Middle East aircraft finance potential is on the increase

 - December 11, 2006, 10:19 AM

The Middle East region is waking up to business aircraft financing, it emerged at the inaugural Middle East Business Aviation (MEBA) conference here at the Dubai airshow on Saturday. As recently as five years ago, it was difficult to find funds to buy business jets, but it is now much easier to convince a bank, a local charter operator said. In addition, so-called Sukuk Islamic bonds may soon become available to aircraft customers. Aviation International News was a supporting publication of the MEBA, which drew around 130 attendees.

In a cogent case study, Ali Al Naqbi, director of finance and administration at the UAE’s Amiri Flight, told the audience how negative the banks’ attitude had been when Amiri Flight and Abu Dhabi Aviation joined forces in 2000 to launch private jet operator Royal Jet. “Local banks have experience in commercial aircraft financing, not in business aircraft. Yet, we were asking for only 70 percent of the money we needed, the remaining 30 percent being equity from our shareholders. Finally, the latter had to finance the entire purchase,” he said. That has changed radically. “Now, the bankers are coming to us, asking us to find them a buyer,” Al Naqbi smiled.

Another difficulty, being a Saudi company in the post-9/11 period, has led National Air Services (NAS), a Jeddah, Saudi Arabia-based executive charter operation, to be more creative. “It became impossible to get funds from U.S. banks, so we turned to the manufacturers to get some support,” said Mohammed Al Zeer, president and CEO of NAS. And it proved successful: financial institutions did lend some money, first for Gulfstreams and more recently for Airbus A318 Elites. When helping a customer to buy a business jet, NAS takes no commission for this service, Al Zeer emphasized.

The Sukuk is nothing more than a traditional Western-type bond, packaged to meet the criteria of the Sharia Islamic law. No Sukuk has served the purchase of aircraft yet, but the one that is helping Dubai International Airport to add a new terminal and concourse can arguably be seen as a good start in air transport. “We can expect hundreds of millions in the next five to 10 years. Some $10 billions of Sukuk have been issued so far for various purposes and the potential of Muslim money in Geneva alone is $150 billion,” predicted John Sandwick, a private banker and managing director of Swiss-based Encore Management.