Dubai's flying buttresses

The success of Emirates Airline often overshadows Dubai International Airport's cargo facilities, which handled 1.8m tonnes last year.

March 18, 2009 / Abu Dhabi / (Rich-Joseph Facun / The National) Sultan Al Joker (CQ), Adviser to the Director General of Customs, is photographed in his office during an interview in Dubai, Wednesday, March 18, 2009.  *** Local Caption ***  rjf-0319-JOKER001.jpg
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It is hard to believe that an airport that averaged 712 flights a day last year could have come from such humble beginnings half a century ago. But in 1959, Sheikh Rashid bin Saeed Al Maktoum, the then Ruler of Dubai, ordered a strip of compacted sand be established along Dubai Creek to serve aeroplanes in need of refuelling during the "Horseshoe line". The route was operated by British Overseas Air Co (BOAC), a precursor to British Airways, on the route from southern Africa via the Gulf to Sydney. The airport was opened a year later and in 1968, the customs department hired Sultan al Joker who has been there for the past 41 years and is its longest-serving official. Mr al Joker was 18 years old and newly married when he became an inspector.

The source of both his name and occupation owes itself to football. He was known as a funny man by his friends and since then he has been known as al Joker. The head of the football club also happened to be the customs manager at the new airport and offered him a job. His wages were Dh300 a month, delivered in the form of a cheque signed personally by Sheikh Rashid, as was the custom back then for any government worker's salary. By then, the runway had been covered with asphalt and there were two scheduled cargo flights a night. Middle East Airlines from Lebanon landed at midnight; at 5am, BOAC made its daily arrival. Both relied on the light of 2,000 kerosene lanterns strung along either side of the runway, which supplemented the existing electric lights. "People from the firefighting division would make sure the lanterns were on; they would watch periodically through the night," said Mr al Joker, as he sat in his office at Dubai Cargo Village, near Terminal 1 at Dubai Airport. His walls are adorned with illustrations of prized falcons and pictures of the late Sheikh Rashid, with "Father of Dubai" written below.

Mr al Joker has witnessed Dubai become one of the great success stories of aviation. The airport rose from those quieter times into a hub for travel between Asia and the West, and the home of Emirates Airline, which now operates a fleet of more than 120 wide-bodied aircraft. Although the success of Emirates often overshadows the airport's air cargo facilities, last year Dubai handled 1.83 million tonnes of goods to become the world's 11th largest air cargo hub. The role of Dubai's transport infrastructure comes as international attention has focused on the emirate's economy. Recent articles have analysed Dubai's exposure to the global financial crisis, examining its debt burden and the troubles surrounding its property and financial sectors. But often overlooked is the fact that it was transport infrastructure that put the emirate on the map, and that is what will help drive the economy through this crisis. The beginnings of Dubai's modern era were in the late 1950s, when Sheikh Rashid created the airport and also borrowed heavily from oil-rich Kuwait to dredge the creek to allow larger vessels to dock there. Further investments were made as larger ships began calling at Dubai, first with Port Rashid at the mouth of the creek and then with the construction of Jebel Ali, what was then the largest man-made port in the world. "Dubai really started rising in the mid-1960s," Mr al Joker said. "It is based on trade. It has always been like that." Last year, that reliance on trade left the city and emirate vulnerable to the global downturn. Worldwide, cargo volumes began to decline last summer and this accelerated due to a collapse of trade and export, Airports Council International (ACI) said in an industry analysis. "This trend reached free-fall proportions by the last quarter, with cargo down 20 per cent worldwide." However, Dubai airport was one of the few to see growth last year. Of the 30 largest air hubs worldwide, 25 reported a decline in cargo figures. Only Dubai, Shanghai, London, Beijing and Kuala Lumpur saw volumes rise, according to ACI. Passenger traffic at Dubai International rose 9 per cent to 37.4 million. Meanwhile air freight climbed, by 9.4 per cent. The growth fell short of expectations - before the global downturn, DIA had forecast 40 million passengers, or 18 per cent growth - but it still left the airport as the fastest-growing large airport in the world, ACI said. "With air cargo, just like passenger flights, slowing growth is a global issue," said Paul Griffiths, the chief executive of Dubai Airports. Asian exports are a main source of business for the air cargo industry, and Dubai has been affected due to its role as a transit point between Asia and the West, he said. But he took solace that the airport was holding up in a down market. "The biggest cargo markets are the heaviest hit and Hong Kong and Amsterdam are suffering. The economy of the UAE is still, relative to the rest of the world, reasonably buoyant, however, and we are not seeing the slowing of demand the rest of the world is seeing." Dubai's growth is largely the product of Emirates, which continues to grow by adding to its fleet and launching routes. This year, a string of wide-bodied aircraft arrivals will boost Emirates's capacity by 14 per cent. In every passenger aeroplane, Emirates is able to carry several tonnes of cargo. Other markets have been cultivated over the years. Dubai serves as a transshipment hub for freighters from Asia loaded with electronics, batteries and garments, which refuel in Dubai and continue to Europe, the Americas and Africa. Luring relief organisations through tax-free incentives, Dubai's -Humanitarian City houses non-profit groups, which regularly schedule flights to war-torn regions for relief missions. These are a speciality for chartered flights. "We export a lot to Iraq and Afghanistan, and we're seeing more demand here," said Stuart Smith, the cargo sales manager at Air Charter Service. In an effort to replicate the success of Amsterdam's position as a redistribution centre for the flower trade, Dubai also created a flower mart, where African imports can be sorted and packed on to aircraft bound for the Middle East, eastern Europe and Central Asia. Another industry is sea-air cargo, which exporters use as a -compromise between sea transport and air freight. Goods such as electronics are shipped to Dubai and then flown the rest of the way to Europe. The cumulative successes have brought great changes for Mr al Joker and the Dubai airport. In 1968 there was one warehouse to handle the incoming goods. Soon there were 20 warehouses and often Mr al Joker's office was used to temporarily hold the imports. Today, Dubai airport has the capacity to handle 2.1 million tonnes of cargo. Meanwhile, Dubai is planning the next phase of its transport capabilities. About 40km away, in Jebel Ali, an US$8 billion (Dh29.38bn) airport is being built. Al Maktoum International Airport will one day handle up to 12 million tonnes of cargo a year. In the meantime, Mr Griffiths said the existing airport would continue to see upgrades. "To me, the growth of the Dubai economy is intrinsically linked arm-to-arm to the development of the airport," he said. "We're working hard to optimise every square foot of the facilities."