A Qatar Airways A320, soon to 'colonise' Saudi skies? Wiki Commons

While Gulf airlines seem to be demonised in the same terms by their opponents in the debate about how all of them apart from Emirates are bad for Qantas Australia, the three majors, which include Etihad and Qatar Airways are rapidly becoming less similar to each other.

In the case of Qatar this was underlined at the recent Bahrain Air Show, where it gave more detail to previously announced plans for its launching this year of a new domestic airline in Saudi Arabia.

The Saudi airline market bears some resemblance to Australia’s at the end of the two airline policy. The kingdom is open to foreign backed domestic competition and decades of stasis, but the barriers that remain are substantial, as described in this earlier CAPA analysis of the plans for the new carrier, which will be called Al Maha.

Qatar Airways Chief Executive Officer Akbar Al Baker said that apart from some possible short leases, Al Maha wouldn’t need to buy any airliners for its 50 strong fleet of single aisle and wide body Airbuses. To summarise his comments, Qatar has more than enough planes already and will send what is needed into neighboring Saudi Arabia.

This gives Qatar a rather different expansionary flight path into the future compared to Etihad and Emirates. While like Etihad and gigantic Emirates, Qatar has big orders for longer range international jets, it is more a case of populating new markets with its existing orders than buying a portfolio of strategic stakes in a large number of foreign carriers as is the case with the former carrier.

Qatar can be seen as ‘colonising’, Etihad, as ‘investing’ and Emirates, as ‘conquering’.

All three Gulf carriers are playing roles in the development of new sources of business and leisure travel into Australia. Just differently.

The scope of the Qatari carrier’s plans are also as reminder that there is plenty of business to be done by Australian companies in the Middle East. Saudi Arabia isn’t just having a sudden surge in domestic air travel, but in rail developments for city metros, inter city expresses and freight services to ports as manufacturing rises. Australian engineering can possibly make more money out of building or mass public transport infrastructure in Saudi Arabia than they are likely to in this country.

Like China, Indonesia, India and the rest of greater Asia, the Middle East is on the move. It’s not a fairly tale, and there is no certainty where it is headed, but no matter how unsettling it is for some, the expansion of  the rival airlines of Emirates, Etihad and Qatar are proxies for a far bigger economic story of much more enduring importance to this country than a badly run national carrier.

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