Oman aviation set to soar

Oman aviation set to soar
Analysis: The sultanate is establishing itself as a regional hub, and is seeing business take off, writes Alex Macheras.
5 min read
31 January, 2018
Salam Air, Oman's low-cost carrier, is re-shaping the sultanate's approach to aviation [AFP]
Down on the south-eastern edge of the Arabian peninsula, sharing land borders with the United Arab Emirates in the north-west, Saudi Arabia in the west, and Yemen in the south-west, the sultanate of Oman found itself suddenly playing a vital role in the heart of an unprecedented Saudi-led blockade of Qatar.

Much like Kuwait, Oman maintains a historic neutral foreign policy, and the sultanate has for the past eight months encouraged dialogue between the blockading states and Qatar, as well as offering to mediate between the two.

With Oman being exempt from involvement in the geopolitical dispute between its Arab neighbours, the country itself is set for a vast growth period, with international forecasts showing that Oman's aviation industry is is set to soar - with the current blockade acting as a catalyst for Oman's growth.

Since the blockade began in early June, both Oman's political neutrality and geographical location have meant the sultanate now serves as the main transit gateway to Qatar. Any airline passengers needing to travel between Qatar and the UAE, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia or Egypt are using Oman as one of the main points of transit, making Muscat a vital central link for the moving around of Arab families from around the Gulf.

While Qataris are not allowed into the blockading states, Qatar continues to welcome everyone from the GCC, providing they can get there via a transit point such as Oman, given the suspension of all direct flights from most of the GCC to Qatar.

Oman has not taken sides in the Gulf crisis, but, behind the scenes, Muscat has come to the aid of Doha in helping to find ways around the blockade, which has ultimately benefitted Oman financially from the newly strengthened business ties between the two countries. In the immediate aftermath of the blockade's imposition, when Qatar Airways was banned from Saudi airspace, Oman stepped in and transported Saudi-based Qataris back to Doha.
Oman Air's Business Class cabin in its Airbus A300-330 [CC/Andrea Tabanelli]

The national airline, Oman Air, significantly increased capacity on its Muscat-Doha route, adding an extra 25 percent capacity to cater to for the newly increased demand. Extraordinarily, even Qatari camels that had been kept in the UAE were forced to travel back Qatar via Oman.

Transactions between Oman and Qatar have soared by 2,000 percent over a period of just three months, reflecting hundreds of millions of dollars in trade deals. It's not just the case for the skies, as Oman's shipping has also become the main transit gateway to Qatar, with most Qatari-destined goods flowing through the Port of Salalah and Sohar Port.

However, Oman's upcoming growth period is not simply a result of the neighbouring blockade. Before the Gulf crisis escalated, released data showed Oman's air traffic demand was expected to increase 40 percent by 2019 - less than a year away. Not only is the news hugely attractive to investors, stakeholders and current aviation businesses in Oman, but the forecast perfectly aligns with the next chapter on which Omani aviation is set to embark.
The next chapter is not only encouraging for Oman's growth, but it also features a new airline with a fresh approach to shaking-up to how air travel is typically done in the region

In Oman's capital, a new $1.8 billion terminal at Muscat's International Airport is almost ready to open its doors to passengers flying to, from or through Oman. The new terminal raises the capacity up to 20 million passengers per year, and is equipped with the latest technology to accommodate aircraft including the superjumbo Airbus A380.

The next chapter is not only encouraging for Oman's growth, but it also features a new airline with a fresh approach to shaking-up to how air travel is typically done in the region.

SalamAir is the first Omani low-cost airline in history of the sultanate. The young airline already flies to much of the Gulf, taking advantage of Oman's neutrality in the current conflict, and operating to Gulf cities including Doha, Dubai and Jeddah. SalamAir is well positioned to be part of and help accelerate Oman's air travel growth, and CEO Captain Mohamed Ahmed - an industry veteran with over 30 years of experience, including at other Arab airline start-ups - is confident of the airline's goal to be able to reach 60 destinations in five years.

The idea of an Omani airline with a business model based purely around low fares is a somewhat foreign concept to the sultanate, but a very familiar one elsewhere around the world. While other low-cost carriers in mass markets, such as Europe, may operate solely as a business, Oman's first low-cost carrier has the potential to influence, shape and determine how people travel between Oman and the rest of the world - in ways Oman would have not seen before.

"If demand doesn't historically exist for travel in a destination, we'll create it by flying there," said SalamAir CEO Ahmed. This positive thinking will be needed for Oman to take on this all-important growth. Last summer, Salam Air - the "Simply Omani" airline - were already flying four times a day between Salalah and Muscat, with Airbus aircraft more than 90 percent full - a clear example of Omanis opting to leave their cars at home, and fly cheaply instead.

Similar to Qatar, which is pursuing and accelerating aviation growth given the political climate in the Gulf, Oman is well-positioned to use its geography, historic political neutrality and forward-thinking to ensure it too is their time to soar, with the next chapter of Omani aviation already set to take off.  

Alex Macheras is an aviation analyst, broadcasting on international networks including BBC News, Sky News and Al Jazeera. Macheras has covered the aviation side of the Gulf Crisis since June 2017.

Follow him on Twitter: @AlexInAir