Back in 2014, Qatar Airways announced that it would be launching a subsidiary airline based in Saudi Arabia. With one of the new carrier’s key hubs set to be in Jeddah, it would have operated flights mainly within Saudi Arabia using a fleet of Airbus A320s. This Qatar Airways offshoot, however, would never fully materialize. But why was this the case? Let’s go over the story of this airline that never was.
A hopeful beginning
It was back at the start of 2014 that Qatar Airways announced the launch of a new Saudia Arabia-based subsidiary: Al Maha Airways. The name Al Maha, naturally, is Arabic in origin and translates to ‘wild deer.’ In this case, it would be a reference to the Arabian Oryx, the iconic symbol that is the foundation of Qatar Airways’ branding.
The airline was to begin scheduled passenger operations in Saudi Arabia in the third quarter of 2014 using Airbus A320s. Its livery would be similar to Qatar Airways and its Oryx-adorned tails- but with a twist. Al Maha’s jets would be green and white, matching the colors of Saudi Arabia.
The airline was to start off with 10 A320s but eventually build to an ambitious 50 jets.
Delayed from the beginning
Aerotime reports that in 2013, Saudi Arabia’s civil aviation regulator had given initial approval for two foreign airlines to launch subsidiaries within the country in order to meet rising domestic travel demand. Two groups, Qatar Airways and the Al Qahtani Group (linked to Gulf Air) were to set up Al Maha Airways and SaudiGulf, respectively.
Even though Qatar Airways had hoped to begin operations less than a year from announcing the project, delays would extend this by quite some time. The first setback was due to licensing issues. These issues would drag on for several years.
Confident that approval would eventually be granted, Qatar Airways went ahead with the acquisition of new Airbus A320s, all painted in the new branding of Al Maha. It was in May of 2015 that Qatar Airways’ CEO Akbar Al Baker took delivery of the first four Al Maha jets. At the time, this is what the airline group chief had to say:
“It is a moment of significant pride to be welcoming the first aircraft of the new Al Maha Airways fleet, let alone four such aircraft in the same day. Featuring the distinctive new livery of Al Maha Airways, these new A320 aircraft will offer passengers the opportunity to travel on board the latest and most modern aircraft in the skies.”
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Despite having brand new aircraft painted in the airline’s livery, Qatar Airways would be forced to wait as Saudi regulators dragged their feet. When 2016 rolled around, multiple sources reported that the airline would finally launch in the summer of 2016. This period came and went with no progress to the situation.
There was progress for one airline, however. SaudiGulf Airlines was given the green light that summer and went on to launch services in October 2016. This was a move that must have been akin to rubbing salt in the wound for Qatar Airways.
Qatar Airways abandons Al Maha project
Then, in February 2017, Qatar Airways finally decided to pull the plug on Al Maha. According to ch-aviation, Akbar Al Baker formally confirmed that his airline group would be abandoning the project due to the lengthy delays in licensing.
Aviation24.be notes that Al Baker said the following in an interview:
“Yes, I’m disappointed that we were not able to launch that airline … We hope we will have another opportunity to fulfil our wish to serve the Saudi nation.”
While the airline CEO expressed a somewhat hopeful tone at the time that he would eventually be able to enter the Saudi market, this would not materialize. Indeed, the heated blockade against Qatar, which began in June 2017, ensured that any project similar to Al Maha would not happen any time soon.
The Al Maha name today
Qatar Airways does use the ‘Al Maha’ name in its operations these days. However, this is the name of its Doha-based personal travel service. Al Maha Services includes a “personalized meet and assist service” to ensure “a comfortable and seamless experience when arriving, departing or transferring through Hamad International Airport.” This includes expedited immigration clearance, priority boarding, and lounge access.
The aviation landscape is always changing. With the Qatari blockade recently ending and airlines on the road to post-pandemic recovery, maybe Qatar Airways can revisit the concept further in the future, if relations with Saudi Arabia continue to improve. In the meantime, the carrier is keeping busy with growth and expansion in many other ways.
Did you know about Al Maha? And do you think it could be revived in the future? Let us know in the comments.