The first passengers flying in from Croydon Airport in London to the basic Bedouin settlement in the Persian Gulf in 1932 would have likely found it hard to imagine that the UK’s desert outpost in Sharjah would play such a pivotal role during the Second World War and beyond.

Initially established as Imperial Airways’ staging post, in a region that was then known as the Trucial Coast, Sharjah was used as an airbase and a rest house for British passengers coming in from London, who were bound for India. Yet for the duration of the Second World War, Sharjah’s airport became one of the Royal Air Force’s chief points of operations in the Middle East, and the airport remained a significant nucleus of activity for the UK until its departure in 1971, when the region’s newly independent states renamed the country as the United Arab Emirates.  

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Although the airport has since been relocated to the outskirts of the city of Sharjah, and the Al Mahatta Museum today stands as a monument in its place, Sharjah’s past as the UAE’s first air hub laid the foundations for what is now a growing aviation industry.

Airport expansion

Sharjah has worked to develop itself as one of the UAE’s aviation hubs, and the expansion of Sharjah International Airport has enabled the emirate’s aerospace sector to become one of the drivers of its economy. According to Shurooq, Sharjah's investment and development authority, the emirate accounts for 10% of all passenger traffic that enters in the UAE, and the city’s airport has been the main conduit for this.

“The aerospace industry is one of the pillars of the economy,” says Adel Ali, the CEO of Sharjah’s airline, Air Arabia. “The [emirate's leaders] played a big role in recognising that to move Sharjah forward, it really needed a good air transport link. As a result, we have witnessed that in the past 10 years, the airport has moved from [handling] 300,000 people a year, to about 7.8 million people per year. There is the infrastructure to support all these people and I believe aviation will continue to grow, as long as the city is growing.”

According to Shurooq, Sharjah International Airport is considered to be one of the UAE’s aviation gateways, and it is the country’s leading cargo hub. Being smaller than the international airports in Abu Dhabi and Dubai, this gives Sharjah a key advantage that is often cited by local officials: the ease and speed at which passengers pass through the airport.

According to Marwan Jassim Al Sarkal, the CEO of Shurooq, travellers within the UAE are increasingly looking to Sharjah International Airport as a more convenient place from which to travel, particularly for short-haul flights. “This is by far the most efficient airport in the region,” he says. “You go through Sharjah airport and you are [outside] in 20 minutes.”

Air Arabia's growth

Sharjah’s aviation industry has undergone a significant transformation in the past decade, and this is mainly down to its flagship carrier, Air Arabia, which was established in 2003. In a region where air travel was traditionally seen as the preserve of the privileged elite, Air Arabia quickly grew to become the Middle East and north Africa’s first and largest low-cost carrier. Created to serve the region’s middle classes, Air Arabia’s success stemmed from its focus on offering leisure travellers cheaper flight alternatives. The efficiency of operating in Sharjah International Airport, combined with the airline’s customer-oriented ethos, led its business to go from being worth $15m in 2003 to $1.2bn in 2012. Today the airline operates a fleet of 30 aircrafts across 65 international destinations.

“Pre-Air Arabia, the travel business in the Middle East was very much [oriented to] the wealthy,” says Mr Ali. “The assumption was that everyone in the Gulf must be wealthy, which is not necessarily the case. It is another ordinary part of the world where there exists a middle class that needs less expensive travel [alternatives]. Air Arabia changed the dynamics of air travel to make it affordable, and it created a market that was not there before, for everyone to travel.”

Rather than copying the strategy of neighbouring Dubai, which developed its Emirates Airlines on a more conventional business model that charged a price premium for the perks of its comforts onboard, Sharjah differentiated itself through adopting a low-cost carrier business model. In addition, Air Arabia focused on travelling to destinations within the Middle East, north Africa and the Indian subcontinent, thus the target market was short-haul leisure travellers, as opposed to conventional carriers that looked to international long-haul business travellers.

“In the Middle East, there are a number of conventional airlines,” says Mr Ali. “As a result, having a budget airline differentiated us, and it was the right decision at the time. Sharjah identified travel and tourism as one of the areas it wanted to grow. To do that, aviation becomes critical, as it brings in the people. Sharjah will always remain different and that is good. We would rather attract the segment of the market that wants speed and travel, without wasting time.”