Saudi Arabia anticipates strong investor demand for private jet industry

General aviation sector is expected to contribute more than $2bn to GDP and create 35,000 jobs by 2030, Gaca says

An Aramco private plane waits at Shaybah oilfield in the Empty Quarter, Saudi Arabia. The country anticipates strong demand for use of private jets. Reuters
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Saudi Arabia is anticipating strong demand from foreign investors as it announced plans to develop its private jet industry to attract affluent tourists, corporate travellers, high-ranking government officials and business jet operators and owners to the kingdom.

The Saudi General Authority of Civil Aviation (Gaca) is in talks with international companies across the supply chain, from business jet makers and fixed-base operators (FBO) to maintenance and catering service providers, Imtiyaz Manzary, general manager for general aviation at Gaca, told The National.

He was speaking on the sidelines of the Future Aviation Forum in Riyadh this week, where Gaca signed several initial pacts and agreements related to the general aviation industry. General aviation refers to civil aviation operations other than scheduled airline services.

The signings are "an indication that the market has good demand and people have interest in coming to the Saudi market", Mr Manzary said.

"We are working heavily with the Ministry of Investment to ensure that they send the right message to foreign investors and international players in general aviation services who are willing to come and invest in the country."

Mr Manzary declined to disclose the size of the required investments.

"We believe general aviation has a high potential and obviously there is an investment required initially to build the infrastructure ... for part of that investment we're looking for the private sector to invest jointly with the public sector," he said.

Gaca this week released its General Aviation Roadmap report detailing its targets for the industry. It aims to increase the sector's contribution to gross domestic product to 7.8 billion Saudi riyals ($2.08 billion) and create 35,000 jobs by 2030.

Infrastructure plans call for six private jet airports and nine dedicated terminals in commercial airports to improve connectivity. The increased airport capacity will accommodate the forecast growth of 24 business jets per 10,000 inhabitants (it was five jets in 2021) and for 90 per cent of the business jets owned by Saudis to be based in the kingdom rather than abroad.

The idea is to attract business jet operators and owners to the kingdom, to stem the current "leakage" in lucrative general aviation services to other countries.

"A lot of Saudi business jet owners are parking their aircraft outside the kingdom, which means services like hangarage and maintenance goes outside, which means there's a big leakage ... this needs to be sorted out and fixed," he said.

Asked about the timetable for completing the infrastructure projects for general aviation terminals, Mr Manzary said this would depend on the masterplan of new hubs such as the King Salman International Airport in Riyadh and the expansion of existing airports.

Investment incentives

Gaca is providing incentives to attract private investors to the general aviation industry by streamlining regulations, offering competitive fees and removing the requirement for a Saudi partner on maintenance and FBO services in the sector, Mr Manzary said.

In October 2023, it also removed the restrictions on empty-leg flights. An empty-leg flight is when a private jet is booked for a one-way trip but returns empty to its base or its next destination.

For Vista, the Dubai-based private aviation company, the move had a "direct and extraordinary impact" on its business in the kingdom, with a 59 per cent year-on-year increase in flights and 51 per cent rise in flight hours in the first quarter of this year, the company told The National.

"This highlights the significant potential for private aviation in Saudi Arabia and we are delighted to see such a strong emphasis on the role of private aviation as part of the kingdom’s plans to solidify its position as a global aviation hub," said Youssef Mouallem, Vista's executive vice president for the group's international operations.

Saudi Arabia's "substantial investment in enhanced airport connectivity, supported by a comprehensive regulatory programme, will undoubtedly foster a more dynamic and competitive environment".

The Saudi Arabian market for private jet travel has recorded growth of 11 per cent since the Covid-pandemic and this will increase exponentially by at least five times by 2030 once the infrastructure and services are available, Mr Manzary said.

The kingdom wants to become a global hub for general aviation, not only by buying business jets, but also by issuing licences to business jet operators and charter flight companies to register their aircraft in the kingdom and operate domestically and internationally.

Saudi Arabia's tourism giga projects such as Neom, AlUla, the Red Sea and Amala are set to attract high-end tourists who will drive demand for general aviation services such as business jets, turboprops, hot-air balloons and helicopters to reach their destinations.

"The giga-projects will help to activate the general aviation sector because when we mapped out the airports, it was based on three different corridors: religious traffic, business travel and tourism. The tourism corridor is very much dependent on the giga projects that are part of Vision 2030 and the tourism activities will help drive the general aviation sector," he said.

"People who will be using general aviation are elite people, rich people, businessmen and maybe some higher-ranking government officials. So we need to have our services on par with their expectations."

The kingdom has set ambitious aviation and tourism targets for the next seven years.

It aims to transport 330 million passengers annually, increase its destinations to 250 and attract 150 million tourists – 70 million of those from overseas – by 2030.

Attracting commercial airlines

To transport those inbound tourists, Saudi Arabia is also seeking to attract foreign airlines to connect new international destinations to the kingdom.

The Air Connectivity Programme (ACP) was established in 2021 to spearhead that effort and is overseen by a committee chaired by Saudi Tourism Minister Ahmed Al Khateeb.

This year, the ACP will attract 10 new airlines to the kingdom, exceeding its target of two to four airlines per year, after six new airlines were confirmed so far this year, Majid Khan, chief executive of the ACP, told The National on sidelines of the Airports Council International (ACI) general assembly in Riyadh.

The ACP also expects to bring an additional capacity of 1.5 million airline seats to the kingdom this year, surpassing its initial target of one million seats from key source markets, he said.

An announcement is scheduled to be made regarding a new airline from Asia and another in August for a new airline from Europe to serve the Saudi market, he said.

The ACP is focused on source markets in China, Korea, Japan and Singapore, while countries in South-east Asia are important as hubs such as Jakarta, Kuala Lumpur and Hanoi can help funnel Australian traffic to Saudi Arabia, he said.

The programme also seeks to change some foreign perceptions about Saudi Arabia as a land of "oil, desert and skyscrapers" and spread awareness about the "all-in-one destination" that features shopping, city breaks, mountains and beaches, Mr Khan said.

Updated: May 27, 2024, 5:10 AM