Abu Dhabi’s Aviation Cluster

Defense & Aerospace

A symbol of the UAE's determined endeavors to diversify through industry and overcome dependence on oil and gas, the Al Ain Aviation Cluster is set to become an exciting enterprise.

Inaugurated in 1994, Al Ain International Airport (AAN) has come a long way in its two decades of service. The seven carriers that operate out of the airport serve nine destinations, including Pakistan, Jordan, Sri Lanka, and Ukraine, and its cargo services also reach the Czech Republic and the Philippines. As the second airport of the Emirate of Abu Dhabi, Al Ain has been experiencing significant growth in parallel with its neighboring cities, and has had to cope with this through staged expansions. Most recently, in August 2013, the Abu Dhabi Airports Company (ADAC) floated a tender open to consultancy businesses for designs regarding AAN’s expansion. A cargo terminal, check-in hall, customs, and immigration areas will be added in anticipation of an increase in both passenger numbers and cargo traffic. Its impressive status in Abu Dhabi and the UAE is becoming clear, and was acknowledged when it became the first airport in the region to obtain three ISO and OHSAS certificates, though its limitations are recognized. “Al Ain International Airport is a key strategic asset,” commented Tony Douglas, CEO of ADAC, in a TBY interview, “it will almost certainly grow commercially, but is unlikely to emerge as a major international hub.” With the Al Ain Aviation Cluster, the airport is set to gain a fresh emphasis.

In 4Q2013, Etihad placed $67 billion worth of aircraft orders at the Dubai Airshow, including 56 state-of-the-art Boeing aircraft and rights to 26 more, and 87 Airbus carriers, with potentially 30 more for cargo services. Despite this being one of the largest aircraft purchases in aviation history, the UAE is focused, as part of its Vision 2030, on developing its manufacturing base and becoming capable of producing its own aircraft. The strategy envisions reaching this assembly stage by 2018, and aims to do so by making use of its financial wealth and abundant hydrocarbon resources. The UAE’s powerful investment vehicle, Mubadala, established its aviation division, Mubadala Aerospace. With assets worth $55.5 billion, it is well placed to advance the aircraft production strategy.

In keeping with the Emirate’s progressive and perpetually forward-thinking leaders, the Plan Al Ain 2030 has been drawn up to boost the city’s standing and delineate its unique strengths. As part of this, the city and its expanding airport have been designated as mainstays of the country’s future aerospace industry, and a number of dynamic firms have set up in the Cluster. The complex will be housed in Al Ain International Airport and is being jointly developed by Mubadala and ADAC. It covers a 25-square-kilometer plot adjacent to AAM, allowing the myriad industrial projects, offices, and research and development institutions to benefit from and improve the airport itself. The creativity and efficiency of the Aviation Cluster will directly influence the city and carry it closer to the 2030 plan.

Established as an anchor tenant in 2010, the composite aero-structures producing facility Strata Manufacturing is wholly owned by Mubadala. As a leading force in the industry, Strata has agreements with Boeing, Airbus, and Alenia Aermacchi. Its impressive production of flap track fairings, vertical fin rudders, and horizontal stabilizers, among other products, has allowed it to become recognized as a quality service provider for these prominent international aircraft manufacturers. In addition to Etihad’s record-breaking aircraft order, Strata signed a $2.5 billion contract to supply advanced composites and metals for the Boeing 777X and 787 at the Dubai Airshow. This bolstering of the two companies’ partnership is a result of Strata’s established reputation and has put it in a position to become a Tier 1 supplier for the US multinational.

Other tenants taking up residence in the Aviation Cluster in the near future include various defense technology companies. The Advanced Military Maintenance Repair Overhaul Center (AMMROC) was selected to provide maintenance services to the UAE military’s GHQ, another contract announced at the Dubai Airshow. This AED1.15 billion deal covers maintenance, repair, and overhaul (MRO) aviation services. Another company, Abu Dhabi Autonomous Systems Investments (ADASI) is a producer of unmanned aerial, marine, and land vehicles, and aims to become a world leader in unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) technology. It is also closely linked to the UAE Armed Forces. The potential of the Al Ain Cluster for the provision of military support to the nation’s air forces will be vital for the independence of the country’s defense assets, and will eventually allow the production of related technology to remain domestic.

One of the primary motivations, however, for the investment and commitment of the Emirate’s leadership in the Al Ain Cluster is the beneficial knock-on effect it will have on Emirati citizens. The necessity of nurturing an educated and skilled workforce for the high-tech economy envisaged in the Abu Dhabi Economic Vision 2030 is an essential consideration for the authorities, and the cluster is expected to bring the Emirate closer to this goal. Both in their internal employment policies and corporate social responsibility undertakings, Al Ain firms are taking decisive moves to improve the situation. “We are targeting an Emirati workforce of 50% at Strata by 2015,” stated Badr Al-Olama, CEO of Strata Manufacturing PJSC, in conversation with TBY. Such objectives are representative of the dynamic attitude Emirati businesses have toward this key element of the national vision. The very existence of this expanding aerospace industry in Al Ain is creating interest in the trade in students of local schools and universities. The potential of the cluster to improve human resources capabilities extends beyond of the UAE to the wider region, too. Hareb Thani Al Dhaheri, CEO of Horizon International Flight Academy, noted that 36,600 pilots would be required for the regional airline industry by 2030. “Each year, this Emirate is becoming more globally recognized as a regional hub for the aviation industry,” he explained.

The Al Ain Aviation Cluster is yet another trailblazing example of Emirati foresight and a clear example of the ambitious Vision 2030 being applied in a practical manner. Transforming from a promising country with limited knowledge of the world of international flight to an experienced partner of the greatest global aircraft manufacturers in just four decades is an impressive feat. With the Aviation Cluster rapidly proving its worth, Al Ain is sure to shine for years to come.