Exclusive Interview with Saif Mohammed Al Suwaidi, Director General of the UAE’s General Civil Aviation Authority

May 10, 2018 in Infrastructure

Industry Middle East Magazine has the privilege of hearing from Saif Mohammed Al Suwaidi, Director General of the UAE’s General Civil Aviation Authority. 


Saif Mohammed Al Suwaidi was appointed Director General of the UAE’s GCAA in April 2008. Prior to joining the GCAA, Al Suwaidi held several senior positions in the UAE Air Force, including his last tour as Director of Air Force Operations. He started his career as pilot in the UAE Air Force and served as Head of Training and Operation at Al Minhad base in Dubai. He was appointed Deputy Director Operations in the UAE Air Force in 2006 and promoted to Director of Operations before being appointed as Director General of the GCAA. Al Suwaidi, who obtained a law degree from Beirut Arab University in Lebanon in 2004, was appointed Chairman of the Arab Civil Aviation Commission Executive Council in May 2010.

What is the history of the UAE General Civil Aviation Authority?

General Civil Aviation Authority was formed in 1996 through a Federal Decree. Law No. 4 of 1996 describes the Authority’s mandate. Article 7 of the said law states that this Authority is formed to promulgate the general policy for civil aviation and propose law and regulations which ensure the organization thereof, forming the necessary committees to implement such policies and representing the State in the negotiations on matters involving its functions, and proposing the conclusion of bilateral agreements in the area of civil aviation and aerial meteorology, in accordance with the provisions of constitution.

The law farther describes GCAA role related to the overflight of the territory of the State, landing and departing from its airport and the condition of carriage of passengers, cargo and mail according to the law and in coordination with local authorities.

How big is the authority in terms of annual turnover, number of employees and market position?

GCAA is a non for profit regulatory authority that also provides air navigation services in the UAE air space. The Authority employees approximately 600 highly experience aviation professionals. Although a Federal Entity yet the GCAA operates on financially self-sustainable basis by generating its revenue on cost recovery basis from the provision of regulatory and air navigation services.

Who owns GCAA?

 GCAA is a Federal Entity. The GCAA’s mission is to regulate and oversee aviation safety, security and environment; deliver air navigation services and facilitate air connectivity through international collaboration in order to efficiently serve the public and civil aviation industry.

How do you assess the aviation industry in the UAE in recent years, and what opportunities remain?

Historically, the growth in UAE has been mostly focused on building capacity at the airports and the airlines. This has seen the UAE national carriers double their seat capacity every few years for past two decades. Abu Dhabi, Dubai and Sharjah have made huge investments in upgrading the runways and terminals at their respective airports. In addition to this, GCAA has undertaken the air space restructuring project to add to the existing capacity in our skies.  This multi-phased project will take a while to complete however, we are aiming at a multifold capacity increase in the coming years. MROs and General Aviation are the areas where we expect to see growth to take place in future. On our part, we are implementing initiatives to stimulate investment in the industry, especially in these particular areas. GCAA will be hosting the 2nd Investment in Aviation summit in 2019, we are confident that such endeavors will lead to tangible outcomes in the near future.

The aviation industry has gone through some painful experiences lately. Its recent past has been both eventful and poignant. Accidents and acts of terrorism at airports were sobering reminders of the interconnectivity of our lives and the need for enhanced cooperation at the international level. The tragic incidents involving flights FZ981 and MS804 are still fresh in our minds. The acts of terrorism at Brussels Airport and Istanbul Ataturk Airport show that the perpetrators strike with no regard to humanity, faith and values. We learn from each incident to improve aviation safety and security. We are determined to share knowledge and experiences with our stakeholders and partners, and improve our regulatory and oversight standards to enhance safety, security and sustainable development of international civil aviation.

As in previous years, the aviation sector has continued to make a significant contribution to the UAE’s economy. The industry’s economic impact, technological developments, recent incidents and changes in regulations have been thoroughly studied.

Through our plans, we are committed to:

■ Meet the Federal Government’s expectations of transforming the aviation sector as a major contributor to the country’s economic development

■ Improve the quality of regulation, including the ease of availing GCAA regulatory services

■ Services enhancement programmes that seek to improve service delivery, efficiency and effectiveness

Common to all three themes is the objective of strengthening the capabilities of the GCAA – i.e. people, systems and processes – to deliver greater effectiveness and efficiency. The GCAA seeks to enhance the capabilities of the aviation sector to contribute further towards the UAE’s transition to a Knowledge-based economy by promoting innovation, R&D, strengthening the Regulatory framework and encouraging investment.

What initiatives are in place within the GCAA to encourage more UAE nationals to join the aviation sector?

GCAA has undertaken a number of initiatives that would yield direct and indirect impact on the growth of nationalization in the UAE aviation sector. Firstly, we are carrying out extensive investment in capacity building by providing technical professional qualifications to the existing UAE nationals in the GCAA so that the Authority is able to retain the national talent pool.

Air Traffic Control is another exciting field where we are attracting UAE youth. A series of seminars and workshops are conducted at the universities and higher colleges of technology to introduce the Air traffic Controller profession. This is followed up by entry test and acceptance of trainees for ICAO 054 and o55 courses. These are fully funded by GCAA and graduates are entered in the Shaikh Zayed Air Navigation Centre. The GCAA-Sheikh Zayed Air Navigation Centre (SZC) eagerly offers the ATC Training program for UAE Nationals and aims for maximizing the number of potential and capable UAE national controllers.

Additional, we are targeting the age 8 to 14 group through our ‘Out Reach’ program’. A number of camps are conducted to invite the youth. They are given a number of hands on information sessions to create interest in the aviation industry as the future area of choice for employment.

Abu Dhabi and Dubai are already international aviation hubs. What strengths do each have to encourage the sustainable growth of local aviation?

As often quoted, H H Shaikh Ahmed Bin Saeed, the Chairman of Emirates airlines said, “. One-third of the world’s population, nearly two billion people, live within four hours flying time from Dubai International and 80 per cent within 12 hours”. This identifies the natural geographical advantage of the UAE as a whole. Besides this, our leadership’s vision to diversify the UAE economy away from the hydro carbon component is a major driver in seeking alternative drivers. Aviation industry is central to any such effort whether it is trade or tourism. In addition to this, the industry growth is dependent on the quality of infrastructure. Currently UAE ranks at #1 globally in the quality of road transport infrastructure and   #2 in the air transport infrastructure. Our Open Skies policy is yet another catalyst to enhance connectivity and sustainable growth in the industry. Availability of national talent pool to take up the technical jobs in the industry has always been a concern. We at GCAA have initiated projects such as Outreach Camps to attract UAE youth towards the aviation careers in the technical fields. Together with our stakeholders such as national airlines, airports and academia, we are working on stimulating innovation and creativity. I am sure initiatives such as these will yield long term and sustainable results.

What are the main operational challenges? How do you overcome these?

Just as our geographical location is a great strength, the small air space also presents a challenge for both enroute and point to point traffic. We have undertaken a massive air space restructuring project that aims to streamline the traffic flow and especially manage the peak periods of Dubai International.

Investment in technology and capabilities is another area that has been out focus. We have successfully automated all of our regulatory services. These can now be accessed from anywhere in the world.

Demand for air travel and expansion of the aviation sector are presenting the industry with the challenge of sourcing hundreds of thousands of new pilots in the future. One of the world’s biggest training companies, CTC Aviation, has estimated that 235,000 pilots will need to be found in the next seven years with the commercial jet fleet forecast to almost double to 40,000 by 2030. Meanwhile, a Boeing report estimated that 498,000 new commercial airline pilots would be required over the next two decades. The small size of the national talent pool and consistent growth of national carriers keep this challenge a constant reality for the UAE sector.

Aviation is one of the highest regulated industries in the world. However, the introduction of Drone technology has raised the bar as opposed to manned aviation; regulations for Unmanned Ariel Vehicles (UAVs) are still in infancy. Numerous organizations both at international and national level are pursuing harmonization. Varying degrees of restrictions exist. This raises potential safety concerns due to the inherent risks associated with the autonomous nature of the technology. The regulations related to mid-air collision, third party damage or injury and resulting liability are just some of the challenges. In addition to this, from an air traffic management perspective, the risks associated with the loss of control due to frequency interferences will have to be thoroughly explored and managed. Lack of data is yet another concern for this growing segment of industry. Utilization trends, number of incidents and accidents or risk assessments are not readily available. Although UAVs are not presently flying at the rate that they will be in the near future, these are key challenges even at this early stage in this area. Cyber-attacks are a relatively new phenomenon as the weapon of choice against the aviation industry. There is increasing concern about the impact a large-scale cyber-attack could have given the sector relies on computer systems for almost every aspect of its business. In an international Cyber Security Symposium organized by the GCAA under the umbrella of ICAO, issues pertaining to data breaches and cyber terrorism were perceived to be growing risks. It was highlighted that new generation aircraft face increasing threats due to the more prevalent use of data networks, computer systems on-board and navigation systems. Leading aviation security experts agreed that the whole sector is facing major cyber risks on all fronts.

With the expansion of airport facilities, air routes, and e-services, what will be the main focus for GCAA to strengthen the sector, and what do you expect in the future?

There are a number of concurrent changes taking place in the industry. Some of these relate to technology and others are econo-political in nature. The Drone technology will most probably create a cataclysmic shift in the industry. Although, a relatively new phenomenon, yet we expect to see a proliferation of drone technology, not only in non-traditional usage such as surveillance or topography but also in the traditional mode of transporting goods and passengers. We at GCAA are developing a sound regulatory framework to ensure that we stay ahead of the curve. As for the econo-political issues, every now and then we see a tightening of market especially at the times of economic down turns. We are determined to maintain the open skies in the UAE and promote global liberalization. Airlines and airports that are efficient and keep their customer’s interest close to their hearts will survive, and the rest, well will read about them in the management books.

After 10-11 years of operations, what have been the main contributions of GCAA to the development of the industry in the UAE?

Although, UAE is a small and younger member state however, not only that it has made tremendous progress in aviation sector, it has also continued to play a strong role as a Friend of ICAO. Central to our philosophy is the believe that cooperation between organizations and States is crucial to success in civil aviation. We know that assistance to the international community will ultimately benefit the UAE civil aviation sector also.

Today, UAE national carriers are flying to all corners of the world and similarly, our airports are among the most internationally connected. To support our relationship with the international aviation, we have focused on global cooperation and engagement as one of our strategic priorities. With today’s global connections, we need one another.  Given the complexity of our operations, airspace congestion and high growth, our partnership and cooperation has never been more important.

We firmly believe that the exchange of expertise and expert’s visits increase the prospects for cooperation in many fields with all member states. We collectively play important roles in ensuring aviation safety and security standards and therefore, we have committed ourselves to pledge resources, expertise and knowledge to help every other member state, particularly the Least Developed States.

What have been the main highlights / headlines at GCAA over the past 12-18 months?

National Agenda Council – Aviation Sector

His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum Vice President and Prime Minister of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai, held the first meeting with 36 executive teams in the government, to follow up on the execution of National Agenda 2021. The teams held workshops to discuss the challenges and propose initiatives. During these workshops, His Excellency Saif Mohammed Al Suwaidi, Director General of the GCAA, proposed a set of improvement initiatives, including a marketing campaign listing the country’s achievements in various sectors, run jointly at the federal and local levels.

The GCAA decided to form a National Agenda Council in the aviation sector. The council will have a rotating presidency.

UAE-Saudi Coordination Council

The GCAA participated in the Determination Retreat of the UAE-Saudi Coordination Council, regarding logistics and the infrastructure sector, presided over by His Excellency Sultan Bin Saeed Al Mansoori, Minister of Economy, with the participation of His Excellency Saif Mohammed Al Suwaidi and Laila Ali Bin Hareb Al-Muhairi as the chief coordinator of the session. This retreat resulted in a set of initiatives to be implemented by the two countries.

Youth and Sustainability In Aviation

The GCAA held the first aviation-sector youth event at the state level, entitled Youth and Sustainability in Aviation, in cooperation with the Ministry of Youth Affairs and in the presence of His Highness Sheikh Ahmed bin Saeed Al Maktoum and Her Excellency Shamma Al Mazrui, Minister of State for Youth Affairs. 80 young men and women from various aviation sectors in the UAE participated, and the end of the seminar, 10 prominent young figures from the sector were honored.

The GCAA hosted a workshop entitled Youth and Aviation Sector Sustainability. The chief guest, His Highness Sheikh Ahmed bin Saeed Al Maktoum, Chairman, Emirates Group and Head of Dubai Civil Aviation, and Her Excellency Shamma Al Mazrui, Minister for Youth Affairs, discussed the following topics with the participants:

  • The UAE’s position in the civil aviation community and scientific specializations found in the aviation sector, along with the authority’s initiatives and awareness activities
  • The challenges faced by youth in this field, in terms of choosing a specialty or working in a specialty field
  • Innovative solutions to help draft policies in this field

The GCAA’s Distinctive Participation In the 2017 Dubai Airshow

The authority participated in several activities at the Dubai Air Show. The GCAA set up a special pavilion, hosted a number of meetings and was the platform where the authority’s services and operations were presented to visitors. The pavilion marketed the GCAA in innovative ways by using digital booklets and live broadcasts of the activities on social media.

Aviation Safety and Security

  • The GCAA team secured full membership on the ICAO AVSEC Panel, during the first meeting of Session No. 211
  • The GCAA conducted a high-level brainstorming session for national carriers, in regard to economic, political and security challenges
  • The GCAA participated in a high-level workshop organized by the European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) in Luxembourg, seeking to develop strategies for remotely piloted aircraft systems and integrate devices for managing aviation processes
  • A meeting with the European Commission to promote joint cooperation between the UAE and the European countries with regard to civil aviation security
  • Promote cooperation with IATA, with the division of responsible for auditing the safety of aviation processes at ISAGO, and with local air operators
  • The GCAA participated in the International Safety Convention organized by EASA and the FAA
  • Participated in the ICAO meeting on Air Cargo Safety (ICAO CSGM) – Montreal
  • Participated in the ICAO Threat and Risk Working Group – Paris
  • Participated in the ICAO Threat and Risk Working Group – Spain
  • Participated in the ICAO Task Force on Improvised Explosive Devices – Paris
  • Participated in the Regional Ministerial Conference on Aviation Security in Africa and the Middle East – Sharm El Sheikh, Egypt
  • Participated in the ICAO Global Aviation Security Symposium

Have you made any major investments in the past 18 months? If so, what in and why?

We are constantly investing in our capacity and capability development. Some of the major capital investment projects include enhancements in air traffic management systems and air space restructuring.

Is it a good time to be in this sector? Are you enjoying growth? If so, what percentage and what do you attribute this to?

Aviation sector in general and the Middle East aviation in particular is in a growth phase. Although the lower oil prices have had an adverse impact on the regional oil dependent economies however, in general the resilient business models of UAE carriers and the airports and their internal efficiencies have ensured that they continue to flourish.

We recognise that our success is the result of hard work and commitment of our dedicated staff, which is well supported by the productive partnerships with the national and international aviation industry stakeholders.

What is the future for the UAE Aviation Sector? Investment? New development? Expansion?

As the UAE economy continues to diversify away from the hydro carbon dependency, we will see a growing contribution by the trade and tourism sector. Aviation is the backbone of these two industries. Development of air transport infrastructure, expansion of existing facilities and networks will continue. We see a future where air transport will supplement cruise tourism and together these two vital sectors will make UAE a major tourism destination.

Our stakeholders expect us to be a modern risk-based regulator, an excellent professional oversight system and a rule-making regime that is based on consultation and collaboration thus minimizing adverse and undesirable economic impact of over regulating.

It is important to ensure the effectiveness of the GCAA regulatory system as well the strong image of UAE’s aviation sector because this will enhance the impact of the Authority’s voice in international forums including the International Civil Aviation Organization, its various committees, and forums and among other contracting states. By maintaining our Council seat as well as active participations in forums such as ICAN, ATRP and various technical committees, GCAA has been successfully influencing international policy development to protect UAE’s interests.

To ensure that we continue to serve well the increasing aircraft and passenger movement into the future, plans have been put in place for the development of air traffic management capabilities. The planning and development work at the national airports including the Midfield Terminal at Abu Dhabi, and upgrade and expansion of Dubai, Sharjah and Ras Al Khaimah are well underway. The Sheikh Zayed Air Navigation Centre plans to further augmented ATM capabilities by modernising communication and navigational aids, as well as enhancing skills of our air traffic controllers to strengthen their knowledge and capabilities to better enable them to handle increasingly complex operations.

How many airports do you manage?

Eight international airports and two domestic airports for commercial air service. 

  • International Airports
  1. Abu Dhabi International Airport
  2. Al Ain International Airport
  3. Sharjah International Airport
  4. Dubai International Airport
  5. Ras Al Khaimah Airport International Airport
  6. Fujairah International Airport
  7. Al Bateen Executive Airport
  8. Al Maktoum International Airport

Domestic Airports

  • Delma Island Airport
  • Sir Bani Yas Island Airport

How do you manage supply chain and quality control systems and how much of the supply chain is from overseas?

GCAA have the necessary regulatory framework and oversight processes to ensure that any equipment or technology used by the industry will be managed to an acceptable level of safety, as well as the industry will have necessary policies and processes to ensure the quality of the products, equipment or technologies operationally used or deployed.

What role does IT play in day-to-day operations?

Information technology is pivotal for every industry, and to be accurate, without the advancement in IT, the aviation industry would have never moved forward. The GCAA ensures that all the Information Technology available is compliant with international standards, we also employ and invest in the most advanced equipment and technological tools to help automate and provide comprehensive creation of the necessary infrastructure to establish civil aviation services compatible with 21st century needs including state-of-the-art Air Traffic Control systems; Civil Aviation Regulations and AIP up-grades; Flight Safety Services procedures;

How does GCAA deal with security issues presented by an expanding market?

The Safety of the aviation sector and especially the travelling public is our top priority. The UAE’s aviation sector is among the best managed and compliant with safety and security standards. However, the growth of the industry continues to challenge us in the achievement of our vision. We are fully aware of our responsibilities and committed to attain our objectives through Innovation and collaboration. The migration to risk-based audit methodology is a right step in this direction. Proper safety and security risk assessment drives proportionate interventions and ensures that the performances meet desired standards. For the past few years, we have been implementing programmes to strengthen our risk assessment, reporting culture and oversight activities in this respect. ROSI, RODGO and ROSBI dedicated and in-house developed systems allows us to support the risk based regulatory and oversight activity.

It is well known that due to its technical nature and remarkable impact on nations’ livelihood and reputation of states, the civil aviation industry has become an attractive target of acts of unlawful interference.

The UAE government is working with industry partners, International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO), other States, international and regional organizations, to build a safe and secure civil aviation environment that drives economic growth, create jobs and position us more competitive on the world stage.

Our role is to support economic growth of air transport, keeping in mind that civil aviation has one of key roles to play, as a driving force in the economic development of the country, this region and the world at large. According to the statistics and predictions, global air travel tends to double every 15 years and aviation safety and security have become essential pillars to market growth.

We are well aware of existing and emerging threats and in this regard, we have established comprehensive legal framework and robust aviation security (AVSEC) system in the UAE. GCAA shares a common goal to strengthen aviation security by proactively engaging in the continuous development of the sustainable aviation security system. We are dedicated to accomplishing our goals and objectives using efficient and effective methodologies.

As aviation security is a topic of critical importance, partnership is key in facing a wide range of security challenges by pooling resources, finding solutions, implementing innovative approaches and building capacity.

The current threat and risk environment demands, that aviation security remains amongst the highest of priorities for the global international community. In this view, the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) has come out with a concept, namely, Global Aviation Security Plan (GASeP), which will be the centerpiece of a global holistic and coordinated effort to counter civil aviation threats.

The UAE is a member of the prestigious ICAO Aviation Security (AVSEC) Panel and is represented by the GCAA’s AVSEC Affairs Sector. As an ICAO AVSEC Panel Member, GCAA supports ICAO and participates in the work of the Panel and Working Groups established by the Panel such as Working Group on Threat and Risk, on Innovation in Aviation Security, on Air Cargo Security, on Guidance Material and on ICAO Annex 17. We also share aviation security expertise by participating in the Universal Security Audit Program (USAP) audits, capacity building, trainings and other forms of technical cooperation.

GCAA has been proactive in fostering cooperation in the field of aviation security with foreign civil aviation security authorities and aviation organizations through the signing of MoUs (Memorandum of Understanding) on aviation security and facilitation, as appropriate. These MoUs foster meaningful cooperation bonds that promote the safe, secure and efficient development of civil aviation, taking into account as well the UN Security Council Resolution 2309.

We believe that in such an expending market, innovation is a key to meeting future expectations of aviation security and air travel as a whole and it can come in the form of optimizing all elements of current aviation security systems, including technology and process integration, human factors, policy and regulation. This approach to innovation in aviation security was embraced as a common strategy in the UAE in order to achieve greater effectiveness, efficiency and sustainability in response to evolving threats to aviation security in such a market growth.