“You have 5.8 billion people within eight hours' flight time [from Dubai]. Extend that up to 14 hours and you have about 6.2 billion. Two-thirds of those are east of [Dubai] and of that, two-thirds are [in] India and China. So that is the basic ingredient of the success of this region, why it has become a major hub,” says Menen.
The biggest market for the Middle East continues to be Western Europe, with 1.4 million metric tons of air cargo representing 42.3% of the total Middle East traffic, according to Boeing's 2012-13 World Air Cargo Forecast. This tonnage is projected to average 5.7% per year over the coming two decades.
Asia was the second-biggest market for the Middle East, with 1.2 million metric tons representing 35.4% of the market, followed by Middle East-North America, with 283,000 metric tons comprising 8.4% of the air cargo traffic.
China is still a major source of air cargo for the Middle East, although as the economy on China's east coast improves, the cheap labor driving the manufacturing of goods is moving toward northwestern China.
India is also growing as it moves from a traditional service-centered economy into a manufacturing-based one.
“And don't forget Africa,” Menen says. “It is a continent unto itself with over 1 billion people. Fifty-five to 56% of the world's minerals are in that continent, and just east of here are the factories of the world. We are already seeing a lot of infrastructure development. That is always a good sign because they are leapfrogging technology.”
Only 8-10% of cargo entering the Middle East actually stays there, says Menen. The rest is transient. This allows the Dubai, Doha and Abu Dhabi airports to serve as hubs, with very large aircraft such as Boeing 747s and 777s and Airbus A340s flying goods between major cargo centers while the smaller Boeing 757s and 737s and Airbus A320s serve the smaller markets.
Airports and airlines in the region are spending a good deal of money to develop their individual hubs to enable them to channel a lot of cargo business away from other areas. “That is basically what you do with a hub,” says Airbus's Lenormand.
Dubai's new Al Maktoum International Airport, near the Jebel Ali Free Trade Zone, is an $8.2 billion project to build what will be the world's largest airport when it is finished in 2027. It is now open only to cargo operations. When complete, it will have 16 cargo terminals with a 12-million-metric-ton capacity.