Ras al-Khaimah: The other face of the emirates

Ras al-Khaimah Airport is embarking on an ambitious ten-year development plan, which will modernise and transform the facility as it continues to compete with the huge airport expansions in neighbouring Dubai and Abu Dhabi. (Luigi Vallero)

Luigi Vallero visited Ras al-Khaimah to look at the sheikhdom’s current commercial aviation activities and its aspirations for the future.

Ras al-Khaimah Airport is embarking on an ambitious ten-year development plan, which will modernise and transform the facility as it continues to compete with the huge airport expansions in neighbouring Dubai and Abu Dhabi. (Luigi Vallero)

The fourth largest of the seven sheikhdoms that form the Federation of the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Ras al-Khaimah ‑ the name means ‘The Top of the Tent’ ‑ is the northernmost emirate on the Arabian Peninsula, bordering Oman to its east.  Covering an area of 656 sq miles (1,700km2) it has a population of more than 200,000 inhabitants, according to the latest census figures (2005), most of whom live in the city of the same name, though both it and the emirate are usually referred to simply as RAK.  Formerly known as Julfar, the city is strategically positioned on the old trading routes, which cross the region from Europe to the Far East.  A creek known as Khour Ras al-Khaimah divides it in two, with the old town on the western bank and the newer district of Al Nakhee on the eastern one. The Emirate has a very different atmosphere from that of its glitzier neighbours.  Its landscapes are varied compared to those of the other sheikhdoms: some 25 miles (40km) of coastline along the Persian Gulf contrast with fertile plains and the dramatic Hajjar mountains, which rise abruptly from the dunes to a height of 6,235ft (1,900m).  It is a complete change when compared with the flat desert environment experienced on the one-hour road journey north from Dubai.
Since Sheikh Saud bin Saqr Al Qasimi became Crown Prince in 2003, the emirate has embarked on an aggressive development programme, focusing specifically on tourism and real estate.  Lacking the rich oil reserves of its near neighbours, RAK has concentrated instead on developing its own industrial sector and is the UAE’s largest producer of cement.  In the 1980s, it formed RAK Ceramics, now the world’s largest ceramics producer, and Julphar, the Persian Gulf region’s first pharmaceuticals company.  Today, it is actively trying to attract investment, as well as luring tourists to its unspoiled beaches.  It promotes itself as the ideal gateway to the wonders of the nearby Musandam Peninsula, part of Oman, also known as ‘Arabia’s fjords’, were visitors can see a magical landscape of rock formations and blue water filled with tropical fishes, dolphins and even sharks.
The airport
Ras al-Khaimah International Airport (RKT) is 12 miles (18km) southwest of the city, near the town of Al Jazirah al Hamra.  Opened in 1976 by His Highness Sheikh Saqr bin Mohammed Al Qasimi to serve all the needs of the Emirate, it has seen a number of changes in its relatively short existence.  In the 1980s it was already hosting scheduled flights, albeit with very limited weekly frequencies, by Aeroflot, Gulf Air, EgyptAir, Indian Airlines, Middle Eastern Airlines (MEA), and Pakistan International Airlines, before shifting its major focus to cargo and logistical services.  More recently, activity has been overshadowed by the huge investment in, and development of, two major passenger hubs in Dubai and Abu Dhabi, and by the more recent expansion of Sharjah as a low-cost gateway.  This has led to a substantial reduction in the number of regular passenger flights operating from RKT.  As a result, to help boost passenger traffic through the airport the Emirate decided to establish its own local carrier, RAK Airways, in 2007.
The small but functional check-in area benefits from plenty of natural light. (Luigi Vallero)

The 12,336ft (3,760m)-long runway at RKT can handle most fully loaded wide-bodied airliners.  It has two passenger terminals and a separate cargo facility, and its management team is currently working hard to entice more companies to use the airport.  It believes that the UAE’s extremely liberal open skies policy, and its round-the-clock working, along with the absence of slot constraints and competitive tariffs, ideally placed midway between Europe and Asia, are strong drivers for more airlines to use it as a passenger and cargo gateway to the northern Emirates.
It is currently focused towards increasing the transhipment of freight via a road feeder network to other nearby Emirates.  Intermodal operations are highlighted by the facility’s proximity to the harbour at RAK, allowing quick turnaround times between air and sea connections.  In addition, a proposed new railway connection is to be built which will connect the airport with an artificial archipelago planned offshore.  It will act as an ideal freight hub, enabling quick access to the growing number of industries and major seaports in the area.
Though privately owned, RAK receives strong support from the government.  The airport’s management recently unveiled an ambitious master plan, created by the German-based company Obermeyer, which aims to define the facility’s future over the next ten years.  The master plan is made up of three distinct phases – short term (the next three years), medium term (between three and ten years), and long term (between ten and 15 years).  It aims to substantially alter its current layout, addressing both the passenger and cargo areas as well as further facilities.  Once the plan has been completed, the passenger terminal will be able to handle three million people annually compared to the 207,800 passengers who passed through in 2007, while the cargo area will be expanded to have a combined capacity to handle 300,000 tons per year.
In the first phase, three new taxiways were planned, two of which have already been completed, and a new Air Traffic Control tower with an annexed fire station will be built.  The current terminal will be altered and converted into a departures-only building fitted with airbridges, while arrivals will be handled through a new separate facility currently being constructed.  A first stage will comprise the cargo apron and taxiways for the GA areas, while the main taxiway will be completed at a later stage.  The passenger terminals will be altered in-line with forecast passenger figures as required.
The management team maintains a down-to-earth approach towards the facility’s growth and does not aim to compete directly against the huge developments going on in neighbouring Dubai and Abu Dhabi.  Instead it has simpler ambitions to carve a niche in the market that it naturally wants to serve, covering the northern Emirates of Ras al-Khaimah, Fujairah, Umm-al-Quwain and Ajman.  Thanks to the excellent road links which have been built, RTK is just a 30-40 minute drive from each, and accounts for roughly one eighth, or 550,000, of the total population of the entire UAE.  The estimate does not include the other northern Emirate of Sharjah, whose population is already well served by Sharjah’s own international airport.
According to the RTK’s business development department, in 2008 passenger traffic originating from its potential catchment area stood at 247,228 local passengers (counting passengers departing and returning through the airport) ‑ a 17% growth over the previous year ‑ with Asian destinations taking the major share at 64% of the market.  More specifically, thanks to the large number of expatriates, India accounted for 220,000 passengers during the same year followed by Thailand with 70,000 and Egypt with 61,000.  So it was no coincidence that when local carrier, RAK Airways was launched in 2007, its first destination was the Indian city of Kozhikode (formerly Calicut), along with Chittagong and Dhaka in Bangladesh, and Colombo, the capital of Sri Lanka.  Total traffic to Europe accounted for some 47,000 passengers, with the United Kingdom and Germany as the prime destinations, although travellers had to use other UAE gateways due to the unavailability of regular services from RAK.  The above analysis does not take into account the overseas traffic which specifically operated into RAK: in 2007 the Emirate hosted 215,000 foreign visitors, of which 168,000 were Europeans, including more than 49,000 Germans.  These figures clearly highlight the potential for at least a twice/thrice weekly direct service to a German gateway.
Airlines and Operators
Currently no scheduled airlines fly into or out of RKT, particularly since RAK Airways suspended all its services in December 2008.  There is some debate as to whether the carrier will ever recommence flying, although it has an outstanding order for four Boeing 737-800s and purchase rights for two additional examples, which could provide the much-needed impetus it needs to restart services.
In the meantime, the airport must rely on ad hoc charter operations by carriers such as Air Berlin and Condor, flying routes from Düsseldorf and Frankfurt, while Italian charter company Neos has flown sporadically to and from Milan/Malpensa.  Other passenger carriers flying into RKT have included Chabahar Airlines, Kam Air and Sama Air (formerly Silver Air) which flies passenger charter services using a Boeing 737-200 and B737-300.  By far the largest regular cargo operator at the facility, though, is Volga Dnepr/HeavyLift, which has a sizeable fleet of Ilyushin Il-76s based there, which provide valuable links with other countries, including Iraq and Afghanistan.  Other cargo companies flying into and out of RKT include DHL and Ukrainian Cargo Airways.
RAK Airways was the fourth national airline of the United Arab Emirates. Formed in early 2007, all RAK Airways scheduled flights have now been suspended as the airline’s management attempts to reorganise the carrier. An order for four Boeing 737-800s plus purchase rights for two further examples remains outstanding, but might provide the much needed impetus to restart scheduled services. (Luigi Vallero)

The airport is also emerging as an important general aviation and MRO facility for the UAE, accommodating several major flying schools, including the Indian Aviation and International Flying academies, and aircraft maintenance and repair facilities.  One of the region’s major carriers, Emirates, also regularly uses RKT as a training destination, even flying its new Airbus A380 ‘super jumbos’ on training sorties to the northern sheikhdom.
RKT has a promising future.  Its current owners are investing in an ambitious expansion plan that will transform the facility over the next ten years, though for the investment to pay off it must encourage more airlines to start operating scheduled services from there.  This will help to increase the growing numbers of tourists wishing to discover more about this lesser-known, but nevertheless interesting, region of the Arabian Peninsula.  And the ambitious plans announced by Space Adventures in 2006 to develop a $265m commercial spaceport, which will be known as Ras al-Khaimah Spaceport, are anticipated to attract even more visitors.
The author wishes to thank Allan Lee, Business Development Manager and Jacob Avis, Technical Director, Ras al-Khaimah International Airport, for their help in the preparation of this article.