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Chinese planemaker banned by US woos Saudi airlines

Saudi Comac Dongfeng He Bandar al-Khorayef SPA
Dongfeng He, chairman of Comac, met Bandar al-Khorayef, the Saudi industry minister, to discuss aircraft manufacture
  • Comac targets short and medium-haul market
  • Concerns over Boeing and Airbus deliveries
  • Ban on US investment in state-owned company

The boss of a leading Chinese planemaker arrived in Saudi Arabia this week to pitch his aircraft just as the United States said it was close to finalising a defence agreement with Riyadh that is meant to limit its trade links with China. 

Dongfeng He, chairman of Comac, the Commercial Aircraft Corporation of China, wants the company to rival Boeing and Airbus as a maker of short, mid and long-haul aircraft.

Saudi Arabia has ambitious plans to expand its tourism and airline sectors but must deal with supply constraints at the world’s two leading manufacturers of passenger jets, made worse by manufacturing problems at Boeing.

The possibility of cooperation with Comac comes as US and Saudi officials discuss a security pact that would enable the kingdom to buy arms and obtain some form of US defence guarantee, in return for slowing down Chinese investment in Saudi Arabia. 

In 2021 the US government added Comac to a list of companies owned or controlled by the Chinese military, which prevents US investments in it.

The Comac chairman said his Shanghai-based company could sell its existing short and medium-haul planes to Saudi Arabia for domestic and regional services, as well as a planned long-haul plane, to help Saudi Arabia become a regional hub. 

He also discussed aircraft manufacture with Bandar al-Khorayef, the Saudi industry minister, in a meeting that included senior officials from Boeing and Brazil’s Embraer, the Saudi Press Agency said. 

In February Abdulaziz Al-Duailej, the head of the Saudi General Authority of Civil Aviation, visited Comac factories in Shanghai. 

Comac, which is owned by the Chinese state, still faces international certification hurdles before it can challenge Boeing and Airbus. Its mid-size regional jet has been flying in Southeast Asia since 2016, but the C919, a narrow-body jet, only began passenger services in China in 2023. 

“We can serve the domestic market, given Saudi Arabia’s vast territory and burgeoning economy,” He told an aviation forum in Riyadh on 22 May. “Comac seeks to expand and fortify the domestic network, catering to the substantial market demand and high GDP of Saudi Arabia, satisfying the people and cargo connections.” 

Comac could supply narrow-body aircraft to build routes over a 2,000km radius spanning the Arabian peninsula, the Middle East, Turkey, North Africa and beyond, He said. 

“We can contribute to establishing a global hub for Saudi Arabia’s global connectivity,” He said, referring to the company’s upcoming wide-body C929, which will have a seating capacity of 350. 

The first Comac 919 to go into operation, pictured last year

Saudi Arabia is engaged in a massive expansion in tourism in which aviation plays a central part. Saudia, one of Saudi Arabia’s national carriers, ordered 105 aircraft from Airbus last week. A second national airline Riyadh Air will begin flights in mid-2025. 

Riyadh Air has ordered 72 widebody aircraft from Boeing, but is concerned about delivery delays. The new airline is expected to announce an order for narrow-body planes later this year, but officials have declined to say if it will be from the same supplier. 

A new Riyadh Air terminal is due to open in Riyadh in 2030, while domestic airports are being privatised and low-cost carriers given more licences to operate. A new Hajj terminal is planned in Kuala Lumpur to boost pilgrim numbers even further. 

Officials from Comac and Saudia did not respond to requests for comment. 

Greg Priddy, an analyst at the US-based Center for the National Interest, said: “It’s naive to believe Chinese influence would be sharply reduced now that the bulk of Saudi export revenues come from Asia, and China specifically.”

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