29 May Interview with Naif Al Abri, President, Civil Aviation Authority
How viable is Oman’s goal to become a regional aviation hub?
Oman is a natural gateway between the east, the west, the Middle East and the Indian subcontinent. From an aviation and airspace management perspective, building up Oman’s aviation capabilities will enable global growth. We are seeing a 98% return to 2019 levels in terms of global flights, with a significant percentage of that moving through Oman’s airspace. In Oman’s airports we have recovered around 70% of 2019 volumes and expect to return to growth by the end of this year. With the increased footprint of SalamAir and the introduction of new Oman Air aircrafts, our network is expected to increase substantially. Regionally, there has also been significant expansion. For example, Saudi Arabia is currently building many airports and launching a new national airline, Riyadh Air. We are seeing similar growth in the UAE and Qatar. Beyond our region, activity is also increasing in Europe, Singapore, Thailand, Indonesia and China. Manufacturing industries such as Boeing and Airbus currently have almost 3,000 new airplanes in the pipeline. Oman intends to be a critical part of the global growth in aviation by optimizing our airspace, absorbing the maximum number of airplanes as possible and using state-of-the-art equipment, including telecommunication systems and radar surveillance systems. The government has invested more than USD 7.77 billion in developing our aviation infrastructure in the last decade with the intention to benefit not only Oman but the region.
What is the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) doing to help Oman build up its tourism sector under the Vision 2040 initiative?
Oman has a tremendous competitive advantage in tourism due to its nature, people, history and culture —advantages that are not yet being marketed to their full potential. Under the current model, there is a lot of transit, and we aim to attract more visitors. We intend to make Oman a hub in terms of point-to-point connectivity rather than just passing by Oman, which will come in time. For example, adventure tourism is a new growing sector for Oman, with many resorts being built with this in mind. We are also currently opening regions that were not open to tourism in the past. For example, the government has placed a large focus on building up Jebel Akhdar as a tourist hub. These efforts involve work from the Ministry of Transport, Communications and Information Technology and the Ministry of Housing and Urban Planning. The aviation sector is working to ensure there is adequate air connectivity to the region, an initiative that is currently underway with our stakeholders. Additional efforts are being made to expand connectivity to Masirah Island in the southeast, which was previously not open to tourists. There are now commercial flights from Muscat to Masirah Island and connectivity with Duqm. We are also talking of building up the area around Raʾs al-Ḥadd as a tourist hub where tourists can see the world’s most significant population of green turtles. Hopefully Oman can position itself as a destination of choice for tourists looking to visit the Middle East.
Can you give us an overview of the recently approved National Aviation Strategy 2040?
In 2019 before the pandemic, the cabinet approved the National Aviation Strategy 2030. Following the pandemic, we focused on heavily restructuring the aviation sector and dismantling our holding structure and various companies. CAA took on extra responsibilities such as building airports and overseeing all related infrastructure. Given the change in forecasts for tourism beyond the pandemic, CAA decided to review its 2030 strategy and extend its targets to 2040. The strategy involves multiple facets beyond just airports and commercial airlines, training and traditional operations. Today we are talking about many new issues, such as implementing new technologies such as drones; attracting and accommodating private aviators including amphibious airplanes or sea airplanes; positioning our airports as logistics centers; and perhaps birthing a new airline. All these aspects are included in the new National Aviation Strategy 2040. We are planning to make the roadmap clearer in 2023 by using an expert in-house consultant. It is a matter of national importance, and all stakeholders are required to contribute, including tourism and logistics sectors and the Ministry of Economy and Ministry of Finance. We are currently discussing potential areas of opportunity such as creating airport cities and attracting foreign direct investment (FDI) into the aviation sector. It is important we focus on what Oman can offer in terms of its location and its other competitive advantages to add value to our operations instead of only competing with our neighbors.
What major projects are currently underway to enhance Oman’s aviation infrastructure?
We are currently building a commercial airport in Musandam located at Oman’s northernmost tip in the Arabian Peninsula. It is a strategic location for Oman and the Gulf, particularly with its proximity to the UAE. The mountainous area presents many opportunities for development. Connectivity between Musandam and the mainland is critical in spurring regional investment. Oman Air currently has flights between Muscat and the Khasab airbase. However, the military asset is unsuited to attract tourism and international airlines. As part of a long-term strategy, the government intends to open an international airport in the area. We have approval from the government to proceed with phase one of the airport. The first phase will consist of a runway with a length of three kilometers or more that can accommodate wide-body aircrafts. We are looking to begin the design phase in 2023 and tender a contractor for civil works and construction of the terminal. Phase one will develop the airport’s capacity to that of a small terminal, which is between 50,000 and 60,000 passengers per year. Subject to an increase in movement, we will increase capacities in the second, third and fourth phases. However, the airport will be certified as an international airport from day one. Tourism offerings are already being developed in the region, such as the opening of the first zip line and construction of several resorts. By the time the airport is commissioned, numerous tourist attractions will be available in the area. In tandem with development of the airport, we plan on having one or two companies operating sea airplanes in the area.
Additionally, the three following airports have been approved to house economic free zones: Muscat International Airport, Salalah International Airport and Sohar International Airport. These developments will attract aviation-related businesses such as engine manufacturing and sectors that require fast movement of commodities. For example, the pharmaceuticals sector and fisheries require short periods between production and shipment. The government has appointed local logistics provider Asyad Group to oversee these developments. They have a lot of experience running free zones and have brought a partner with them to work on the projects. CAA is working in close cooperation with Asyad Group to set up specific priorities for each airport. We will facilitate any approvals and required permits for these new projects. The free zones include many incentives for investors that have been in place for more than 15 years, including exemptions from taxes and levies.
How important is cutting down the aviation sector’s carbon footprint for the CAA, and what more needs to be done to push the green transition in Oman?
As the guardian of the country’s aviation sector, we are fully committed to meeting both Oman’s and the International Civil Aviation’s goals to achieve net-zero carbon emissions by 2050. CAA oversees the environmental agenda of the aviation sector. We actively ensure that all permits and land allocations are granted to operators focused on being as green as possible. We have created and are leading an aviation environment committee that is represented by the entire aviation sector including various airline operators, airports, academia and other related players. We aim to be a pioneer in green innovation in aviation. Switching to sustainable aviation fuel will be a vast contributor to achieving our goals. Carbon dioxide emitted by Jet A-1 fuel used by airplanes around the world is currently significant. We are in dialogue with the Ministry of Energy and Mineral Resources on how Oman can contribute to this vast undertaking and take advantage of the many opportunities it opens up. Additionally, we want to increase the use of electric vehicles in airports and utilize hydrogen in our operations. A project to utilize solar energy to power Oman’s airports is currently in its initial phase. It will first be implemented in the airport in Salalah followed by the airport in Muscat. In the fourth quarter of 2023 we aim to hold a large-scale seminar that will gather all stakeholders and experts from around the globe to discuss innovations in sustainability. Oman wants to be an extremely active player in this regard.
The greatest challenge to implementing sustainable initiatives is policy. Creating incentives and making the transition more accessible is crucial to CAA being able to follow out its green goals. Examples include tying renewable power generation to the public grid and giving tax incentives when it comes to electric or hydrogen vehicles. Policy can make green technologies more affordable, accessible and competitive. We are currently on the right track. Our colleagues in the Authority for Public Services Regulation are looking into advancing green policies in Oman, and I am optimistic that in 2023 and 2024 we will see many regulatory and legislative changes to make sustainable efforts more attractive for investors.
What is CAA doing to support and develop small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) in the aviation sector?
CAA believes in our young talented entrepreneurs and wants new SMEs to grow around the vast number of opportunities in the aviation sector. Supporting SMEs is not simply a choice; these types of endeavors are a national obligation. The growth of SMEs is linked to attracting FDI in free zones and airport cities, and these types of developments also allow SMEs to collaborate with more prominent specialized investors. The private sector is much more innovative than regulators; we are typically two steps behind. We are required to maintain an open mind and listen to these entities to ensure our regulations are adaptable to new advancements, which is something CAA has been quite successful in doing. CAA has incubated several technology-based SMEs, including AirGo. The company has been with us for a year and a half, and it is currently venturing into the Saudi Arabian market in partnership with a Saudi Arabian company. It is currently ready to apply for approval for its drone technology. Hopefully, this entity will be a pioneer in the region.
SMEs have received a large portion of the money Oman has spent on its aviation sector in the last decade, and a significant amount of equipment for airports has come from these entities. Large companies taking on our larger projects are required to utilize SMEs in different areas. While the industry requires that companies give at least 10% of their work to SMEs, we consistently surpass this figure due to the number of dependable SMEs that exist in Oman in all areas, including civil work and technology.
How would you assess the level of local talent in Oman’s aviation sector?
We are very proud of our organization for attaining high nationalization rates in the aviation sector, which supports more than 10,000 direct jobs. In terms of running airports, we have achieved around 88-89% Omanization. In air navigation, this figure has reached 99.8%. Our airlines — excluding very specialized crew — have reached an Omanization rate of more than 90%. This rate has also reached around 92% in our associated service companies. These figures highlight the amount of specialized training that locals have undergone that is globally accredited by organizations such as International Civil Aviation Organization, International Air Transport Association and European Union Aviation Safety Agency. We are on par with our global peers in all fields. We also have multiple training programs focused on sustainability. The continuity of new skilled workers is critical in supporting Oman’s aviation goals. CAA aims to ensure that granted licenses are given to companies with a capable and skilled workforce. Our internal workforce is kept at the same heightened level, including our air traffic controllers. Having a highly trained workforce is one of our top priorities.
How open is Oman in utilizing American FDI to develop its aviation industry?
We are open to any opportunities that support the aviation sector. Oman has a lot of potential for foreign investors in terms of our desire to position Oman as a global logistics hub. CAA works very closely with Invest Oman as our opportunities are linked. We welcome any opportunities that potential investors are interested in, and we aim to be as transparent as possible when it comes to what is available and how we can facilitate investors. We are particularly excited about any opportunities that increase movement and connectivity. We currently work alongside the USA’s Federal Aviation Authority, which is something we are proud of. We are jointly working on several initiatives, including opening a direct route between Oman and the USA. We are also working alongside them in the development of new technologies. We have an air services agreement between the USA and Oman, which has allowed for cooperation between our airlines. Just as we try to promote Oman Air in the US market, we welcome American carriers to Oman. Hopefully, one of the USA’s airlines lands in one of our airports in Oman soon; we are excited to welcome them. We enjoy an excellent relationship with the USA both politically and diplomatically, and we can become even closer through partnerships in the aviation industry.