“Shiraz or Chardonnay?” the stewardess asked, brandishing a bottle of each. Our London-bound Emirates Airline flight had recently left Dubai. I glanced out the window and noted a sprawling city amid the jagged landscape below. The seat back map told me we were flying over Shiraz, Iran.
“Shiraz, please,” I responded, in sympathy for those inhabiting the city below, not many of whom were being offered a similar choice.
The socially conservative Persian Gulf is not a region generally associated with free-flowing wine or, at least until recently, the finer side of air travel. The relentless rise of its state-owned airlines thus comes as a surprise, especially given the region’s tendency toward political unrest. Indeed, one might have been forgiven for thinking that a rise in air piracy was a more likely outcome. But for the executives of legacy carriers across the developed world -- think British Airways, Lufthansa, and Qantas -- the competition from airlines flying out of the Persian Gulf is already causing a good deal of indigestion, and probably ulcers. Gulf airlines have steadily added routes, grabbed passengers, and poached crews, while leveraging their buying power to successfully demand discounts and impose design preferences on the latest Boeing and Airbus planes.
In the United Arab Emirates, homeland of two of the September 11 hijackers, two state-owned airlines are amassing huge fleets unabashedly adorned with Arabic calligraphy. Next month, they will fly tens of thousands of pilgrims in their white ihram robes to Saudi Arabia for the annual pilgrimage -- hajj -- to Mecca, steering around Syrian airspace along the way. But they will also carry on with hundreds of flights outside the region, on schedule as usual. These carriers, the so-called Big Three -- Abu Dhabi’s Etihad Airways, Dubai’s Emirates Airline, and neighboring Qatar Airways -- have already become major global brands associated with hospitality, convenience, and safety. Their arrival has been to the airline business what the dreadnought battleship was to naval supremacy: a game changer.