The future of Saudi aviation

27 July 2023
The kingdom is taking steps to position itself as a regional hub for trade, business and tourism


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US-based Bechtel, which marks its 80th anniversary of working in Saudi Arabia this year, has long played a role in expanding the kingdom’s infrastructure. 

In 1974, the company delivered engineering and project management services on the development of King Khalid International airport. Located on a 22.5 square- kilometre site on the outskirts of Riyadh, the airport had five terminals – two international, two domestic and one royal – and capacity for 3,000 people. 

Work on Bechtel’s next airport project in the country, King Fahd International, followed in 1981. 

Over the coming years, both airports responded to the growth in global travel and trade. With an eye on the future, the kingdom developed two further airfields in Riyadh and Dammam.

Two decades later, the aviation industry started taking steps to improve the ease of travelling east to west and hubbing became big business. Dubai was the first city in the Middle East to adapt and set up a ‘hub-and-spoke’ network for Emirates, but Abu Dhabi, Doha and Manama soon followed suit. 

This change enabled the rise of GCC hubs, which became popular central locations for transfer and offered cheaper refuelling costs, efficient and comfortable facilities, no night-time flight time restrictions and nimble government funding capacity. Gateway airports such as Muscat also modernised, and Bechtel worked on several of these projects.

Saudi Arabia plans $1 trillion capital

Aviation outlook

New airlines such as Riyadh Air will be supported by the development of King Salman International airport (KSIA) in Riyadh. This project is being planned in two stages and will gradually replace existing facilities at King Khaled International, serving as a world-class global aviation destination.

Expected to be a major hub for passengers and cargo, KSIA will process 185 million people and 3.5 million tonnes of goods a year at ultimate capacity. 

And there remains further opportunity in Saudi Arabia’s aviation sector, such as the expansion of Jeddah airport to serve citizens, residents, tourists and Hajj pilgrims, or the planning of new airports to improve access to the developments in Neom and along the Red Sea coastline.

As Saudi Arabia seeks to diversify its economy, these projects align with Vision 2030 objectives and a desire to capitalise on the country’s geographical location. The country is well-placed to develop as a global hub connecting Asia, Europe and Africa, and this will help it secure its position as a centre for trade, business and tourism. 

This ambition is combined with Riyadh’s increasing drive to train and develop local talent, and invest in innovative technology that enables an integrated approach to the entire value chain, focuses on increasing capacity, and improves levels of service while promoting sustainable net-zero measures.

Image: Riyadh Air 

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