The UAE’s ambitions to become the world’s aviation capital rely in part on the investment and innovation at the MBR Aerospace Hub. CEO Tahnoon Saif details the ecosystem he is helping to build to support the private jet market and serve as the golden gateway to the Middle East when Expo launches later this year.
Dubai International and Abu Dhabi International rightly demand the limelight when it comes to aviation in the Middle East. As the prime portals between Europe and Asia, the airports are known around the world for their forward-thinking approach and bold aspirations. But there is much more to the UAE’s aspirations to become the global capital for aviation than its major commercial international airports.
Nestled alongside Dubai’s Al Maktoum International is seven square kilometres of space bristling with facilities supporting private – and to a degree, commercial – aviation. The Mohammed bin Rashid (MBR) Aerospace Hub is the beating heart in Dubai South, which, when completed, will become an economic zone supporting aviation and logistics.
The International Air Transport Association (IATA) estimates that if investment in aviation continues to be prioritised in the UAE, the sector could generate an extra $80 billion in GDP for the national economy by 2037. It is unsurprising then, that MBR Aerospace Hub is a sharp focus for Dubai and the wider UAE economy.
The Hub’s mission, says CEO Tahnoon Saif, is to cater for private jets and aircraft maintenance, although its facilities stretch much further and cover everything from training and catering to retail and corporate offices.
“Private jets usually come as a second priority at any busy airport. This is despite the time of the private jet owner being the most critical of anyone’s. The reason they buy a private aircraft is to save time. To me, this means we need to put private jets and their owners at the very top of our priority list. Even when it comes to serving them in terms of fuel, catering, aircraft parking, pilots and hangars, we are focused on the private jet sector.”
Essentially, the Hub is designed to be a one-stop-shop for private jets. A critical part of this concept is maintenance support, which the Hub is able to offer to both private and commercial aircraft. On-site, MBR Aerospace Hub has various hangars and MRO providers, including the likes of Lufthansa Technik, alongside a new paint shop under construction.
Such are the facilities available that the Hub is also attracting interest from airlines looking to relocate their maintenance activities. There are also three maintenance centres for private jets planned for the next two years which will cater for various aircraft types. Other supportive services include a sustainable fuel farm and line maintenance units.
The size of the Hub’s airside projects demands a substantial landside infrastructure. The crown jewel of which is the VIP Terminal for private jets and their passengers. Education also forms an important part of the MBR Aerospace Hub machine. Its aim is to provide airside companies with skilled individuals, including cabin crew and engineers. Add to that hotels and retail outlets and you have an entire ecosystem supporting the aviation industry.
Saif notes that the Hub is almost 35% complete, so there is a long way to go before it is fully operational. But initial signs are promising. Saif comments: “We are expecting by 2030 to have the whole area almost completed. There are missing components, for example, we plan to have a heliport to satisfy demand among VIPs, something different to anywhere else. We are also looking at helicopter maintenance, shuttle services, local commuting, all of these elements.”
Expo 2020: eyes on Dubai
When dignitaries and business leaders from around the world descend on Dubai later this year for Expo 2020, MBR Aerospace Hub will be the gateway for the majority of private jet passengers. The pressure to perform and showcase the best the UAE has to offer in terms of aerospace will be felt by the Hub’s management. But Saif is confident that Expo will deliver a significant boost for the Hub and the companies which have made it their home.
“There are two areas where we are expecting an impact. There is the direct one, which is from VIP travellers like official delegations and private jet owners. We are expecting a sharp growth in traffic in the VIP Terminal. We are working with authorities to make sure there is a seamless experience for VIPs during the event and their expectations are met.
“When arriving here, we will use technology to make processing easy for VIPs. The secondary impact on us will be the opportunities created by anyone coming through the VIP Terminal seeing what the Hub offers. They are all potential investors.”
The growth in revenues for MBR Aerospace Hub will be driven primarily by the increase in aircraft landing at the site. With each additional plane comes more sales in terms of catering, fuel and other supporting services. Hence, Saif expects Expo to significantly benefit the Hub’s customers too, who will anticipate more sales.
“Where revenues are concerned, it is more about the entire ecosystem benefitting rather than a simple increase in direct sales for the Hub. [MBR Aerospace Hub] is expecting growth to be double digit during the Expo. We, as a country, will benefit from [Expo]. We expect most people coming here for Expo to stay in the UAE and the Middle East for a while and to travel around using private jets.
“We have five operators here. It’s very important for us to showcase this facility, it’s a very impressive facility, especially the VIP Terminal, and of course [our operators’] customers will be extremely satisfied landing here and entering the region through our door.”
Even with the Hub only a third complete, Saif has no doubts about its ability to absorb the additional demand. He is confident in its infrastructure and operational capabilities and believes the work done over the last three years at the site has set the Hub up to be able to meet expectations when Expo dawns.
Aviation Capital of the World
MBR Aerospace Hub has an important role to play in helping the UAE to reach its ambition of becoming the aviation capital of the world. As a bubbling cauldron of ideas, innovation and ingenuity, the space serves most elements of the industry, even if it is on an indirect basis.
Speaking on the condition of the UAE’s aviation market, Saif says the introduction of two new airlines last year and the ongoing successes of Dxb International, Emirates and Etihad show that the country is punching above its weight on the world stage.
The positive commercial outlook for the home aviation industry is a bonus for the Hub, which will pick up business from increased maintenance activities and demand for pilots and technicians. Saif cedes that the private aviation market in the region is not as fast as other areas in the world. In the Middle East, relatively few corporations use business jets compared to European and US markets.
But Saif says that as more international business takes place between Gulf countries and Asia and Europe, more corporations will begin to see the benefits of using private jets as part of their company strategy.
“I think with companies going beyond their boundaries, even local companies targeting Middle Eastern countries, there will be a need to have people moving very quickly. Up until now, it has been quite tough for the region’s [private jet market] because the commercial airlines are so strong in providing connections.”
Despite the lethargic private aviation sector in the Middle East, Saif does not expect to begin engaging commercial airlines apart from on maintenance activities. Instead he plans to position the Hub and its infrastructure to capitalise on business aviation when it finally takes off in the Gulf. Nevertheless, the clients MBR Aerospace Hub has on-site appear to be thriving already. Lufthansa Technik and GE, for example, have already extended their premises within one year of being at the Hub.
Saif regards aviation as “absolutely key” to the UAE, and with entrepreneurs and innovators exploring the industry, he feels MBR Aerospace Hub has an important support role. As an authority that offers licensing and visa processing on top of all its other services, the Hub has placed itself as ‘the ultimate one-stop-shop’ for private aviation.
It is not surprising that this generalist yet focused approach has attracted some of the largest names in the market. The Hub cannot on its own turn the tide for the Middle East’s private aviation segment, but it is certainly laying the foundations for a sector which could eventually make itself a vital part of the region’s aerospace ecosystem.