Much of the growth has been generated by the region's big three carriers, Emirates, Etihad Airways, and Qatar Airways, each of whom expanded their networks during 2012, signing codeshares or making equity investments.
Their rapid expansion has further strengthened the Middle East as a global hub for travel and has created strong demand for new aircraft in the region. According to Boeing's Current Demand Outlook, the Middle East will require 2,370 new airplanes worth an estimated $470bn, over a 20-year period ending 2031. Around 730 airplanes (31%) would replace current fleet assets; 69% of the demand is expected to be driven by the rapid growth of air travel in the region.
Long-range, twin-aisle airplanes will dominate the Middle East's order books, reflecting the global network priorities of the region's leading carriers. Significantly, airlines in the Middle East currently have a backlog of 882 airplanes, 62% of which are long-haul, twin-aisle and large aircraft.
The expansion across the GCC that has been led by these three carriers has put strains on the region's airports. A study released last year showed that many Gulf airports are now overcrowded, with current capacity utilisation in the GCC running at 115% and reaching 130% in Saudi Arabia.
To help keep pace with the rapid growth that is taking place in the region's aviation sector, GCC countries have been spending billions of dollars to expand existing airports or build new ones. Following is a look at some of the projects that are planned or underway in each country.
The Bahrain Airport Company has said it intends to launch an expansion of Bahrain International Airport this year. The project will include expansions to the main passenger terminal building and construction of a major service centre. Opened in 1994, the airport currently serves nine million passengers per year. Under the current plan, the airport's capacity would expand to 13.5 million passengers per year.
Kuwait plans to spend $6bn to expand the airport's capacity from six million passengers per year to 20 million passengers per year and turn the airport into a major passenger and cargo hub. The emirate's Kuwait Airways and the no-frills privately-owned Jazeera Airways operate from Kuwait airport, which handled 8.5 million passengers last year.
Oman is in the midst of major expansion programmes at two of the sultanate's international airports, Muscat and Salalah. The development of Muscat International Airport is said to be worth $1.8bn and Salalah Airport $765m. The Muscat International Airport development project is the largest project to ever be undertaken in the history of Oman. When the expansion of Muscat and Salalah is completed in 2014, the airports will be capable of handling 12m and 2m passengers per year respectively.
Qatar has announced that it will open a new airport on April 1.