For Ali Al Naqbi, the fortunes of the Middle East Business Aviation convention and the association he heads are intertwined. The Middle East Business Aviation Association was set up in 2006 to provide a forum and voice for the region's newly-emerging operators and the manufacturers and other suppliers selling to them.
With Dubai air show organiser Fairs & Exhibitions, the association launched MEBA a year later to help put the region's business aviation market on the map. Since then, the biennial event has attracted virtually all the major OEMs and a host of local operators and service providers.
The fourth MEBA takes place at the new Dubai World Central (DWC) airport from 11-13 December. Organisers are planning for 60 aircraft, a 25% increase on the previous show, as well as 7,000 visitors, topping the last total of 6,200, and 375 exhibitors. That is 10% more than 2010 and almost four times that of the first show in 2007.
Aircraft on the MEBA static aircraft display
Following the closure of the convention centre at Dubai International airport, MEBA is being held in a stopgap venue - DWC's still-to-open passenger terminal - while a purpose-built expo is completed. This new expo will host the 2013 Dubai air show and 2014 MEBA.
Dubai in particular is seen as a politically stable, easily accessible and well-regulated hub for the wider region, with owners from central Asia, North Africa and the Indian subcontinent registering aircraft, basing them with management companies and using an extensive community of service providers to maintain, park, fuel, exchange or finance their assets. Abu Dhabi, Bahrain and Qatar are also establishing themselves as business aviation centres.
Although traditional corporate aircraft and air taxis have been slow to take off in the region, one notable feature of the Middle East is the demand among ultra-wealthy individuals for large-cabin private aviation. Saudi Arabia is the world's biggest market for airliner-derived business jets. This has made the region - and MEBA - prime hunting ground for companies that provide interiors and cabin completions.
Al Naqbi believes smaller, regional business jets and corporate shuttles can make an impact. "What we need is a more efficient use of jets to convince people business aviation is not just a luxury and for high-net-worths. People need to see business aircraft as a business tool that will deliver value for money," he says. "There will always be people who want to use a BBJ [Boeing Business Jet] for a regional trip with just two colleagues, but we want to capture the community of ordinary businessmen and women. That will need a new type of business mentality."
MEBA 2012 will be held at Dubai World Central airport's still-to-open passenger terminal
In six years, Dubai-headquartered MEBAA has become the fourth-biggest business aviation body after NBAA in the USA, EBAA in Europe and the Canadians. "It is quite an achievement considering these associations have been around for decades," says Al Naqbi, who also works for the Presidential Flight in Abu Dhabi. In turn, MEBA is the third-biggest business aviation event after the USA's NBAA convention and EBACE in Geneva.
Al Naqbi maintains that, compared with the other fast-emerging business aviation market China, the Middle East has matured quickly in terms of infrastructure and regulatory frameworks, and MEBAA has played a major role in convincing authorities of the industry's contribution and the need to encourage its growth. "We have sent this message that business aviation is important to attract investors and for the economy," he says.
Challenges remain, however. A major worry is the grey market - where owners of private jets charter them to "friends of friends", despite not being licensed to carry paying passengers. Although governments have promised to crack down, policing is difficult, especially when some owners are influential individuals.
Another headache is representing operators and dealing with governments in 22 diverse countries, from Morocco to Iraq. Despite English and Arabic, "it sometimes feels like we are speaking 22 different languages", says Al Naqbi. "Every government has its own priorities, procedures, ways of doing things."
Al Naqbi is also conscious that MEBAA needs to represent the whole region and not be seen as Dubai-focused. A proposal to move MEBA to Abu Dhabi's Al Bateen executive airport came to nothing - owner Abu Dhabi Airports instead launched its own business and general aviation event earlier this year. However, MEBAA plans a series of regional mini-shows, the first in Beirut next year hosting about 20 aircraft. "We want to reach out from the UAE," says Al Naqbi.