The Saudi market accounts for almost half of the 550 business jets in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) region and is growing at 10 percent a year, the head of a leading Saudi Arabian aviation company said in Riyadh at last month’s Middle East Business Aviation Conference.
“There are an estimated 550 general aviation aircraft in the region and Saudi Arabia represents 40 percent of them. The kingdom is the largest market in the Middle East and has the region’s highest number of widebody long-range aircraft,” Sulaiman Al Hamdan, Group CEO of National Air Services Group (NAS Holding), said during his opening address to the conference.
With 30,000 aircraft movements last year, Saudi Arabia’s private aviation sector is considered the GCC’s largest general aviation market. In addition to largest player NasJet, NAS Holding’s charter subsidiary, other players include aircraft manager Arabasco; new entrant Alpha Star Aviation, which has a focus on medevac and is understood to own five A320s; and Saudia Private Aviation, the private-jet arm of national carrier Saudi Arabian Airlines. These players, as well as international companies Jet Aviation and ExecuJet Aviation, are leading the push to improve nascent FBO services in the kingdom.
Al Hamdan singled out the charter gray market, regional political instability, landing permits and high operating expenses attributable to a lack of well equipped MROs as challenges for the Saudi and regional industry. In addition, he mentioned pricing benefits to incumbent Saudi Arabian Airlines for its jet fuel. Al Hamdan said that jet fuel prices in the kingdom for NasJet are 16 to 18 percent higher than in other locations in the Gulf. “We are tankering in Kuwait, Sharjah and Dubai [to take advantage of preferential pricing]. The advantage enjoyed by Saudi Arabian Airlines [through fuel subsidies] is by far larger than that.”
On the positive side, he noted the kingdom’s strong economic growth. “From a macro-economic viewpoint, Saudi Arabia is doing extremely well: [there is] a strong correlation between positive GDP growth and private aviation,” Hamdan said, adding that he is optimistic about the outlook for private and general aviation in the region for the coming year. “The macro-economic indicators are showing healthy growth rates of around 4 percent. Compared to the rest of the world, Europe and the U.S., we are lucky that we are in a region with economic growth rates that are relatively high. The immediate future is promising.”
NAS Holding runs one of the biggest aviation conglomerates in the kingdom with a fleet insured value in excess of $2 billion. In addition to NasJet, launched in 1999, it has three other main subsidiaries: low-cost carrier Flynas, which is now also offering business class; MRO provider Nastech, and Flynas Hajj and Umrah. Umrah is the “minor” pilgrimage to Mecca and can happen at most times of the year, while Hajj is the “major” pilgrimage and takes place yearly for five days in the 12th month of the Islamic calendar.
Hamdan attributes the strength of NAS Holding to the support provided by each of its four constituent companies. “They rely on each other. That is one of our strengths. We are in the airline business, we are in the private aviation business, we are in the maintenance business and we are in the religious charter travel market. Recently, we moved into the FBO business,” he said.