China's COMAC eyes Saudi Arabia as launchpad for international expansion

China's COMAC eyes Saudi Arabia as launchpad for international expansion
Dongfang 7801 from Shanghai-Hongqiao, landing at 36R as part of its 100-hour validation. / bne IntelliNews
By bnm Gulf bureau May 24, 2024

Chinese state-owned aircraft manufacturer Commercial Aircraft Corporation of China (COMAC) is setting its sights on Saudi Arabia as a strategic base for its international expansion efforts, Al Eqtesadieh newspaper reported on May 24.

The move comes as COMAC intensifies its efforts to sell aircraft abroad and break into a passenger jet market dominated by Western manufacturers. Seen a sa potential rival once safety concerns are alleviated, the Chinese state company has been busy proving technology in recent years to potential buyers. 

COMAC Chairman Dongfeng He made his first visit to Saudi Arabia this week, following a visit by a Saudi delegation to the company's facilities in Shanghai in February. 

Speaking at an aviation conference in Riyadh on Tuesday, He outlined COMAC’s vision to enhance global connectivity and diversity by contributing to the development of Saudi Arabia’s aviation sector. "COMAC has a vision to improve global communication and diversity through contributing to the development of air transport in Saudi Arabia," he said.

COMAC's Chairman said its two operational planes, the C919 and ARJ21 regional jet, could serve Saudi's growing domestic and regional flight market as part of its massive expansion plans. 
"COMAC plans to enhance connectivity within a 2,000-km radius, spanning the Arabian Peninsula, the Middle East, Turkey, North Africa and beyond," He said, Reuters reported. 
The Chinese official also hinted at taking on the duopoly of Airbus and Boeing with the launch of a long-haul wide-body plane, the C929, which could plug into the Vision 2030 plans. 
However, industry insiders caution that COMAC faces significant hurdles in its bid for international expansion. The company has yet to secure essential quality certifications from the United States or the European Union, and its aircraft need to be more efficient to compete globally.

Currently, COMAC's aircraft predominantly operate within China, with a single Indonesian airline also operating its planes.

Earlier in February, the C919, China's homegrown narrow-body passenger aircraft, made its second international landing in Vietnam, following its debut at the Singapore Airshow. 

Established in 2008, COMAC is actively seeking international customers but has a long way to go before it can challenge the established Western manufacturers it has.

However, the company has so far avoided selling to Russia and Iran, which have been cut out of international aviation sales due to sanctions. If no such sanctions existed, it is unlikely that Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi would have last weekend been travelling in the 40+-year-old Bell helicopter, in which he perished after it crashed on its way back to Iran from a visit in Azerbaijan.