. Sharjah plans to spend $136m, while Fujairah has set aside $43.5m.