One of our airlines is missing...

Mystery surrounds the fate of Saudi Gulf Airlines, which has not flown for more than two years.

Airbus A320s
Disappearing act: Saudi Gulf operated a small fleet of Airbus A320s on services within Saudi Arabia and the surrounding region. Picture: Alan Dron

An airline set up to be a premium carrier in the Saudi Arabian market faces an uncertain future as it has seemingly vanished from sight.

Dammam-based Saudi Gulf Airlines now appears to exist in name only. A year ago, its then-chief executive, Ismail Karimi, admitted it faced months on the ground as it battled liquidity problems and its owners searched for new funding.

The Saudi government halted all flights in the country at the outbreak of the pandemic, in March 2020. What was initially thought would be a hiatus of four to five months was extended several times.

In June 2021, Karimi said the airline was still around, but that it had decided to ground its small fleet of Airbus A320ceos due to a shortage of funds. Unlike most airlines in the region, Saudi Gulf is privately owned and did not receive government funding.

The carrier had been hoping to find new cash from its owners, the Saudi conglomerate Al Qahtani Group, or from the Saudi government, Karimi said at the time, adding that the government had indicated financial support would be forthcoming. By June last year, no funding had arrived but at that point the chief executive said the company would take to the air again once it had recapitalised.

The halt in operations had been frustrating, he said, as Saudi Gulf had been growing well before the pandemic, opening routes to four new destinations in Pakistan; it also had plans to open routes to Egypt, Iraq, Jordan and Sudan. That process would have to be restarted.

Karimi told Arabian Aerospace in late June this year that he had left Saudi Gulf in January and that he was the last person to leave the company.

At the time of his departure, no funding had been forthcoming from either the Saudi Government or Al Qahtani Group, although he said that the group’s chairman, Sheikh Tariq Al Qahtani, remains keen to find an investor for the airline.

However, the former chief executive added that all four of its Airbus A320s had been repossessed by the time he left the company.

At present, attempts to access the airline’s website are met with a blank screen and the words ‘The service is unavailable.’  Arabian Aerospace asked the Saudi aviation regulator, the General Authority of Civil Aviation (GACA), whether the airline was still in existence. GACA said that it classes the company as ‘Currently discontinued’, although it referred Arabian Aerospace to the airline for further details.

Attempts to contact Al Qahtani Group chairman’s office by e-mail and telephone went unanswered.

There have also been allegations that some Saudi Gulf staff had been unpaid for a period before departing the company, a claim Arabian Aerospace has been unable to put to the parent company.

The airline was planning to update its fleet with the Neo version of the A320 and had placed an order for 10 of the type; Airbus still lists the order on its website.

Saudi Gulf began services in 2016, setting itself up as a niche, premium carrier.

It was an early customer for the then-Bombardier CSeries regional jet (now renamed the Airbus A220 after the European manufacturer took over the design from its Canadian originator) but long delays with the project saw the Dammam-based airline opting for Airbus A320s instead.

It had planned initially to take delivery of the 10 re-engined A320neos from 2023, but came to an agreement with Airbus to postpone deliveries to 2025.

If Saudi Gulf does not reappear, it arguably will give the country’s remaining airlines a better chance to improve profits. One chief executive of a Saudi airline told Arabian Aerospace in 2019 that the country’s aviation marketplace, while expanding strongly, was probably not capable of supporting the five airlines fighting for market share at that time.

Alan Dron

Alan Dron

Alan Dron is air transport editor at Arabian Aerospace for which he has written since its launch.