If you happen to travel between Europe, Africa, and Asia, you will nowadays very likely stopover and transfer in one of the big airport hubs of the Middle East: Dubai, Doha, or Abu Dhabi. Strategically located between numerous political and economic centers, these three cities enjoy a relatively simple geographical advantage. Together with their oil wealth, geopolitical importance for countries such as the United States, and their easy-handling government constellation of the city state*, Dubai, Doha, and Abu Dhabi made their way up from backward rural monarchies to successful natural resource producers and – more recently – to the logistical hubs in a globalized post-xyz world. Based on this foundation, the three cities’ position amongst the top network knots in the world is not disputable. Besides, the main economic statistics do support the perspective of past, present, and future growth (I, II, III).
Abu Dhabi International Airport
What I would like to offer in this blog article is a different perspective – that of a regular visitor to these airports. Doha has just recently opened their new airport and Dubai International Airport – while constantly undergoing multi-billion dollar expansions – will be accompanied by the even bigger Al Maktoum International Airport. Similarly, Abu Dhabi has also implemented several expansion plans. Regarding this, you have to read the following numbers twice: Dubai International Airport has an overall capacity of 75 million passengers – the new Al Maktoum International Airport would top this with an overall capacity of up to 160 million passengers! The new Hamad International Airport in Doha starts with a capacity of 29 million passengers, increasing to 50 to 93 million passengers. Similar plans for Abu Dhabi International Airport target capacities of up to 50 million passengers. While the current passenger figures are still not close to these limits (Doha old 12 / new 23 million, Abu Dhabi 18 million, Dubai 66 million), the tremendous increase in these numbers together with the globally leading role of airlines such as Emirates (Dubai), Qatar Airways (Doha), and Etihad Airways (Abu Dhabi) point towards skyrocketing growth. In the somewhat marketing-like Wikipedia article for the airport in Abu Dhabi, you can read that these three airports together want to achieve a larger carrying capacity than the airports of Paris, Frankfurt, and London combined.
Route from Doha to Abu Dhabi to Dubai
The same Wikipedia article (overly) optimistically describes the competition between these Gulf airports as “healthy” with their proximity not becoming an issue. Again, a quick reference to the figures provides much insight: A little bit more than a one-hour drive between Dubai and Abu Dhabi International Airports. Five and a half hours between Abu Dhabi and Doha International Airports…or one hour by plane. And this does not even take into account other rapidly growing places and infrastructure knots nearby, such as Kuwait City (Kuwait), Dammam, Riyadh, Jeddah, and Mecca (Saudi Arabia), or Muscat (Oman). Again, the projections might support the airport expansion plans in Doha, Dubai, and Abu Dhabi, but questions about the sustainability of this sustained growth arise.
Somewhere near Doha
How on earth will three similar transport hubs sustain their tremendous growth and comparable position in such close proximity? London, Paris, and Frankfurt manage to do so, but they are not only regional and global hubs, but also perform a leading infrastructure function within their own countries, where millions of people and thousands of companies are possible clients. Quite the opposite, Qatar with a population of a little more than 2 million and the United Arab Emirates with a population of 9.3 million appear tiny (particularly since a large number of their guest workers cannot participate as “citizens” in the ‘normal’ social and economic life). What differentiates these Gulf airports from other big transport hubs such as Beijing, Chicago, Amsterdam, Tokyo, Bangkok, Delhi, or São Paulo, is that they are placed in the middle of nowhere. Mega-structures, as they are, these airports appear UFO-like within the seemingly endless desserts of the Arabian Peninsula. Without any doubt, the three cities are cities by quantitative size and economic relevance. But their airports’ size does not correspond to their surroundings.
Doha International Airport
I will deal with the socio-political role of these three cities in my next blog article (here), but even other aspects let the growth plans of these bombastic transport hubs appear risky: There are examples of mega-transport infrastructures – for instance the huge shipping port in Shanghai. Nevertheless, the extension of an airport has limits, as you cannot extend the sky even if you add further runways. And on the ground, you can already now encounter transfer times of close to an hour for just getting from one gate to another. For instance, Terminal 3 of Dubai International Airport is not only the largest airport terminal worldwide, but also the world’s second largest building by floor space.
Dubai International Airport
Our knowledge about such complex socio-technical systems is still limited when it comes to the modeling of usage scenarios. Just imagine a mega-airport dealing with a terrorist attack or a deadly virus. The larger the system, the more difficult its management and the more tremendous its shutdown off the global transport network would be. More specifically focused on the location of Dubai, Doha, and Abu Dhabi, it should easily become clear that they are actually not in the most reliable place with regard to ‘external disturbances in close proximity’ – using a more management-like wording for describing the highly volatile geopolitical space between Israel and Pakistan, as well as Turkey and Yemen.
All in all, the three airports have managed a laudable development in a very short time. However, their current run towards the seemingly unlimited top might be based on a not very sustainable foundation and put these successful transport hubs and businesses (because this is what airports are: businesses) at risk – maybe necessarily, as they are not engaging in a healthy competition but just an out-bidding by growing stronger and quicker than the others. As market-based as this logic might be, there is a different “first-mover advantage” Doha, Dubai, and Abu Dhabi should focus on in order to develop and secure their role as relevant cities within a global network (see second blog article here).
*Although Dubai, Doha, and Abu Dhabi are all part of a larger government entity (Doha – Qatar; Dubai and Abu Dhabi – United Arab Emirates), they are basically nothing more than cities within deserts from a global political-economic point of view. Internally, these Arab-Islamic monarchies have to deal with a complex clan and royal family system, but to the outside their capital cities are often recognized in lieu of their actual country/emirate.