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Flight to Progress

The citizens of the world take air travel for granted. Businessmen and women, families, school and university pupils, tourists, shoppers attending festivals take to the air as a matter of routine and right. Flight has both shrunk the globe and linked its peoples in multiple webs spun by entrepreneurs, politicians, generals, scientists, artists, and researchers.

But human flight became a possibility only after the brothers Orville and Wilbur Wright built and flew the first powered, controlled aircraft at Kitty Hawk, in the US state of North Carolina, on Dec. 17, 1903. While glider and powered flights proliferated in Europe and Latin America in the immediate aftermath of the Wright brothers triumph, flight arrived in the Eastern Arab world when on Dec.15, 1909, Belgian aristocrat Baron Pierre de Caters became the first man to fly in Egypt (as he had in Turkey). He piloted his biplane, making two circuits of about a kilometer each over the Abbassia neighbourhood of Cairo. On subsequent days he repeated this feat and even took up two women as passengers.

Egyptian interest in aviation soared in February 1910 when a dozen aviators and 18 planes arrived at a field in Heliopolis to contend for 150,000 Francs in prize money offered by the Aviation Club of France. At this time, low level flights were made by pioneering men and women and relished as entertainment by spectators. However, the potential of manned flight was not lost on businessmen who followed up the 1908 discovery of oil in Iran with the 1910 first commercial purchase of an aircraft to survey the ground for the laying of a pipeline to transport the oil from desert fields to the coast.

These tentative beginnings of flight in this region are described by Gerald Butt in his fascinating book, History in the Arab Skies: Aviation's Impact on the Middle East, published by Rimal Publications, based in Nicosia, Cyprus. Butt described how Britain, which ruled Egypt, and France, the power in North Africa, fostered these early aviators and aviation events. These two countries, the leading colonial nations of the age, clearly saw the advantages flight would bring to maintaining control over subject peoples in their far-flung empires, warfare and commerce. Italy, a lessor colonial power, was the first to drop bombs on a subject people: Libyans resisting Rome's rule in January 1912. Two months earlier an Italian pilot, Gulio Gavotti, threw bombs at Ottoman troops resisting the Italian invasion of Libya.

Germany also promoted experimental flight and the development of aircraft ahead of the First World War (1914-19), a conflict where air power determined victory in Europe and this region. After winning that war, British pilots flew sorties against rebel Kurds in Iraq, using gas to subdue them.

By the end of World War I, Cairo had become the regional hub from which mail and passenger flights were made by British commerical aircraft to Jerusalem, Beirut, Baghdad, and Basra with the aim of developing routes to India and Australia.

In the search for convenient routes to India, Britain approached the shah of Iran to extend an agreement granting landing rights in the south on the Gulf but he insisted that the British carrier, Imperial Airways, should establish routes including cities in the interior of the country, opening it up to aviation.

In 1931, a frustrated Britain, the main air power in the region, approached the rulers of the Trucial Coast in 1931 with the object of obtaining permission for refueling stops en route to Karachi. At that time Britain had refuelling facilities near Manama in Bahrain but sought full facilities but Gulf rulers were, rightly, suspicious of London's imperial ambitions in the region.

In March 1932, Sharjah's ruler Sheikh Sultan Bin Sakr Al Qasimi, who understood the importance of the development, offered facilities for flying boats and land-based aircraft, but insisted that the emirate's independence would not be compromised.

A deal was signed on July 22 of that year, establishing a pattern for further arrangements with other Gulf rulers.

The 11-year agreement signed by Britain and Sheikh Sultan gave Imperial Airways the right to designate and construct a landing strip while he pledged to build a guest house for passengers and company staff and to provide security for inhabitants of the facility. He appointed 35 guards and two head guards. Britain paid their salaries as well as a rent of Rs 800 a month for the site. Britain also gave Sheikh Sultan a fee of Rs 500 and aircraft were charged a landing tariff of five rupees.

The British officer who signed the accord, H R P Dickson added an annex, informing the ruler that the British government would respect his and his "successors' independence [and] complete freedom and authority over [his] subjects and properties..." The British government promised to offer protection if Sharjah came under threats from opponents of the deal.

Sheikh Sultan also insisted that the British mail ship should call at Sharjah.

During the last decade of the 20th century, Dubai became the regional hub for air traffic between east and west. In the first decade of the 21st, Emirates, Etihad and Qatar Airlines have become bywords for excellence in passenger service and comfort. Butt shows how the development of civilian air travel transformed the political, economic, social and cultural life of this strategic region and how conflicts have been both complicated and prolonged by the use of air power.

For example, while the Israeli victory over Egypt, Syria, and Jordan during the 1967 war was one of the most stunning exhibitions of airpower since World War II, the Palestinian/Arab-Israeli conflict remains the main source of dissonance and instability in this region.

After describing the role flight has played in the development of the Arab world, Butt makes the point that the enterprise remains essentially colonial because Arab countries, eager to exploit flight, have not developed indigenous aerospace industries but have relied on European, Russian and US firms to supply aircraft Arab pilots fly with great expertise. Butt expresses the hope that young Arabs will opt to develop and build their own aircraft.

History in the Arab Skies: Aviation's Impact on the Middle East by Gerald Butt is available at the Sharjah Book Fair between November 16-26.


Review by Michael Jansen for The Gulf Today

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