18 November 2013

Dubai Air Show, an Awakened Gulf, and Bahrain

I don't regularly blog anymore, and this is going to be a bit of a bittersweet post, but after seeing the amount of power the Gulf has in it's hands after yesterday's Air Show, I figured I have to start screaming somewhere. Might as well be my blog.

Anyhow; yesterday was the first day of the 2013 Dubai Air Show. The behemoth of the airline industry in the GCC is Emirates, which has very casually decided to order $100 billion dollars worth of planes. The notable runners up are Etihad and Qatar Airways, with a combined $50 billion worth of orders.

Now on the surface, and to the uninformed, this seems to be a bunch of rich sheikdoms throwing around their god granted oil money. But look a little deeper; if this was just about money, perhaps Kuwait should be a notable entry, with a higher GDP than either UAE or Qatar. Or, maybe Saudi, with more than double the oil revenue of the next closest competitor. You can't just build a massive airline out of thin air if you had money. Sure, you can start one, but without the right strategies, direction, management and so on, it won't last too long no matter how much money you throw at it.

Back in the 80's, the GCC was made up of a bunch of oil-rich countries with a lot of money and no incentive to use it to build up the country. Emirates Airlines was started by the Dubai ruling family in the mid-80's with an aim to turn Dubai into a regional business hub. With a very focused strategy over the next 20 years, they managed to pave the way for the world to have easy access into the city, and through that (and a very solid growth strategy) expand into a global superstar. As this ridiculous growth caught the eyes of the other sheikdoms around, they wanted in on the global game, and so began the story of the hyper-growth of the GCC.

Of course, some countries raced ahead while others lagged behind. Money played a contributing factor, but some did better with it than others. Look up now, and you'll see cities that people didn't even realize existed 20 years ago are buzzwords on the tongues of tourists, businessmen, politicians and even average citizens, all the way from Seoul to Sao Paulo.

To top it off, at the Air Show yesterday, Etihad, Qatar Airways and Emirates single handedly gave a life-line to Boeing with it's largest ever combined order of $100 billion. And with that kind of money comes power - Sh Ahmed Al Maktoom (Chairman of Emirates Group) turns around and casually says to the West, you give us the landing rights we're asking for (there have been arguments over landing rights for Emirates etc in the West over the past few years), or we're going to cancel these orders.

In other words, you're playing 'our' game now.

All sweet so far, right? The growth of a region, the increase in both economical and political power, the developments within it, and so on. So where's the bitter part?

I look at our tiny little Bahrain, so motivated and always starting new trends being slowly pushed to the side. In fact, they don't even have a noticeable participation in the Air Show; sure I understand we have our own in January and we're probably saving whatever loose change we have to sign deals there, but either way... We started the whole aviation thing in the region. Gulf Air was formed way before any of these other airline, back in the 1940's. And sure, we grew, and eventually Bahrain, Qatar, Abu Dhabi and Oman all decided to come on board as shareholders.

But I think the turning point was in the 80's - Dubai, back then a little desert village with nothing but huge aspirations, kept requesting more flights through Gulf Air, to which the airline turned around and said, no. Not being one to wait for things to happen, the ruling family of Dubai decided to start their own airline, Emirates, and from then on, it's growth, and with them the growth of Dubai astounded everyone.

To the point where Abu Dhabi and Qatar eventually decided, hey, we should have our own airlines too, and left Gulf Air. That's not necessarily a bad thing for GF - they can grow better with more focus, right? But no, the airline kept tumbling deeper and deeper into losses, corruption and one problem after the other. Oman eventually seceded from the airline, making it a pure Bahraini burden. On a positive note though, I guess we can say the reason Emirates was created, Dubai grew, and following that, the whole GCC ended up growing is because of Bahrain (denying Dubai more flights). Ironically now, Gulf Air's busiest route is to Dubai. Funny how time changes things.

I'm happy for what we've managed to do in the Gulf overall, and how we've managed to literally sit on top of the world through our airlines. But again, looking at Gulf Air's sad decline from being a true Gulf airline to one that is just an after-thought, even in the mind of the average Bahraini traveller, makes me feel a little bitter inside. And this follows through everything else in Bahrain - we start all the trends, we have the first hold on any new idea, but for some reason we fail while everyone around us grows. We're smart, we're motivated, we have so much potential in us, but that's all it remains - just pure potential, with no follow up.

I think it's less of feeling sad and more of feeling let down, or disappointed. We all gave tons and tons to the country, and after all that's happened we see it remain relatively stagnant. Maybe it's just a curse. Or maybe it can be fixed. Or maybe we lost hope. Don't get me wrong; I still love our little island, and that won't ever change, but sadly she just feels like the lazy offspring that ended up not achieving much in life while all it's siblings went on to become CEO's and presidents. 


Anonymous said...

Bahrain's always been going backwards and your right! We always start everything and then everyone beats us :(

Khaled said...

Gulf Air is improving !!

Anonymous said...

So many good points Ammar. It's all too easy to read your article and fall into the "it's because Bahraini's want to be the CEO but aren't prepared to be the tea-boy first" response. But that can't be it right? As you say, many Bahraini's and long-term residents are serious trend-setters and hard workers. Want to order some home-baked yummy slices of awesomeness? Just jump onto Instagram, see something you like and WhatsApp your order through. So simple, it's genius.

Look closely though, where were these trendsetters educated? Bahrain is nothing if not complex and it's not the only answer but it does seem like Bahrain's state education, although free (which has to be appreciated), teaches individuals to learn by rote, rather than to think for themselves and to think outside of the box. A sweeping generalisation I know and I apologise to those of you who break this mould - you are the future and I salute you.

But carry this on through life and you're left with a work force who wait for things to happen, to be provided by someone else. To consume rather than to create.

There are some fantastic signs out there though that this generation will lead by example. Gulf Air is a corporation and it takes a long time for the wheels of change to get moving in any business that large. My hope is that all we are seeing with Gulf Air is Old Bahrain not yet transformed by New Bahraini thinking – only time will tell!

Hussain said...

"..We're smart, we're motivated, we have so much potential in us, but that's all it remains - just pure potential, with no follow up."

I agree! that's why we ourselves, as indivisuals, need to change tactics. Strategies can be top-down or bottom-up approached. The latter is harder of course, but we can integrate those tiny individual creative initiatives and make something out of them.

Good post.

Gulf Job Consultants said...

Nice, interesting post... thanks for posting!