The UAE's Ambassador to the United States was on Thursday the first dignitary given access to the production line of the new Boeing 787-10 aircraft, underlining the importance of the Emirati aviation sector to the US economy.
“As a diplomat whose home — and whose bosses — are a 14-hour flight away in Abu Dhabi, I spend a lot of time on aeroplanes," Ambassador Yousef Al Otaiba said as he toured the Boeing final assembly facility in Charleston, South Carolina.
Highlighting the 62-year relationship between UAE airlines and Boeing, Mr Al Otaiba described himself as "one of Boeing's best customers".
"I was a big admirer of the 777. Then I quickly became a devoted fan of the 787. And from what I saw today, I have a lot to look forward to with the 787-10,” he said.
Etihad Airways and Singapore Airlines have the largest orders for the latest model of Boeing's Dreamliners, with each company buying 30 787-10s. Etihad is expected to receive delivery of the planes in a year's time.
The National accompanied Mr Al Otaiba on his tour of the facility, where he was joined by Tim Keating, the senior vice president of government operations for Boeing, along with other key company officials and South Carolina state senator Hugh Leatherman. The visit came a day after the first 787-10 production model emerged from Boeing's assembly line.
Etihad's order of the 787-10s was the latest purchase of more than 500 Boeing planes purchased by UAE airlines, Mr Al Otaiba pointed out.
"Emirates was the launch customer for the 777X, and they remain the largest global operator of 777s," he said.
"FlyDubai has ordered more than 70 737 Max aircraft. Etihad’s order books include more than 70 787s, a big block of those to be made here in Charleston. When it comes to the 787-10, that’s a lot of carbon fibre.”
“It’s also a lot of jobs here in South Carolina,” Mr Al Otaiba said.
UAE flights to the US are meanwhile generating billions of dollars for the American economy, the Ambassador added, with Etihad and Emirates now flying more than 260 non-stop flights a week between 11 cities in the US and Abu Dhabi and Dubai — mostly on Boeing planes.
“That’s a lot of international visitors, spending lots of money in US hotels, restaurants, shopping malls, attractions, universities and hospitals. It’s also lots of taxes for local communities, lots of business for local airports and lots of connecting passengers for US domestic airlines,” he said, adding that each route can generate US$600 million (Dh2.2 billion) in economic activity for the US.
Mr Al Otaiba stressed that the Open Skies agreement signed by the UAE and US in 1999 was key to the success of this bilateral aviation relationship.
“Simply put, without Open Skies, Boeing’s business with UAE airlines — and the economic impact that results — would not be possible … the UAE’s development also would be slower,” he said.
Pushing back against criticism of the agreement from protectionists, Mr Al Otaiba said: “Open Skies is a trade agreement that is working, delivering huge value and benefits to both countries. It benefits millions of flyers, it supports hundreds of thousands of jobs. And it is critical to hundreds of cities and communities."
He warned that “attempts to roll back Open Skies will only hurt communities like Charleston and employees like those at Boeing and its suppliers across the US and world … Flyers will also have fewer choices and less convenience."
According to a Brookings study last year, “Open Skies agreements have generated at least $4bn in annual gains” globally.
UAE imports of US civilian aerospace products reached an all time high of $6.1bn in 2016, helping to create 32,000 jobs in the US, according to the US-UAE business council. The UAE has in total ordered 634 Boeing aircraft — far exceeding orders by US airlines, including Delta and United.
Also accompanying Mr Al Otaiba on his tour of the Charleston facility on Thursday were ten Emirati interns with Boeing. These interns, who were sent to Boeing by UAE state investment company Mubadala, have so far been at the facility for two months and will be there for another month.
Mr Leatherman, the state senator, told Mr Al Otaiba: “We think the world of you and your country — we hope you come back.”
The Ambassador promised a second visit.
“I’ve already marked my calendar for one year from now to make a return trip [to South Carolina] when the first Etihad 787-10 comes off the line,” he said.