In a rare televised interview at the end of October, UAE Vice-President, Prime Minister and ruler of Dubai Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum declared he wanted Dubai to be the number one city in the world. But he is not the only Gulf leader to have such ambitions. Other rulers in the Gulf are also determined to develop their own cities into global centres.Connections with the outside world are a vital part of achieving these ambitions. Without ports and airports, economic development would be stifled.Over the past 40 years, governments in the Gulf have invested in airports to improve their connections internationally. Airports have been built in most major cities, opening up opportunities for international travel. They have also served as the entry point for the vast armies of expatriate workers who helped develop the region’s oil and gas fields.Bahrain International Airport broke the mould. The emergence of Gulf Air as an international carrier in the 1980s led to the development of an aviation hub for the region that served the airline’s stakeholders – Abu Dhabi, Oman and Bahrain. But it was also a transit point for passengers travelling in and out of Saudi Arabia. Abu Dhabi followed when it opened its existing international airport in the early 1980s.As the new millennium approached, the rationale for building airports changed. Like Gulf Air, Dubai-based Emirates began to establish itself as an international airline and Dubai International Airport quickly became a regional hub. In the 1990s, the airport was expanded to facilitate the airline’s growth, with a major revamp of the existing facilities and construction of a new concourse.By 2003, the emirate also began to develop itself as a tourism destination as part of its drive for economic diversification, and it quickly became clear that it needed more than just a regional airport. In 2003, work started on a massive expansion that would add a new third terminal and two new concourses. Once complete in 2008, it will take the airport’s capacity up to 70 million passengers a year – and make it one of the largest in the world (see feature, page 50).To increase capacity further, Dubai’s Department of Civil Aviation launched the Jebel Ali Airport city project, which is now known as Dubai World Central. The site had been considered for an airport since the current Dubai International Airport site was selected in the 1950s, but it was considered too far from the centre of the emirate. As the city of Dubai grew south down Sheikh Zayed road, this out-of-town airport began to make more sense. It would be close to Jebel Ali port, now the largest in the region, and close to nearby developments such as the Palm Jumeirah, Dubai Marina, Dubai Waterfront and Dubailand.Shortly after work began at Dubai International Airport in 2003, Qatar announced plans to build a new international airport on a reclaimed site next to the city’s existing Doha airport. Like Dubai and Emirates, Doha has great ambitions for its national carrier, Qatar Airways, but its existing airport would not be able to accommodate the growth in traffic anticipated by the airline. It needed a major base that was capable of becoming an international hub, bridging east and west. Construction work at New Doha International Airport began in 2005 and the first phase of the project will be completed in 2009. When all phases are built in 2015 it will have capacity for 50 million passengers a year.In 2006, Abu Dhabi announced a $6,800 million expansion of Abu Dhabi International Airport. An upgrade had been planned for some time. In 2003, a contractor had been selected for a new terminal building but these plans were shelved in 2004 and work began on a larger project to accommodate Abu Dhabi’s new carrier, Etihad Airways. Like Emirates and Qatar Airways, it aspires to become a leading global airline. The new project will allow the airport to handle 50 million passengers a year by 2011.Elsewhere in the Gulf, Muscat plans to expand its Seeb and Salalah airports to help develop the sultanate’s tourism market. The project was delayed by tropical cyclone Gonu earlier this year, but is expected to move ahead in 2008.In Bahrain, plans are currently being prepared to double the passenger handling capacity of the airport to 12 million a year. The project entails doubling the size of the existing terminal building to 125,000 square metres and adding more gates, aircraft bridges and parking stands, including two for the new Airbus A380.In Kuwait, the Directorate-General of Civil Aviation is struggling to move ahead with a proposed $1,750 million expansion of Kuwait International Airport that will increase its handling capacity to 14 million passengers a year. But these plans suffered a setback in April after it received no bids for the main design consultancy contracts for the project. It is expected to be retendered, but it is unclear whether the terminal will still be developed on a long-term, build-operate-transfer basis as originally planned.In Saudi Arabia, the business case for building airports is different. Covering an area of more than 2 million square kilometres, and with a population of about 24 million, airports are crucial for travel in the kingdom.The domestic market has been under-exploited for a long time, but the introduction of two new low-cost carriers to serve domestic routes is putting new pressure on airport facilities.In the Western Region, the kingdom also receives an estimated 2.5 million visitors during the Hajj, and more than 7 million pilgrims performing the Umra during the year.To handle this growing number of pilgrims, planning is under way for a new $240 million main terminal at King Abdulaziz International Airport, where most of the international pilgrims enter the kingdom. Scheduled to open by 2012, it will have capacity to handle 30 million passengers a year. To finance the project, the General Authority for Civil Aviation plans to charge an additional $2.70 per passenger to airlines operating from the terminal.Other expansions to the airport are also under way. A contract to design and build a new general aviation terminal for private jets at the airport is expected to be tendered soon.King Abdulaziz International Airport is not the only facility to be earmarked for expansion in the kingdom. Consultants are preparing detailed designs for the upgrade of the $1,066 million airport at Medina, and the airports at Yanbu, Hail, Gurayat, Tabuk and Madin Saleh are being upgraded.As populations grow and the region’s link with the rest of the world strengthens, bigger and better airports will be required, but it is less clear whether the region will be able to simultaneously sustain major hubs in Dubai, Abu Dhabi, Bahrain and Doha.The airlines and aviation authorities are keen to highlight that the region’s geography makes it a competitive option for long haul flights between east and west.Also, the strong growth achieved by Emirates, Etihad and Qatar Airways, together with a growing budget airline sector, means that traffic passing through the region will increase.By 2015, Abu Dhabi and Dubai could have capacity for 260 million passengers a year, considerably more than the 230 million (see table, page 44) who used the world’s busiest airports – Atlanta Georgia, Chicago and London Heathrow – in 2006.By contrast, fewer than 36 million people used Dubai and Abu Dhabi airports in the same year. So the question is: will they be able to attract a further 224 million passengers?Colin Foreman