Middle East Careers: from upswing to uprising

Al Maktoum International Airport

By Murdo Morrison  www.flightglobal.com

This is the fourth annual edition of our Middle East Careers Guide and, in those three years, the region has gone through many changes. In early 2008, when we were putting together the first guide, the early ripples of the global credit crunch had yet to reach Dubai, which was amid a frenzy of construction, with demand for skilled expatriate staff fuelling an inflationary surge in salaries and living costs.

Al Maktoum International AirportA year later and the world financial crisis – which saw Dubai having to seek a bail-out from its oil-rich neighbour Abu Dhabi – had truly taken effect. But even though the slowdown in long-haul traffic had put the temporary brakes on aviation recruitment, the region’s long-term ambitions were still in place.

By 2010, things were moving again with Emirates’ order for 32 Airbus A380s at that June’s ILA show in Berlin symbolising the confidence of the Gulf’s leading carrier and dismissing any fears that the airline was in some way caught up in Dubai’s debt crisis. Its rivals, Etihad and Qatar Airways, pushed past 50 aircraft and towards a fleet of 100, respectively.

Then, earlier this year, a wave of popular revolt swept first North Africa and then parts of the Gulf, with uprisings in Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, Yemen and even Bahrain. Until then, the tiny island kingdom – traditionally the region’s financial hub – had been known for its business-friendly, tolerant approach. Recent events have tarnished its image, perhaps irreparably.

While creating a general nervousness in the wider Middle East, the uprisings have tended to reinforce the safe haven image of both the UAE and Qatar, the Gulf’s aviation powerhouses and fastest-growing economies. Although neither could be called a democracy in Western terms, their small and culturally homogenous indigenous populations and relative wealth have insulated them from all but the smallest shows of discontent. The recent crisis has seen a flight of capital to Dubai, in particular, as the “Switzerland” of the Middle East. Many of the business jets parked at Dubai International airport when we visited in mid-March would normally have been found in other, more turbulent countries.

The region’s big three airlines are firmly back in expansion mode, with Emirates – which had more than a decade’s head-start on its rivals – leading the way, as ever. From next month, the airline will take delivery of about 24 aircraft a year for the next four years. In some months, as many as four airliners will join its all-widebody fleet. With an average of 26 pilots per aircraft, Emirates’ recruitment needs are huge.

Its biggest problem is capacity at the city’s fast-filling International airport. Despite a new Emirates-dedicated third terminal taking capacity to 60 million passengers a year and a huge satellite – Concourse 3 – set to increase that by a quarter next year, it is struggling with slots. What is planned to be an even bigger airport – Al Maktoum International – is under construction in the desert near Jebel Ali port, but despite opening to limited cargo flights last year, development has been put back.

Qatar Airways is also hungry for pilots, with a requirement for 30 a month to meet its plans to add about 100 aircraft – some replacements – to its fleet of 95 aircraft over the next few years. Like Emirates and Etihad, Qatar’s strategy is double-headed – it wants to make full use of Doha’s location to become a major intercontinental connector, but the airline is also a vehicle to help the country achieve its ambition of turning into a leading visitor destination ahead of the football World Cup in 2022. A brand-new airport will open in early 2013.

Etihad may be the smallest and latest arrival of the three – having set up in 2003 – but it is also expanding quickly. Up to 30 pilots, almost all first officers, are joining the Abu Dhabi-based airline every month as it looks to grow its fleet from 54 to 61 narrowbody and widebody aircraft by the end of the year. In common with its neighbours, developing Abu Dhabi International Airport as a global hub as well as a gateway to the UAE capital is a core plank of Etihad’s strategy. Like Emirates, it has, since 2009, had its own dedicated Terminal 3 at the airport, a move that took capacity to 12 million passengers.

Outside the big carriers, budget airlines such as Sharjah’s Air Arabia and Emirates spin-off Flydubai have made great strides, developing their own short-haul market niches alongside their bigger, full-service counterparts.

Business aviation, too, remains buoyant. Although the charter market has not quite fulfilled the giddy hype of 2007/08, when new providers seemed to emerge every week, it has settled down to steadier growth around some better-financed players.

Meanwhile, the Middle East, along with Asia, remains the number one market for Airbus and Boeing personal and head-of-state jets. Although more fragmented, the business aviation sector remains attractive to many pilots who want a different experience to driving an airline “bus”.

Finally, all these airliners need hundreds of cabin crew; the aircraft require maintaining and overhauling; the crew themselves have to be trained; and the airports and air traffic control towers need specialist staff to cope with the expanding traffic. The demands of the wider aviation sector in the Middle East are huge. This supplement is aimed at helping you become part of it.