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(Article appears in FlyCorporate issue 23)
The Middle East is one of the fastest-growing regions in business aviation. A diverse mix of homegrown and Western-based companies either have a fixed presence in the region or tailor services for customers going to and from. Outstanding growth and bright prospects in the region notwithstanding, many Western business aviation professionals have outdated notions about their industry in the Middle East. Mike Berry, VP Middle East for ExecuJet, feels the occasion of MEBA 2014 is a good time to separate fact from fiction.
“The Middle Eastern landscape is all sand and palm trees. Unless you have a local connection there, you cannot succeed in business. You won’t find many Westerners there and knowledge of English is limited.”
Thankfully, business aviation professionals have moved well past these outdated stereotypes of the Middle East. But there remain some views that Westerners, in particular, still hold, despite growing globalization and the region’s importance in the industry. We came up with seven myths that still float around within business aviation. See if any of these resonate with you.
Myth: The region is risky due to ongoing war and civil unrest, making it impossible for international business aviation companies to establish there.
While the region undoubtedly has a history of unrest, daily strife is not the case across the region and we should avoid painting the entire area with the same color brush.
Many countries in the Middle East have a long record of stability and growth within the sector. This is particularly the case with the six Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries – Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the UAE. These six nations, with a combined GDP of more than $1.5 trillion, are among the safest places in the world to live and work.
Countries such as Libya, Iraq, Iran and Lebanon have huge potential for aviation growth, but civil unrest and issues on the ground are challenging, making investment in such countries challenging. However, there will be a right time to enter these countries, and doing so will be an exciting prospect for the companies that are willing to take the opportunity.
Myth: Every deal has to be done over tea. In other words, business is conducted in a very traditional, relationship-based way. And most Westerners do not fit in.
In reality, the Middle East is globally connected and in sync with worldwide business trends. There are many locals, Westerners and international staff working in the Middle East. For example, ExecuJet Middle East employs some 63 nationalities from its Dubai offices, which accounts for over 300 staff in total. In fact, most companies in the region have mixed teams of locals and international professionals heading their leadership teams.
Middle Eastern culture is very welcoming, and it is not unusual to be offered Arabic coffee or mint tea and dates prior to starting a meeting. It is also quitenormal to ask about the welfare of family and their business endeavors.
Professional people working in the Middle East are expected to arrive at work on time and to be prepared for meetings. The giving of small gifts after the Holy Month of Ramadan and during Eid is not expected, but always appreciated.
Myth: Aviation in the Middle East is a man’s world.
Worldwide, aviation as a sector is still very male dominated in certain roles (for example, at the airline level, only 5% of women are pilots), but this is changing – and the Middle East is no exception. For example, in the Middle East there are more women in other positions, such as in marketing, finance and customer service, or working at FBOs and providing charter services.
It is interesting to note that ExecuJet Middle East probably employed the first female corporate pilot based in Saudi Arabia. ExecuJet is very proud of this fact and it really illustrates how the industry is changing. It’s also worth noting that 28% of our employees within the Services Department (Charter, FBO, Management and CAMO, excluding flight crew) are female.
Myth: Over-regulation of business aviation in the Middle East hampers growth.
In reality, it is a lack of consistency across the region that is problematic. ExecuJet supports the sentiment expressed by MEBAA Founding Chairman Ali Al Naqbi, who recently referred to the lack of regulation as the biggest barrier to continued growth in the region. For example, while there are 150 private jets registered in Saudi Arabia, due to the absence of a structured legislative and regulatory environment in the Middle East, there are more than 700 private jets belonging to Saudi businesspeople registered abroad.
In the UAE we are fortunate that the regulatory agency, the General Civil Aviation Authority (GCAA), is fully mature and follows EASA guidelines and policy. However, some other civil aviation authorities across the region are neither as consistent nor as well developed. It’s also important to remind regulators in the region that general aviation is a different animal entirely from commercial airlines, and that regulations designed for commercial providers do not always make sense within a general aviation framework.
In a number of Middle Eastern countries, cumbersome bureaucracy completely restricts General Aviation activity. In some cases, the success or failure in obtaining an AOC or related authorizations can depend on the strength of local relationships, when it should depend on the professionalism of the team, manuals and the operation as a whole. In certain countries it is not unusual to have official submissions rejected by the local regulator three or four times before successfully re-submitting the original paperwork. Patience and perseverance are key attributes.
At the same time, a lack of regulation can also work against Middle Eastern AOC operators. A conspicuous example of this is the “gray,” or illegal, charter market.
Illegal charter is when a private operator, without an AOC, flies passengers for hire or reward. This is not uncommon in the region, and combatting it requires a cooperative approach from regulators, industry players and owner/passengers to wipe it out. Such flights may be cheap, but as these illegal operators do not meet commercial safety standards, lack licenses and insurance to operate flights, they leave passengers exposed in the event of an accident.
The restriction or protection of home market charter flying is common in Europe and the US, where it is often known as “cabotage.” Essentially, companies and regulators in the Middle East need to take proactive steps to root out the practice here.
Myth: Business aviation in the Middle East starts and ends with Dubai.
It’s true that Dubai is one of the most-trafficked destinations in the region, but it’s far from the only one. Jeddah and Riyadh are also in the top three, and traffic to many cities is expanding. Other locations with fast-growing traffic include: Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Morocco, Qatar and Oman. Turkey has had over 25 General Aviation aircraft added to their registry over the past six months – including a number of “top-end” aircraft like three Dassault Falcon 7X.
Myth: General Aviation in the Middle East is just about flying wealthy businessmen around.
In reality, users of private aviation (whether aircraft owners, fractional or charter customers) consistently point to the business benefits they gain over commercial flights. According to a recent survey, respondents fly privately in order to save time, access airports unserved by airlines and work en-route. All these reasons point to enhanced productivity.
The Middle East, in particular, is an important business aviation region because many areas are underserved by commercial airlines, particularly Iraq, Iran and parts of Saudi Arabia. General aviation really presents huge time efficiencies in this region. ExecuJet has recently seen a number of cost-conscious US companies chartering in the Middle East. Often they have a number of branches or customers within the area, and general aviation allows them to transit quickly and efficiently to each location and save days in travel time and connections. It is a matter of fact that charter flights can make complete sense financially and also in terms of time efficiency. They can also sometimes give companies the competitive advantage.
In addition, there are other, lesser-known aspects of general aviation. These include ambulance, government, military and humanitarian flights, such as Orbis’ “Flying Eye Hospital” (FEH). FEH is a fully equipped mobile teaching hospital. On the outside, the plane resembles most other aircraft. On the inside, however, it is like no other, hosting an ophthalmic hospital and teaching facility on board, giving people in developing countries the ability to see. In situations such as these, when seconds really count and lives can be saved, general aviation is extremely valuable.
Myth: The Middle East runs on its own schedule. Everything stops for prayer time and during Ramadan, and shuts down on Friday.
In reality, while the weekend in much of the Middle East starts on Friday, many Westerners would be surprised at how active and alive the larger cities still are. Things definitely slow down throughout the period of Ramadan across the region, but it’s no worse than the last few weeks of the year and early part of the new year in the West. Also, because the larger cities in the Middle East are more tied into global business, it is less likely for companies to shutdown wholesale for extended periods.
Finally, business aviation is still a service-based business. And many Middle Eastern companies need to provide their global customers with 24/7 support, no matter where they are located.