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Analysis: Chinese Carriers Double Down on the Middle East

There seems to be a unified shift among major Chinese carriers in their capacity to the Middle East.

A China Southern 787 in Beijing (Photo: Shutterstock)

Abu Dhabi welcomed its first Chinese carrier in a decade; Doha welcomed its first-ever Chinese airline last year; Cairo welcomed back Hainan and China Eastern, who have not served the country in almost a decade; Istanbul welcomed two new Chinese airlines in 2023. The list goes on, and capacity is at an all-time high between China and the Middle East.

Xiamen Airlines operates the 787 to Doha (Photo: AirlineGeeks | Anthony An)

There seems to be a unified shift among major Chinese carriers in their capacity offerings to the region, but is it a move to turn the carriers to profitability after consecutive losses, including in 2023, or geopolitical?

Summary of New Services

Route Airlines Status Frequency
Shanghai – Istanbul China Eastern Launched 2023 Daily
Beijing – Istanbul Air China Launched 2023 Three weekly
Beijing Daxing – Doha Xiamen Airlines Launched 2023 Daily
Xiamen – Doha Xiamen Airlines Launched 2023 Twice weekly
Shanghai – Cairo China Eastern Launched 2023 Three weekly
Shenzhen – Cairo Hainan Airlines Launched 2023 Three weekly
Haikou – Abu Dhabi Hainan Airlines Launched Feb 2024 Twice weekly
Shanghai – Riyadh China Eastern Commences on April 8, 2024 Three weekly
Beijing Daxing – Tehran China Southern Commences on April 15, 2024 Twice weekly

It is important to note that most of the flights are brand-new connections. China Eastern did not fly to Cairo for around a decade, and Doha and Riyadh have not seen scheduled Chinese passenger carriers before.

Many of the new routes happen in tandem with air transport projects in local airports, including Saudi Air Transport Initiative and Istanbul’s ‘100 Airlines for the 100th Anniversary,’ with Air China being the 100th carrier.

An Air China 777-300ER in Los Angeles (Photo: AirlineGeeks | William Derrickson)

Abu Dhabi welcomed its first Chinese carrier in a decade rather quietly, with Hainan Airlines launching a route to Haikou. The two weekly flights will be the only connection between the Southern Chinese Hainan Province and the UAE. Etihad has been struggling in China; the cancelation of its Guangzhou service earlier this year means it only has ten weekly flights to Mainland China.

Next Up: Saudi Arabia

At the time of the writing, there are no Chinese carriers serving the country, and the only air service is by Saudi national carrier Saudia, which flies to Guangzhou and Beijing from its hubs in Jeddah and Riyadh, providing a total of around nine weekly flights.

As reported by Aeroroutes, China Eastern plans to launch a new service to Riyadh in the summer of 2024. The airline plans to operate three weekly flights with Airbus A330-200 aircraft. China Southern also filed service to Riyadh from Beijing Daxing, operating twice weekly with an A330-300.

Air China, on the other hand, was reportedly awarded to operate the Beijing Capital – Riyadh route by the CAAC. Several other carriers, including Juneyeo, Hainan Airlines, and China Southern, also hold rights to fly to Riyadh, but it is uncertain whether they will materialize.

OAG data suggest roughly 300,000 two-way passengers traveled between China and Saudi Arabia, the majority of which transited, with Dubai being the most popular. The demand is expected to grow even further with the increase in trade and leisure demand.

Why the Middle East Focus?

Demand is growing and most are captured by transit carriers, including Emirates and Qatar. Chinese carriers can also tap into the connecting market from East Asia to the Middle East with competitive fares.

Geopolitics may also be a factor with it being difficult to increase flights to North America as bilateral agreements dictate the traffic. Second, China has increasingly close ties with the Gulf nations, and new flights often serve as a ‘show of diplomatic ties’ for the Chinese.

In addition, Chinese carriers have some of the largest long-haul fleets but with low utility. In 2019, there were over 300 round-trip flights weekly between the US and China. In 2024, the latest agreement permits 70. Between China and Canada, there are eight flights a week in 2024, compared to over 100 in 2019. The airlines need new destinations to utilize the aircraft.

Anthony Bang An


  • Anthony Bang An

    Anthony is an airline enthusiast who also loves traveling. He grew up around the world from St. Louis to Singapore and now lives in Amsterdam. He loves long-haul flying and finds peace in the sound of engine cruising. Fresh out of high school, he aspires to be working in the aviation industry and share his passion for the sky. 

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