Why Does The UAE Have Two Flag Carriers?

Did you know that the United Arab Emirates technically has two flag carriers? Both Abu Dhabi-based Etihad and Dubai-based Emirates can legitimately claim to be flag carriers of the United Arab Emirates. So why does the UAE have two flag carriers? Let’s find out.

Etihad and Emirates
Etihad and Emirates are both UAE flag carriers. Photo: Simple Flying.

What makes an airline a flag carrier?

Historically, flag carriers were initially state-owned or at least government-supported, during a time when the costs of operating independently were too high. It was also in the interest of governments to have an airline that represented their country. In many parts of the world, this is still the case.

The title of ‘flag carrier’ is often a source of pride and used to proudly distinguish the airline as the official carrier of the country. In some cases, this means that the airline will exclusively fly government officials and its head of state on high-profile international trips. In the video below, we can see that Air China and Qatar Airways are just a few examples of commercial airlines that also provide exclusive services for their respective governments.

The unique situation of the United Arab Emirates

So why does the UAE have two flag carriers? This comes down to the unique geopolitical situation of the country. The United Arab Emirates is, as the name suggests, a federation of seven loosely-affiliated emirates (the largest and most populous of which are Dubai and Abu Dhabi in that order), each with its own royal family.

Emirates is based in Dubai. Etihad Airways was established as the second flag carrier of the United Arab Emirates in July 2003 by Royal (Amiri) Decree issued by Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan, who wanted an airline for Abu Dhabi. Sheikh Ahmed bin Saif Al Nahyan established the airline.

Etihad Airways Boeing 787-9 Dreamliner
Etihad is the flag carrier of the Emirate of Abu Dhabi. Photo: Etihad

In fact, despite the borders drawn by colonial powers, much of the Middle East can also be divided along tribal lines that have existed for centuries. Sometimes modern-day borders align with the historical territory of these tribes, sometimes they create divisions.

As in the case of the United Arab Emirates, borders may group together different tribes. In this case, the country’s seven Emirates are as follows: Abu Dhabi, Dubai, Ajman, Fujairah, Ras al Khaimah, Sharjah, and Umm al Quwain. These seven emirates that make up the UAE maintain a large degree of independence. Each emirate, as you might guess, has its own Emir. In Arabic, this literally translates to ‘commander’ but in a modern-day context, it is used to denote a ruler.

Emirates is the flag carrier of the Emirate of Dubai. Photo: Emirates.

Does the title matter anymore?

These days the title is used on the websites of airlines and in their various marketing materials. From a PR standpoint, the title may give the airline a sense of prestige, legitimacy, and “officialness”. However, in our modern age of free markets, flight reviews, and an emphasis on airline service quality, it seems to matter less and less. For example, the United States does not have a flag carrier despite having three obvious contenders that could take the title.

Do you think the title of ‘flag carrier’ still matters these days? Does it have any impact on your choice of airline? Let us know in the comments!