There is an infectious buzz about Dubai. The country is awash with new construction on a grand scale. Among other things, the tiny Gulf state will soon have the world's tallest and most exotic hotel to add to its tally of international golf courses, race tracks and shopping malls. It already has one of the world's largest ports and, in Emirates Airlines, arguably the fastest-growing national carrier.

Maurice Flanagan, the airline's managing director, admits that he is one of those caught by the Dubai bug. He arrived from the UK on a two-year assignment in the 1970s and, nearly two decades later, shows few signs of wanting to leave. "The dynamism and buzz about this place quickly gets to you and you realise that there's something special here," he says

Everything in Dubai, the airline included, has been growing at the sort of frenetic rates usually reserved for the tiger economies of South-East Asia.

In fact, it is Singapore rather than closer neighbours in the United Arab Emirates (UAE)which provides Dubai with its role model. Flanagan adds that the country prefers to see itself as being at the centre of "west Asia", looking across the Gulf to the Indian sub-continent and beyond, rather than on the edge of the Middle East region.

The growth of Dubai, and its airline, are bound up with what Flanagan describes as the "visionary" decision back in the 1960s to wean the economy away within 50 years from a dependency on oil. Instead, the doors were opened to tourism, services and business, backed up by free-trade and open-skies policies as well as a flood of foreign workers which must give Dubai one of the most cosmopolitan populations on earth. The airline alone employs more than 40 different nationalities, although one of Flanagan's aims is to build up the presence of UAE nationals.

Air links were crucial to help fuel this new economy and the Dubai Government managed, against the prevailing wisdom, to tempt the fledgling Gulf Air into Dubai. The airport took off with the rest of the economy and passenger numbers climbed tenfold during the 1970s to hit the 2 million mark by 1978.

"That was when I arrived," says Flanagan. He was a veteran of the UK's BOAC airline, including stints working abroad, before returning to manage sales in his native north of England. Then, in 1974, came the upheaval of BOAC's merger into the newly formed British Airways. Flanagan stayed on for a while before taking the opportunity to go on secondment to the Dubai National Air Travel Agency (DNATA) which ran the local airport and travel operations. "Everything looked so promising that I decided to stay," he says.

So it continued, until Gulf Air began to cut flights to Dubai in the mid-1980s and, with typical bravura, the decision was taken to launch the state's own airline.

Flanagan adds that the extent of the DNATA's operations in handling passenger and cargo businesses meant that in effect, the company was already virtually an airline - bar the aircraft. Those were added in the shape of a leased Boeing 737-300 and an Airbus A310B4 - and Emirates Airlines was born in October 1985.

The airline has not looked back, averaging something like a 30% annual increase in passengers in its first ten years. Flanagan jokes that there were worries about recession when growth recently began to settle down to 12%.

The carrier has also made consistent profits in all but its second year. Although Emirates is fully state-owned, the airline has required surprisingly little funding from the Government - less than $50 million since starting up and no debt guarantees - and had mercifully little interference. Emirates chairman Sheikh Ahmed bin Saeed Al Maktoum is also part of the Government, but clearly has Flanagan's admiration as an intelligent businessman, with a genuine interest in the airline.

The growth has come despite heavy competition as a result of Dubai's open-skies policy, but Flanagan believes that the choice was right. "In the short term, it is a drag because you have no bargaining power but, in the long term, the airline has flourished," he says.

From a standing start, Emirates now carries close to 3 million passengers and 150,000t of cargo annually, with a fleet of 16 A310/A300s serving 40 destinations. It has also collected every travel award going for its service levels. As Flanagan is fond of saying, in a country not accustomed to settling for compromise, his job is to make Emirates "-be good, look good and make money".

After a brief breathing space, the airline is now growing again, with the introduction of three Boeing 777-200As in 1996 and another four, longer-range 777-220Bs due this year. Emirates will go on to replace its existing Airbus fleet with the arrival of 16 A330-200s starting in 1999. A short-haul fleet could also be in prospect early in the next century as Emirates increases frequencies to build up Dubai's presence as a thriving hub.

A new terminal building, due to open in 1999, should allow Dubai airport to cope with the growth, allowing capacity to more than double from its existing 8 million passengers a year. Building a second runway is pencilled in for within the next five years and there are plans set aside for a new hub near the free-trade zone, if needed. The potential for expansion is, like so much else in Dubai, "virtually limitless", says Flanagan.

Source: Flight International