For the past decade or so, the growth of the Gulf's big three airlines - Emirates, Etihad and Qatar Airways - has been relentless, with each responsible for huge backlogs of Airbus and Boeing aircraft and powering the expansion of mega airports in Dubai, Abu Dhabi and Qatar. However, alongside this thriving aviation sector, Abu Dhabi especially is keen to become a world leader in aerospace, particularly in composite aircraft manufacturing and in maintenance, repair and overhaul.
Those who doubt this ambition would do well to remember the cynics who remained unconvinced until recently that three Arabian start-up airlines could become global powerhouses in aviation. Mubadala - the sovereign wealth fund driving Abu Dhabi's ambitions - has in a short space of time made significant strides towards achieving its goal. The next few years should see it push itself further up the supply chain as it consolidates its engineering clout through training, recruitment and partnerships with some of the industry's biggest names.
It is streamlining its local MRO unit Abu Dhabi Aircraft Technologies with its Swiss acquisition SR Technics to create one of Europe and the Middle East's most powerful maintenance houses. Meanwhile, it has begun building composite parts for Airbus at its new Strata aerostructures plant in Al Ain: its ambition is to become a risk-sharing engineering partner on the two airframers' next-generation narrowbodies by mid-decade. And next to Strata in that oasis town it is partnering with Sikorsky and Lockheed Martin to provide support services to a range of UAE military aircraft through its AMMROC subsidiary. Other Mubadala businesses offer ab initio flight training and aircraft parts leasing and management.
Al Shemmari: international partnerships
And while the long-term objective of Mubadala is to create high-value careers in aerospace engineering and management for young Emirati citizens, its head of aerospace strategy, Homaid Al Shemmari, believes talented professionals from around the world will still be needed for many years to come. "We plan to create 30,000 jobs in Abu Dhabi by 2030, with 50% filled by UAE nationals. But we will still need expats to help us deliver."
One of the biggest challenges facing Mubadala is the tight timescales it has set itself. At the moment, Strata - which opened in 2010 - is simply carrying out assemblies and is staffed mainly by technicians. However, Al Shemmari wants to step up the value chain to offer engineering services and be in a position to become a risk-sharing partner on the next-generation Airbus and Boeing narrowbody programmes by 2015. However, he admits "finding the right individuals and talent" - from either the local education sector or international markets - is "a struggle".
However, it believes its strategy of working with international partners will pay dividends. Collaborating with the likes of Airbus, Boeing, General Electric, Lockheed Martin and Sikorsky will not only help Mubadala companies absorb ideas and best practice but it gives young Emirati students an opportunity to spend time working for these companies on internships before returning to the UAE with that wider industry experience, says Al Shemmari.
Mubadala is also trying to entice Emirati youngsters into the industry in other ways. It has opened a Strata booth in one of the biggest malls in Dubai. "We show people how composites are made," says Al Shemmari. It has also held roadshows at UAE universities. "We explained the career opportunities available in aerospace and we are also working on a scholarship programme. We want to reach young people - this iPad generation - at different stages of their development to tell them that aerospace is a career that they can choose."
Outside the UAE, Mubadala is also expanding its footprint. It has consolidated its twin MRO operations, with ADAT refocusing on engines and composites and reducing its emphasis on airframes. "We were catering to too many customers," explains Al Shemmari. At the same time, it is bolstering its activities at SR Technics and looking to expand the MRO business - a branding strategy is still in the works - into North America and Asia, likely with a partner. "We will announce something by the end of the year," he says.
Meanwhile, more aerospace employment opportunities could open up in Abu Dhabi. Discussions continue about building a business jet in Abu Dhabi in partnership, almost certainly, with Italian business aircraft manufacturer Piaggio, of which Mubadala and India's Tata both own a third. The Genoa company has been working for years on designs for a jet-powered stablemate to its P-180 twin-pusher turboprop. Al Shemmari says: "2012 will be the year that we make a final decision on how we move forward."