With major expansions across land, sea and air connections currently under way, Dubai’s transport sector continues to drive much of the emirate’s economic and international success. The government is fully committed to the continuous improvement of this infrastructure, with new rules for public-private partnerships (PPPs) aiming to enhance delivery in the sector (see analysis). Meanwhile, Dubai finds itself in an increasingly competitive regional economic environment. The current slowdown in global growth, falling oil and gas prices, regional uncertainties and a strengthening dollar are also all affecting the emirate and its transport sector. Yet Dubai finds itself uniquely placed to face these challenges, with confidence high that it will continue to be the region’s pre-eminent transportation hub.

Facts & Figures

According to the Dubai Statistics Centre (DSC), the transport, storage and communications sector contributed some Dh14.23bn ($3.9bn) to GDP in the first quarter of 2015, at constant prices, or 16% of the total. This was up from Dh13.46bn ($3.7bn) in the first quarter of 2014, when the sector made up 15.8% of GDP – a growth rate of 5.7% or 0.9 percentage points. For 2014 overall, the sector accounted for Dh52.5bn ($14.3bn), or 15.5% of GDP, an amount 8.6% up on the 2013 total of Dh48.36bn ($123.2bn) and 14.8%. Thus, the sector has shown strong growth in recent years, a fact that is also borne out in the numbers of arrivals and departures at the emirate’s airports and seaports.

The main airport, Dubai International (DXB), saw the total number of aircraft movements, inward and outbound, rise from 344,656 in 2012 to 373,534 in 2013, according to DSC figures. Closure of a runway in 2014 for maintenance resulted an a slight decline that year to 357,842. However, in 2015 the first eight months saw 268,253 aircraft movements, according to the facility’s operator Dubai Airports, which was 18.1% up on the 227,110 movements registered in the same period of 2014. Indeed, 2014 saw DXB become the world’s busiest airport for international passengers, beating London Heathrow to the top spot for the very first time. DXB maintained this lead in 2015, when passenger traffic rose by 10.6% from 70.5m in 2014 to around 78m.

Cargo Increases 

Meanwhile, Dubai’s new airport, Al Maktoum International Airport (DWC) saw aircraft movements dip 11.8% from 47,655 in 2014 to 42,055 in 2015, largely due to a one-off spike in activity in the former year created by the DXB runway project, according to Dubai Airports. Air cargo volumes at DWC increased 7.7% in 2015 compared to 2014, a rise from 824,933 tonnes to 888,714 tonnes.

At sea too, there has been continued growth. The emirate’s main port, Jebel Ali, is now the world’s ninth-largest container port and has over 90 weekly services to 140 other ports worldwide. DSC figures show the port handled a total of 15.24m twenty-foot equivalent units (TEUs) in 2014, up from 13.63m TEUs in 2013 and 13.26m in 2012.

Land Transport

On land, Dubai’s transport system has seen growing activity. One measure of this is the number of passenger trips on the emirate’s buses. The total figure, including urban, feeder and intercity bus journeys, rose from 130.5m in 2013 to 148.1m in 2014 and 134.8m in 2015. When other key public transport systems in the emirate were added in, such as the Dubai Metro and Tram systems, the Roads and Transport Authority (RTA) stated in early 2015 that the total number of passenger trips on public transport had increased from 440.67m rides in 2013 to 531.35m in 2014. Within that number the Dubai Metro Red and Green lines saw their passenger trip statistics rise from 109.49m in 2012 to 137.76m in 2013 and then 164.3m in 2014, which marked growth of 20% from 2013 to 2014.

A number of factors are driving this dynamism in the transport sector. First, in terms of public transport, the organic growth of the population of Dubai itself is significant – adding to the increasing numbers of people visiting from neighbouring emirates, as the city’s population swells considerably with commuters during working hours.

Figures from the DSC show the active population in Dubai rising from 3.29m in 2013 to 3.41m in 2014 and 3.55m in 2015, with that last figure breaking down into 2.45m residents and 1.118m temporary residents and people resident in other emirates. This expansion is driven by economic growth as well. DSC figures show GDP at constant prices rose 4.1% in 2012, 4.6% between 2012 and 2013 and 3.8% in 2014, with the figure rising to 3.9% in the first quarter of 2015 compared to the same period of 2014. These growth figures have also boosted the numbers of people flying into the emirate.

Take Off 

Air travel in Dubai is a relatively recent phenomenon. British flying boats used the Dubai Creek in the 1930s and 1940s, with the first land-based airfield only opening in 1960 – at the time little more than a compacted sand airstrip. Tarmac arrived in 1965, with improved terminal buildings and air traffic control systems, and wide-bodied aircraft arriving from the 1970s.

A second runway was opened in 1984, with Dubai serving as a useful re-fuelling stop between Europe and Asia, since Soviet airspace was off limits to many aircraft. When this changed from 1989 onwards, Dubai began to reinvent itself and launched a major expansion. A new master plan led to a second terminal in 1998, along with a reconfiguration of the runways. A mass of concourses, duty-free zones, hotels and a specialist facility for flowers – a major part of the air transit trade – were also added. In 2008, Terminal 3 became operational.

Thus, the DXB of today began to take shape, with annual passenger numbers growing at an average rate of 15% since 1960. In 2013 the airport, run by Dubai Airports, saw the world’s first Airbus A380-dedicated concourse open, with that year seeing a total of 66.43m passengers using DXB. In 2015 the number rose to 78m, up 10.6%. The airport today serves some 140 airlines – and is the headquarters for Emirates and flydubai – with regular services to 260 destinations worldwide. DXB is still growing. Under the $7.8bn Dubai Airports Strategic Plan 2020 (SP2020), a new target for passenger capacity of 90m by 2018 has been set, a number that should accommodate forecast growth in passengers of 7.2% per annum. SP2020 also includes the new Concourse D, which opened in February 2016, the expansion of Terminal 2 and the refurbishment of Terminal 1.

The plan will also see a major expansion in DXB’s cargo-handling facilities. Since 2014, all pure cargo handling has been switched to the emirate’s new, second airport, DWC, but cargo arriving as hold freight continues to be dealt with at DXB. Indeed, the facility’s Cargo Mega Terminal has capacity of 2.5m tonnes. In 2014 some 2.42m tonnes were handled, a figure that increased to 2.51m tonnes a year later.

Both cargo handling and passenger services will spread across both of the emirate’s airports. While DXB maintains its role in cargo handling, DWC is similarly designed to accommodate all types of transport. Indeed, the new airport is set to become a global leader in passenger traffic. The DWC expansion project will cost $32bn, expanding its current capacity of 5m passengers a year to 220m – roughly equal to the population of Germany, France, the UK and the Netherlands combined. It will also be two-and-a-half times the size of DXB when the latter has finished its current expansion, indicating that DWC will be far more than an airport, but closer to what some have called an aerotropolis; combining transport, urban and commercial functions.

Creating Opportunities 

The expansion of aviation infrastructure will also improve the opportunities for players in the sector. Airbus is set to take advantage of the evolving demands of governments in the MENA region. As Dubai, in particular, looks to position itself as a major transport hub, Airbus will increasingly be able to offer technologies that allow more airlines to fly anywhere in the world directly, as well as offer more traditional transit connections.

Fouad Attar, managing director of Airbus Middle East, told OBG, “We have a market for transit here. The region beyond the GCC has the biggest population, and while Middle East accounts for 9% of the world’s passenger traffic and expected to reach 13-15% in 20 years, there are currently no other hubs than the existing ones in the GGC.”

As a result, firms such as Airbus are looking to strengthen their presence in Dubai, as well as adapt their business model to the GCC market. The company is looking to be able to provide solutions for an industry that is expanding significantly. Aeronautics, in particular, is one of the highest-growth sectors in the region, according to Attar.

The emirate’s location is key for major players such as Boeing. The company expects to see continued growth in the sector not only in Dubai, but in the larger MENA region and beyond its borders. Dubai in particular has proved to be a major partner for the aviation firm as it works to ensure it stays ahead of the competition and maintains a modern fleet.

Despite the drop in oil prices, the company reports positive growth in the sector, especially as many GCC economies have made aviation a major component of their economic development plans, which is also in line with Boeing’s strategy to improve its international presence. Bernard Dunn, president of Boeing Middle East, North Africa and Turkey (MENAT), told OBG, “Establishing a MENAT office was part of our journey to become a more global and localised company. We would like to expand in this region and establish a strong local footprint.”

Sector Oversight

The Dubai Civil Aviation Authority (DCAA) works with government bodies and sector stakeholders to ensure safe, secure and smooth operations in aviation. The aviation sector is estimated to account for over a quarter of GDP, with the goal being to reach 32% of GDP by 2020. The DCAA is also committed to ensuring that facilities in the emirate are up to date with the latest technology, from applications that help pilots avoid vortex when approaching runways to pilotless aircraft. Mohammed Ahli, director-general of the DCAA, told OBG, “Once insurance companies are ready to insure pilotless planes, it will be ready – as the technology for it already exits. We are moving towards a pilot-free world. Technology has reached the level where you can run an airport without controllers and pilots.

Big Plans

Sitting at the heart of Dubai South, DWC will have an annual capacity of 12m tonnes of cargo, up from 1m tonnes currently, and will be constructed in two phases over six to eight years. The first, which will cover 56 sq km, will see the airport area expand to a passenger capacity of 120m, with the capacity to accommodate 100 A380 aircraft simultaneously. These planes will be able to use five parallel “Code F” runways (allowing for a maximum wingspan of 80 metres), each 4.5 km long, spaced widely enough apart for simultaneous operation.

The terminal buildings and concourses will also benefit from the latest technology and ergonomic designs to speed up processing and moving times for passengers and cargo. From June 2016 Dubai is charging passengers flying through its airports a service fee of Dh35 ($9.53) with proceeds used to fund airport infrastructure improvements.

The districts of Dubai South will enlarge exponentially on the idea of the airport free zone, a concept pioneered by DXB with Dubai Airport Freezone Authority (DAFZA). DAFZA was established in 1996, and now has some 1450 companies based within it. In 2015 it saw total revenue growth of 7% and total assets growth of 3%. The zone grants its tenants a number of benefits, such as allowing 100% foreign-ownership and exemption from corporate or individual income tax. Furthermore, while it is not part of the airport, its location benefits companies working in logistics and other rapid-turnover trades.

Dubai South will enjoy similar status. The city covers a total area of 145 sq km and includes eight districts – Logistics District, Aviation District; Business Park; Commercial District; Residential District, Exhibitions, Humanitarian District and Golf District – all with the airport at its heart.

Aviation District is home to maintenance, repair and overhaul companies, fixed base operators, research and development companies with an aviation sector focus and a range of light industries. The adjacent Logistics District brings together freight forwarders, agents, integrators and contract logistics operators in a location close to Jebel Ali, the Gulf’s largest port and a global logistics and trans-shipment hub in its own right. The district is likely to help consolidate Dubai’s status as a trading hub.

“With the aviation sector representing 28% of Dubai’s GDP, that district will provide a lot of opportunities. For example, airline companies will be storing a large inventory of spare parts in the district,” Ahmed Al Ansari, acting CEO of Dubai South, told OBG. “Bringing a distribution centre here will create new industries,” he added.

Al Ansari also said, “This logistics corridor will add much value to such industries as manufacturing, assembly, warehousing and distribution. Air and sea ports will also be linked. Business will directly benefit from the bounded corridor, which will prevent the need to do multiple checks.”

Both new and established businesses are expected to benefit from the market created within District South. With the focus on start-ups and business incubators, 40% of retail in the development is expected to come from new retailers.

In addition to being a logistics centre, the emirate is also set to be a regional centre for theme parks, and, once completed, Dubai Parks and Resorts will be the region’s largest year-round theme park resort destination, worth more than Dh1.05bn ($285.8m). On track to open in October 2016, the development will feature more than 100 rides and attractions, supported by a resort hotel, eateries and retail outlets. Dubai Parks and Resorts is targeting 6.7m ticketed visitors and $650m in revenue in 2017, its first full year of operations. The development is also pressing ahead with plans for a Six Flags theme park, according to a March 2016 report from Abu Dhabi-based daily The National (see Tourism chapter).


DWC’s location near Jebel Ali Port and in Dubai South thus combines air and sea transport, while land transport links – in addition to the highways already in place – are due to receive a major addition with Etihad Rail (ER) as the phased plans are completed. This is the UAE’s section of a pan-GCC rail link-up that will eventually see trains run from Oman to Kuwait. This 2177-km network includes full designs for the $220bn project, with construction already under way on some sections of the rail line.

One of these is ER’s stage one network, which is set to run some 264 km from Shah and Habshan to Ruwais. By October 2015, ER’s operating partner Etihad Rail DB, had transported more than 2.5m tonnes of granulated sulphur on the line, during testing, commissioning and trial operations. This was preliminary to the commencement of full commercial operations on this stretch of line, after which work on stage two will commence. This next, 628-km section finishes the Abu Dhabi part of the network, connecting to the Saudi border at Ghweifat and the Omani border at Al Ain. It also links up to Jebel Ali, connecting the seaport – and eventually the nearby DWC – to the wider UAE network. Further stages then push the railway further north, to Dubai itself then on to the Northern Emirates, eventually connecting to Fujairah and Ras Al Khaimah. The network will eventually involve some 1200 km of track.

A statement from ER in October 2015 said that preliminary design and engineering for stage two had been completed, with the tendering for six construction packages in the final stages of evaluation.

The network will initially be largely cargo-based, with ER having ordered seven heavy-freight locomotives from the US Electro Motive Diesel in 2013. These machines will face some arduous conditions, working in desert environments where daytime temperatures in summer can hit 50°C, while dropping in winter to freezing after dark in some parts of the UAE. The track itself must be highly specialised, with the contract for this awarded to a joint-venture consortium of Italy’s Saipem and Tecnimont and the UAE’s Dodsal Engineering and Construction. These units have been designed for local conditions, however, as are pulling wagons ordered from China South Locomotive and Rolling Stock. In future, passenger trains will be added.

Trams & Metros 

ER will become the latest rail network in the emirate, in addition to the already well-established Dubai Metro and Tram system. These networks both fall under the responsibility of the Rail Agency at the RTA. Dubai Metro – at 74.6 km now the world’s longest fully automated, driverless metro network – began life in 2005, when a consortium of firms came together to form Dubai Rapid Link (DURL). Including companies such as Japan’s Mitsubishi Corporation, Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, Obayashi and Kajima and Turkey’s Yapı Merkezi, DURL began work on the Red and Green lines. The first of these was inaugurated in 2009 in the midst of the global economic crisis, and the second in 2011.

The Red Line runs for 52.1 km, most of it elevated on a viaduct running alongside Sheikh Zayed Road, one of the city’s major transport arteries. The line has 25 over-ground and four underground stations. Two of its over-ground stations are at DXB. The Green Line runs 22.5 km from Etisalat station to Creek station, with 7.9 km of its length underground. Some 12 stations are above ground and eight underground, including the two interchange stations with the Red Line – at Union and Burjuman.

Currently, an expansion of the Red Line is under way, known as Route 2020. This will stretch 14.5 km and connect passengers to the Expo 2020 site. Six new stations are on this latest extension up to the Expo 2020 site to serve some new communities, including Discovery Gardens, Jumeirah Golf Estates and Dubai Investment Park. The contract for construction of the new route is due to be awarded in 2016, with the line including 4 km of underground track. At later stages Route 2020 will be extended to the DWC, with an additional station to serve passengers of DWC. The RTA had completed the Expo 2020 Transport Master Plan, which has identified the transport requirements to serve the Expo site. These plans are now being transferred to detailed engineering studies and then implementation, with at least one major project – the Al Yalayis Road widening project – completed in 2015 and several others nearing completion as of the time of press.

Union station forms the transport nucleus for another major RTA project, the Union Oasis development, which is to be constructed under a PPP arrangement – the first such model to be tendered by the authority (see analysis).

Rolling Out

The Dubai Tram, meanwhile, began operations in November 2014. This is the first tram system outside Europe to operate solely via ground electric cables and extends 10.6 km through 11 stations. Dubai Tram is integrated with Dubai Metro at two stations, and the Palm Monorail at the gateway station of the Palm Jumeirah Monorail, which runs along the trunk of the reclaimed land development from the gateway station on the land side to the Atlantis Hotel at the Palm’s tip. The tram is also planned to expand its coverage through a second phase, pushing the network out for an additional 5 km and six more stations. The start date of implementation and the final alignment of phase two will be subject to more studies to accommodate all the changes in land uses and urban development.

A third pillar of public transport in the emirate is its bus system, which has recently undergone major improvements. This is reflected in passenger numbers, with the RTA stating that in 2014, 135.5m passenger rides were recorded, up from 115.7m in 2013 and 107.8m in 2012. The RTA has added more modern buses and now has plans for air-conditioned bus stops, using solar panels to power both their lighting and electronic billboards.

As a result of this expansion and improvement works across the network, in 2015 the RTA was able to increase the share of public transport for the average person’s daily travel from 6% in 2006 to 15%, and is aiming to reach 30% by 2030.

On The Road

The metro and tram systems – along with improved bus services – are all aimed at easing congestion on the emirate’s road networks. When the RTA was first established, in 2005, this congestion was estimated to be costing the emirate around Dh5.9bn ($1.6bn) a year in wasted time, while the rate of fatal traffic accidents was around 21.7 per 100,000 people – four times that in the UK.

The RTA’s Emirates Roads Master Plan has been key in tackling these issues, identifying three major road transport corridors in the city that needed to be improved if the city was to escape the traffic burden: the Sheikh Zayed, Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed and Emirates roads. The master plan details some $12bn worth of road projects, all due to be completed by the end of 2016. All in all, around 500 km of roads, 95 interchanges, nine ring roads, 81 creek crossing lanes and phases one and two of the Dubai to Abu Dhabi highway (the E311) all come under the plan. The E311 also involves the Abu Dhabi road and infrastructure authority, Musanada, as does a project to connect the current end of Dubai’s Emirates Road with Abu Dhabi, at Seih Sheib. Musanada expects this to be completed by August 2016.

Another key body is the Federal Transport Authority (FTA), which is based in Abu Dhabi. The FTA is responsible for the development of transport from a nationwide perspective and for transport links to neighbouring countries Saudi Arabia and Oman.

Another major road improvement under way is the New Lihbab Road, which connects Sheikh Zayed Road with the Emirates Road. The 9-km, four-lane highway, valued at Dh164m ($44.6m), includes two roundabouts and a directional bridge and supports development of Al Yalayes Road. It is a key link between the three transport corridors.

A further significant upgrade is under way for the Airport Road, linking the city with DXB. Announced in November 2015, it involves a Dh404m ($110m) contract to improve the existing road, with new bridges and tunnels at the Rashidiya-Airport Road interchange, service roads and intersection improvements all involved. The improvements should boost the road’s capacity by some 5000 vehicles per hour, with the RTA considering it vital that the scheme is completed by 2017 to accommodate traffic growth.

At the same time, the RTA has been working on a Dh1bn ($272.2m), five-year plan to improve internal roads in the emirate. From 2012 until late 2015, the plan had seen around Dh522m ($142.1m) spent on such routes within 13 residential districts. Work continues, and in mid-November 2015 a Dh216m ($58.8m) contract was issued for the construction of further internal roads at Nad El Sheba 4 and Al Khawaneej 2. In 2016 additional internal roads are being constructed in Al Awir 1, Jebel Ali industrial estate and the Al Qusais industrial area.

Vehicle Segment

Road improvements works have coincided with continuing growth in car sales, although recent foreign exchange fluctuations have had an impact. This did not prevent the UAE from topping the world during the first eight months of 2015 in terms of new car sales growth, with 5.3% year-on-year expansion. Overall, UAE car sales for 2015 are estimated to have surpassed the 400,000 mark, according to a November 2015 report from Dubai-based Gulf News. A March 2015 report by the RTA showed 1.4m cars in the emirate, which, given a total population of 2.4m, suggests one of the highest car ownership ratios in the world.

All the global car manufacturers are present in the emirate, where the luxury car market is significant. Al Habtoor Motors, for example, which deals in Bentley, McLaren and Bugatti automobiles, told OBG that it has higher sales in the UAE than in Saudi Arabia, despite the latter having a population 10 times greater. Porsche, meanwhile, had its best-ever sales performance in Dubai in August 2015, when it sold 211 vehicles. Ahmed K. Al Habtoor, CEO of Al Habtoor Motors, told OBG, “All automotive segments are enjoying strong growth thanks to the growing population, good infrastructure, and strong export and trade facilities. Hence, retail, rental and corporate segments are set to see continuing growth.”

At the lower end of the automobile market, there has been expansion of late too, with used car sales jumping in recent times. One factor aiding this has been the online classified ads site, Dubizzle, which provides online showrooms for car concessions and is local business set up by Emirati entrepreneurs.

In recent times, the emirate has also been moving towards encouraging hybrid cars, with the Dubai Electricity and Water Authority currently installing 100 charging stations across the emirate. The emirate has also made autonomous vehicles parts of its smart city initiatives. The launch of the Dubai Autonomous Transportation Strategy in late April 2016 aims to achieve at least 25% autonomous traffic by 2030. The strategy should also save the government around $6bn annually in costs related to transport, carbon emissions and accidents.

The environmental benefits of hybrid cars are expected to include 12% less pollution. The Khaleej Times reported in February 2016 that in Dubai the RTA had agreed to provide free Salik tags, or toll tags, and preferential parking spaces for electric cars.

Down To The Sea

Dubai has historically been strongly connected to the sea, with its maritime trade, centred on Dubai Creek, long forming the basis of its economy. The emirate has been connected to ports on the other side of the Gulf – and to the Indian and East African coasts beyond – for many centuries. In modern times, this has been enhanced by a number of major investments, which created Port Rashid and Jebel Ali – major maritime assets that have been joined by Dubai Maritime City. With Dubai now considered one of the world’s top-15 ports, the Dubai Maritime Sector Strategy seeks to take the emirate to the next level, with a wide range of initiatives currently under way (see Maritime chapter).

Logistics Hub

This fusing together of global-level maritime, aviation and land transport modes in one place has made Dubai one of the world’s most important centres for logistics. “Dubai is always faster than other countries,” Hussein Wehbe, general manager of Aramex in Dubai, told OBG. “There is a process of continuous innovation here that is difficult for other places to catch up with.”

The emirate’s location is a major advantage. Within four hours flying time of one-third of the world’s population, it is also positioned halfway between Europe and Asia. In terms of sea routes, the Gulf is on one of the world’s busiest and close to key lanes between the Middle East, Europe and Asia.

Another advantage is the government’s determination to build up the sector, with a number of logistics-dedicated hubs (DAFZA and now Dubai South) benefitting from this. Procedures have been streamlined, one-stop shop facilities for Customs clearances and permits established and free zone incentives issued to keep the costs of doing business low. When combined with the UAE’s other facilities, the value of the logistics industry reached $29.8bn in 2015, according to consultancy Frost & Sullivan. Dubai led the market in the UAE with a share of 45%.

Logistics companies in the emirate, such as Aramex and DHL, have also been at the forefront of applying new technology to their systems. These include the use of lockers for business to consumer shipments and apps to enable live tracking of shipments, with drone use likely coming on-line in the near future. Wehbe told OBG that in April 2016 Aramex launched an app for all the firm’s services which would allow the company to position itself as an ICT player. This strategy ensures synergies with smart city initiatives and digitalisation in the region. DHL already has its own app and international logistics firm Fetchr is also working on encouraging the use of its app, which, similar to Uber’s tracking of taxis, allows users to track deliveries and to receive them at their location rather than picking them up.

E-commerce is also a major growth area, with substantial implications for logistics companies – recent studies suggest this market may be worth some $10bn in the UAE by 2018, up from an estimated $2.5bn in 2014. The continued growth of shopping malls may increase competition in this area, but malls are a social experience for many in the emirate, rather than a specifically retail experience, and online shopping has ample room to grow in parallel.


The coming years will see continued high activity in all segments of the sector, with this unlikely to diminish until Expo 2020 and the establishment of DWC. At the same time, though, the plan for Dubai has always included the idea that there is “no finishing line”, as Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum once famously remarked. The year 2020 may thus be characterised by even more new plans for the emirate’s expansion, as it continues to capitalise on its strategic location and critical mass of infrastructure, human resources and investment.

To be sure, these are challenging times for the global economy, with certain segments clearly feeling the impact. Yet Dubai also has a strong reputation as a safe haven, and the further potential created by the opening with Iran is also likely to benefit the transport sector in the medium term. Whether by car, metro, plane or boat, Dubai continues to draw the major transport players in, along with much transport investment in its expanding networks.