As MEED’s Middle East Airports conference in Bahrain heard at the end of November, the government of Dubai is about to give the green light for Jebel Ali international airport, a project that could eventually outdo the existing airport, already the busiest in the region.



Land has been allocated for up to six runways, though two or three will be built initially, in a facility that will first handle the growing volume of air freight and tourist charter flights entering the emirate. The project is adjacent to Dubailand, which its promoters say could attract up to 100 million visitors in 20 years’ time.



The decision to press ahead with Jebel Ali means Dubai – not for the first time – has thrown down the gauntlet to signal the start of a new struggle for dominance in the regional aviation market. There are glittering prizes to be won. Driven by strong economic growth and its location on the booming air route between Europe and Asia, the Gulf is now the most buoyant sector of world aviation.



Jebel Ali will come as a blow to champions of Abu Dhabi International Airport, little more than 30 minutes by road from the new project. Will it make sense for major investment here when Dubai is doing the same on a larger scale just 50 miles to the north? And what will be the implications for Etihad Airways, the international airline of Abu Dhabi launched in 2003? Sharjah, too, has plans to redevelop and expand its airport.



But the challenge goes well beyond the borders of the UAE. The conference heard how the Bahrain government, the revitalised Gulf Air and DHL are working together to recover the leading position in Gulf aviation once held by Bahrain International Airport.



Work has also just begun on the New Doha International Airport, a breathtaking project that could be expanded to handle up to 60 million passengers a year. To be built in stages mainly on land reclaimed from the sea, this greenfield project will operate around the clock, offering a flexible stopover point to the world’s biggest airlines.



Further north, a study into the feasibility of building a second terminal at Kuwait’s airport which will be big enough to handle as many as 6 million passengers a year is due to be completed early in 2005. With the prospect of serving the populous markets of Iraq and Iran, this project seems certain to get the government go-ahead.



Finally, there is Saudi Arabia. Plans are being finalised for the modernisation and expansion of King Abdel-Aziz International Airport in Jeddah. The goal is to be the principal gateway for the growing number of pilgrims to the holy cities of Mecca and Medina. The Saudi government forecasts this could grow to at least 10 million people.



The only GCC country for the moment holding back from major airport investment is Oman. In November, in a big setback for aviation entrepreneurs, the privatisation of Seeb and Salalah airports was reversed. Oman Air, launched with vaulting ambitions in 1993, is now carving a modest but more feasible niche for itself as a regional carrier co-operating with Gulf Air.



Nevertheless, airport capacity sufficient to cater for 100 million more passengers a year could be built in the GCC in less than a decade. This is more than double the number of passengers using regional airports in 2003 and will be the biggest investment in ground facilities in the history of Gulf aviation.



Concerns are now emerging that there will be too many big airports in the Gulf. Logic suggests that GCC governments should co-ordinate their aviation investment programmes. This is, however, unlikely. Dubai, convinced it has a winning formula based on Emirates’ unstated but increasingly evident ambition to be the world’s largest international airline, will be unwilling to give up its prime mover advantage. Abu Dhabi seems irrevocably committed to Etihad Airways. Qatar and Qatar Ai