Interview: Air Arabia CEO Adel Ali

They said low-cost carriers wouldn't work in the Middle East but Ali has proved them wrong. He tells Arabian Business about his plans for the future

About three months before the first Air Arabia jet left the tarmac at Sharjah airport in October 2003, Adel Ali started feeling a bit nervous.

“Every guy I spoke to in the airline industry said it was impossible to start an airline from scratch in six months,” the group CEO of the airline says. “Everyone said low-cost carriers wouldn’t work in the Middle East. ‘You need to have open skies for this to work in the region, and you don’t have that’, they said.

“Those times were probably my worst times – the lowest point that I reached. Because I hadn’t started the business yet, there was no income and we were burning through the money.”

It says a great deal about Ali – and about Air Arabia – that the Bahraini national’s lowest point during his ten years in charge of the airline was before it had even taken off. In the intervening years, it has become one of the Gulf’s biggest private-sector success stories. It is the first Middle Eastern low-cost carrier and the region’s only publicly listed airline. It has reported nine consecutive years of profit, flies to over 80 destinations and has set up two other hubs in Egypt and Morocco. Its stock is beloved of local investors, rising by over 120 percent in the last year.

A decade ago, of course, there was far less certainty about an airline that was launching from a small airport, and competing against the might of deep-pocketed government-backed carriers. Air Arabia kicked off its operations with just two aircraft flying to five destinations – the only destinations, in fact, for which the carrier was able to secure rights to serve.

“Saudi Arabia wasn’t even part of our original business plan, because we thought it would take years to get in there,” says Ali. “Neither was India. Today we are the biggest operator into both Saudi Arabia and India.

“But I think those countries have seen the benefit that a company like ours can bring; 10 out of the 14 airports in India that we fly to were once domestic airports. We went in there and changed people’s lives, both by creating jobs and allowing them to travel.”

Ali says that he remembers approaching big regional trading firms to represent the airline before its launch.

“They all said no – we don’t deal with low-cost carriers,” he recalls. “Needless to say, two years later they came back and asked us what it would take to become our agent.

“And when we were hiring people in that start-up phase, some of them decided to give up great jobs at very good airlines to come and join us. But not everybody – people like their comfort zone.”

Article continued on next page...

Join the Discussion

Disclaimer:The view expressed here by our readers are not necessarily shared by Arabian Business, its employees, sponsors or its advertisers.

NOTE: Comments posted on may be printed in the magazine Arabian Business

Please post responsibly. Commenter Rules

  • No comments yet, be the first!

All comments are subject to approval before appearing

Further reading

Features & Analysis
Saudi Arabia outsources airport operations

Saudi Arabia outsources airport operations

The signing last week of public-private partnerships to manage...

The cost of the US laptop ban

The cost of the US laptop ban

Aviation analysts and airline bosses are warning of significant...

Q&A: The laptop ban and what it means when flying from Dubai and Abu Dhabi

Q&A: The laptop ban and what it means when flying from Dubai and Abu Dhabi

Couldn't a laptop with a bomb inside still pose a danger within...

Most Discussed