Saudi Arabian Airlines : An Overlooked Sleeping Giant

Saudi Arabian Airlines is the latest airline to launch in-flight wifi connectivity and allow passengers to utilize their mobile phones while in flight … and it signals Saudi Arabian Airlines‘ potential march toward the forefront of Gulf State carriers.

While I have largely stopped writing about airlines installing wifi on flights due to the rapid growth in this area, the fact that Saudi Arabian Airlines has installed in-flight wifi and the ability to use mobile phones throughout its Airbus A330 fleet, reminded me how most of those covering the airline industry seem to be completely ignore Saudi Arabian Airlines’ potential as an airline giant quietly sitting in the sands of The Kingdom waiting to patiently to make its move.

The competition for airlines in the Middle East, especially in The Gulf, is fierce. The Gulf Region is home to Emirates, the world’s largest airline by international revenue passenger miles flown; Etihad, which has received more top awards from SkyTrax and other major industry organizations than I can even begin to list over the past few years ;  Oman Air which has recently branched out in a spectacular way since Gulf Air closed its hub in Muscat to focus only on Bahrain; Qatar Airways,a SkyTrax 5-Star airline that is determined to turn Doha into a global hub  … and the failing Gulf Air which has the potential to surprise many people and become a regionally focused powerhouse .   So where does this leave Saudi Arabian Airlines?

Saudi Arabian does not currently have the best international network and its schedule can be tricky to work around, but since the Government has owned the airline it has survived quietly dominating the skies over Saudi Arabia.  The future however for Saudi Arabian Airlines is often overlooked and largely ignored … despite the airline selling off various units for private ownership and the airline itself moving towards privatization.

The airline has been slowly (OK not so slowly) modernizing its fleet, and is expecting to receive an additional 4 more Airbus A330-300s, as well as 12 Boeing 777-300ERs and 12 787-900s, ultimately creating a fleet consisting of 80 long haul aircraft … in addition to its 91 short-haul aircraft … overtaking Qatar Airways’ long haul fleet of 65 aircraft and dwarfing Oman Air’s long haul fleet of 16 aircraft.

Aside from fleet size, how is Saudi Arabian Airlines quietly poised to be a massive force in the region?  While many are put off by the travel restrictions to Saudi Arabia and hassle of receiving a visa to The Kingdom … no visa is required for in-transit travel through The Kingdom for those not exiting the airport into Saudi Arabia.

Once Saudi Arabian Airlines’s long haul & short haul fleets are completed, the airline will have the potential to expand its connections points from the United States, Europe, Africa and Asia … and in fact would have a better route network, and access to additional regional destinations, to move passengers from major business hubs outside the Middle East to destinations within the Middle East.  Additionally, looking at Saudi Arabian Airlines’ regional connections from its long haul hubs, and size of its short haul fleet compared to its competitors, the airline will have a greater potential for profitability in these markets, than its competitors.

One thing that does leave me scratching my head about Saudi Arabian Airlines is this … with the introduction of in-flight internet connectivity, will the internet be filtered?  Saudi Arabia has one of the strictest internet censorship policies in the world, with more than 1,000,000 websites and blogs blocked.

Does OnAir have the ability to filter the content streamed through in-flight internet for Saudi Arabian Airlines’ aircraft?  If there is a filter, can users in-flight circumvent the filters through a Virtual Private Network (VPN) as some do within The Kingdom?

Regardless of in-flight connectivity issues … take a look at Saudi Arabian Airlines‘ complete fleet, as well as its route map, then look at the routes maps of its competitors within Southwest Asia, South Asia, North Africa and the potential to interlink the Middle East to any number of major business destinations in North America, Europe and Asia with its growing fleet…

…a new serious competitor is on the horizon and it cannot be overlooked any longer.

Happy Flying!


  1. While SV have the bankroll and geography to take on Qatar Airways, Emirates and Etihad there does not seem to be any desire on their part to take that step. They seem content to go about their business quietly as they have done for years.

    Filtered internet or not there are already multiple strikes against SV:
    1) No booze means most western passengers will opt for EK, QR, EY.
    2) While transit visas are not an issue there is very little to do in Saudi while in transit. The cities are forbidding, especially for women, and the treatment SAARC nationals receive is not likely to inspire them to choose transiting in say Dammam over Doha.
    3) The actual airport experience in most Saudi airports is terrible. Nowhere near either AUH or DXB.

  2. AirCEO,

    Yes, Saudia has always gone about their business quietly … but the airline is set to be privatized. A privatized airline cannot sit back quietly and go about its business. The airline is building up its fleet prior to being privatized, and that the time table for Saudia being privatized is coming closer and closer.

    The airlines’ airfares are almost always more favourable than its competitors, especially in the premium cabins. Is QR a better experience than SV? Probably, but looking at fares, First Class on Saudia is presently nearly US$4,000 LESS than Qatar Airways in Business Class. From a business stand point, the cost savings of flying Saudia are significant. The difference between Saudia & Emirates is close to US$7,000.

    This is not a one-time price fluke, I have priced this out quite a few times and with businesses being cost focused , Saudia is the winner in this area.

    Happy Flying!


  3. I see where you’re coming but I’m just not convinced that SV can make the push. If they can fill up the premium cabins by offering lower fares than EK et al great, but I just don’t see a lower fare on its own being enough for premium pax – even $4000+ a pop.

    If I am willing to dish lots of cash to fly from say New York to DEL the travel time via DXB, DOH and AUH is the same or better with a better hard and soft in-flight product. Beyond that in terms of timetable flexibility QR and EK blow SV out of the water. All of this is without even talking about the option via Europe.

    I see SV going the way of Gulf Air, focusing on certain markets and sticking to their knitting.

  4. I tend to agree with flyingfish simply because Saudi Arabia has the largest passenger market in the region. Its population of 28 million dwarfs UAE, Qatar, Bahrain, Oman and the other markets in the GCC. Saudis account for 60% of travel expenditure in the region and does not have to rely as much on low-yield 6th Freedom traffic to the Indian Subcontinent, Middle East and Africa, as the other Gulf carriers do.

    On the subject of alcohol, business travelers are becoming healthier and more practical – why indulge in booze and arrive in terrible shape after such a long flight? And as for Internet filtering, people viewing Internet content in public tend to shy away from the types of content that filtering will block, so that’s not a real concern.


  5. 20th September 2010 – More than two million passengers on Saudi Arabian Airlines in Ramadan

    Some 13,000 scheduled and extra flights by Saudi Arabian Airlines transported more than two million passengers during the recent Ramadan and Eid seasons. “Khaled Almolhem, Director General of the airlines, expects his company to transport over a million Haj pilgrims this year. He said that these passengers will be brought to the Kingdom from 83 international destinations, besides those travelers to the holy places from inside the country.”
    Saudi Gazette

  6. Is it really that difficult to say the “Persian” Gulf rather than “The Gulf”? If you read the link that you provided from Wikipedia, you’ll read that the term “The Gulf” is controversial. It’s best to stick with the UN approved “Persian Gulf”.

  7. Mark,

    While the name “Persian Gulf” is accepted and used by the United Nations, some nations within The Gulf Region dispute the term Persian Gulf and choose to use a different names, such as the Arabian Gulf, Arab Gulf and even the Arabo-Persian Gulf … and way back in the late 1970s a group even proposed naming the The Gulf “The Islamic Gulf.”

    “The Gulf” or “Gulf Region” is widely accepted as a correct term, and even used in the name of the Cooperation Council for the Arab States of The Gulf (GCC) The GCC is comprised of Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain and the UAE.

    The only place where referring to the Gulf Region in any way other than “The Persian Gulf” is truly problematic is in Iran.

    So in fact the term “Persian Gulf” can be considered controversial as well. As I am not being political and at times work with different organizations in the region I simply use the term “The Gulf.”

    Happy Flying!


  8. You raise some very good points, but if you read the entire wiki article which you quote in your response, you’ll realize that the name “The Arabian Gulf” began as an anti-Persian (Iranian), racist Pan-Arab movement. Besides, in order to change the name of a body of water, it is essential for all the countries surrounding that body of water to agree. Iran (with a population larger than all the other countries combined and with a gulf coastline longer than all the other countries combined) has not agreed to such a change!

    While it may be controversial to refer to the gulf as the Persian Gulf in Arab countries (controversial only because of its anti-Persian racist origins), I assume that you aren’t racist and aren’t writing this blog from those countries.

    Wouldn’t it be better to use the UN approved, and non-racist and historically accurate Persian Gulf?

  9. Mark

    I actually did not read the Wiki article until you pointed it out. As a news photographer I have worked in Bahrain, Iraq, Kuwait, the UAE and even from the Shatt al-Arab (the waterway that separates Iraq & Iran) … as well I have worked for clients including Kuwait’s Ministry of Awqaf and Islamic Affairs.

    In working in these areas and a variety of clients I have heard The Gulf referred to as different things and done some research along the way. This is why I choose to simply say The Gulf. The term The Gulf is acceptable by everyone I have encountered. Using your logic, do you propose Gulf Air, the oldest airline continuously operating in the region, should change its name to ‘Persian Gulf Air’ and the Gulf Cooperation Council should change its name to the Persian Gulf Cooperation Council.

    Additionally … please explain how any of this is racist? I fail to see your viewpoint in believing this is a racial issue.

    Happy Flying!


  10. Fish,

    I can understand that most of the people you have met along the way have accepted the term “The Gulf”. However, as you mentioned most of those people have been Arabs so you’ve heard only one side of the argument. If you ever met an Iranian and referred to the gulf without the Persian adjective, you’d never hear the end of it!

    The reason for the name change being racist is simple: In the 1960s, Arabs switched from referring the Persian Gulf to something different only because of racial differences. Through Pan-Arabism, Arabs claimed that their inherent superiority over Persians was reason enough for the change of the name. Sadly, most young Arabs are not even aware of this fact, and today think nothing wrong of their name for that body of water.

    While Pan-Arabism as an ideology is now long forgotten, the reason for the name change began as a racist move. I’m not claiming that Arabs are racist today, but calling this body of water as “The Gulf” is not an impartial usage, since it as an active contribution to abandonment of the historical name.

    No one is claiming that Gulf Air or the GCC should change their names. However, the racist reasons why those countries renamed the Gulf shouldn’t be forgotten. Non-Arabs’ (like yourself) usage of the term “The Gulf” honours the historic racist undertones of the name.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *