Bahrain air show preview - There's no business like show business

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Staging a business-to-business aerospace convention in the Gulf just weeks after the industry has been out in force in neighbouring Dubai might seem at best ambitious, and at worst misguided. But the organisers of the inaugural Bahrain air show - at the Sakhir air base from 21-23 January - are convinced its unusual format, based around traditions of Arabian hospitality and boosted by the island kingdom's business-friendly and buoyant economy, will allow it to establish its niche in the aerospace calendar.

Unlike Dubai and established air shows from Paris and Farnborough to Singapore and Berlin, Bahrain will be an invite-only affair, with guests spending their time in a sectioned-off area comprising 40 exhibitor chalets. There are no exhibition halls or static line-ups, although there will be an air display every afternoon, which members of the public will be able to view from their own "air show" on the other side of the runway.

gulf air a320 gulf air
 © Gulf Air
Gulf Air was once the region's uncontested network carrier but is now re-inventing itself

The set-up is similar to the UK's annual three-day Royal International Air Tattoo, where sponsors provide hospitality in a VIP marquee against the backdrop of a flying display as part of a large public event. However, unlike RIAT's military theme, Bahrain will be all-sector, with civil aircraft, business aviation and defence manufacturers among the exhibitors.

RESEARCH

The idea for an air show came from Bahrain's king, says Capt Abdulrahman Mohamed Al Gaoud, chairman of the organising committee and a former airline pilot. But aware that the last thing the industry wanted was a mini "me-too" version of Dubai, the government contracted Farnborough International - the body behind the biennial UK air show - to research the market, come up with a different concept and promote and organise the event.

"We wanted a show that was not similar to other shows in which business people have more time to talk. People can move about easily. There is more time for the exhibitor and customer to understand the product rather than after 10 minutes the customer saying they have to go," says Al Gaoud. "It is all about hospitality and relationship-building."

bahrain map

As with RIAT, exhibitors are offered a turnkey solution, with a set 200m2 (2,150ft2) "neutrally furnished" chalet including balcony and central catering. "All they need to turn up with is their laptops, promotional material and aircraft," says Al Gaoud. The air base, next to Bahrain's Grand Prix circuit, is 30km (19 miles) from the island's international airport and for the duration of the show will be dedicated entirely to exhibitors.

The organisers are reluctant to compare their event with Dubai - other than to stress the differences. However, Dubai's emergence in the 1990s as one of the world's top four air shows was testament to the ambition of the Al Maktoum ruling family to make the emirate the Middle East's pre-eminent business, tourism and aviation hub.

That rapid growth somewhat eclipsed Bahrain, which until towards the end of last century was Arabia's undisputed financial centre, aviation crossroads and most glamorous location (its first scheduled flight took place in 1932 and it hosted Concorde in the 1970s). Gulf Air - a sponsor of the show - was the region's uncontested network carrier at a time when Emirates was an audacious start-up and Etihad and Qatar Airways pipedreams.

Although they would be too polite to admit it, Bahrainis - who are proud of their enterprise culture, education system and liberal society - may be watching the high-rise emirate's financial fall from grace with a degree of schadenfreude. In what could be a reference to Dubai's fondness for erecting glitzy hotels and towering edifices, the website of the country's economic development board notes: "Bahrain has always focused its efforts on the building of foundations, ahead of the building of landmarks."

Blessed with oil - unlike Dubai - Bahrain, with a population of just over a million, has successfully diversified its economy. Its role as an offshore haven for its giant, wealthy but conservative neighbour across the causeway, Saudi Arabia, has been useful and the island has long been a popular leisure destination.

According to a report by Global Arab Network and Oxford Business Group, "Bahrain appears to have finished 2009 in better shape than many could have foreseen at the beginning of the year, and will be looking to 2010 with a confidence garnered from the solid performance of the economy under pressure."

The report notes that with a likely fall in gross domestic product of less than 1% in 2009, "moderate growth" is expected this year, boosted by ambitious infrastructure projects including a deep sea port opened last year and a 40km road and rail causeway linking the island to Qatar.

Exhibitors at the first show include Airbus and Boeing; engine manufacturers GE and Rolls-Royce; business jet makers Cessna, Hawker Beechcraft and Gulfstream; CAE, Bell Helicopter and Sikorsky; defence contractors BAE Systems and Lockheed Martin, as well as a number of business aviation charter companies.

concorde in bahrain airbus
 © Airbus
Bahrain was a glamorous 20th century aviation desination and hosted early Concorde flights

With Gulf countries looking to increase defence procurement on the back of strong oil revenues and a wariness of Iran's intentions - Forecast International says the six GCC nations have an annual spend of $60 billion - and a number of military delegations due to turn up, the show could be an important arena for defence contractors to influence key decision-makers in the region.