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Dubai’s airport ambitions ramp up local and global rivalries

Al Maktoum International Wam
Dubai ruler Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum reviews plans for the new airport
  • Huge Al Maktoum expansion planned
  • European airports ‘very concerned’
  • Vying with Istanbul

Dubai’s plan for a massive new airport intensifies the regional aviation race, while reinforcing the Gulf’s bid to overshadow its European and Asian rivals.

The emirate’s authorities over the weekend approved the expansion of the cargo-focused Al Maktoum International into an airport ultimately capable of handling 260 million passengers a year. 

The new airport will be five times the size of Dubai International Airport (DXB) with 400 aircraft gates and five parallel runways.

“The size of this thing is just amazing, incomprehensible by today’s standards,” says Amedeo Odoni, a professor emeritus of aeronautics, astronautics and engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “The busiest airport in the world today is Atlanta, and it has about 110 million passengers.”



The project should cost AED128 billion ($34.85 billion) and accommodate 150 million passengers a year in its first phase, resulting in the shuttering of Dubai International airport within 10 years.

According to Midas Aviation partner John Grant, the Al Maktoum International expansion is “big, bold and absolutely Dubai in its intent.” It is also achievable, he wrote in a column for AGBI.

DXB, which the new airport will replace, is already outperforming its global peers. Last month, it retained its crown as the world’s busiest international airport, beating London and Amsterdam, according to the Airports Council International, an association of world airports.

The Airports Council International report showed that Dubai was the only airport in the top five to record growth in 2023 versus pre-pandemic 2019, rising 0.8 percent. London Heathrow, for example, was down 1.5 percent and Amsterdam’s traffic has shrunk nearly 14 percent.

Other regional airports in the top 10 to experience growth were Istanbul (up 47 percent) and Doha (up 18 percent).

“You could argue it is competition amongst the airports, but it's also creating a huge new commercial global centre, as Europe came into place some centuries ago,” says Henrik Rothe, a senior lecturer in airport planning and management at Cranfield University in the UK. 

The largest European airports are taking notice.

“Frankfurt, London, Paris, Amsterdam – they are very concerned, I would say scared, of what may happen,” says Odoni. 

Dubai aims to increase passenger numbers at Al Maktoum to 260 million a yearDubai Airports
Dubai aims to increase passenger numbers at Al Maktoum to 260 million a year

There are also several projects in the region aiming for the number one position.

Istanbul plans to expand and rival Dubai as the region’s biggest aviation hub. A new airport, which handled almost 80 million passengers in 2022, is targeting nearly 200 million when it is completed before the end of this decade.

Hamad International Airport in Doha, Qatar, has been undergoing a phased expansion that will eventually support nearly 70 million passengers a year. This is also in the range targeted by Abu Dhabi’s airport in new plans announced last November.

Saudi Arabia is also making its own aviation push, including the development of King Salman International Airport to welcome 120 million passengers annually by the time Expo 2030 comes to Riyadh that year.

This mammoth pipeline is certain to generate fierce competition. Dubai and Istanbul are seen as most likely to come out on top given the weight of their respective airlines, Emirates and Turkish. 

It might also create unintended synergies and a brand new Middle Eastern ecosystem that replaces Europe’s traditional role as the link between the Americas and Asia and Africa.

"These projects are obviously going to compete with each other … so it's going to be very interesting how the dynamics will work out,” says Rothe. 

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