Abu Dhabi Airports Free Zone: Poised to become a global logistics and cargo hub

Published: Monday, April 17, 2023

“Our Free Zones offer unique airside connections, which are highly desirable for businesses seeking a competitive edge. This exceptional connectivity, combined with the rapid growth of the local economy and the expansion of Etihad, positions ADAFZ as an ideal location to capitalize on the burgeoning opportunities presented by the air cargo market.” 

Steven Polmans ADAFZ Vice President for Business Development and TIACA Chairman

Known for its world-class infrastructure, modern architecture, diverse population and ease of doing business, Abu Dhabi, the oil and gas-rich capital of the United Arab Emirates, has emerged as a major global hub for various industries while captivating travelers from across the world with its unique tourist attractions and culture.

Strategically located between the East and the West, Abu Dhabi is also fast emerging as a major transport hub. And among its many Free Zones making an important connection in today’s fast-paced global trade is the Abu Dhabi Airports Free Zone (ADAFZ).

Steven Polmans, ADAFZ Vice President for Business Development, who oversees the growth and development at the Free Zone, breaks down to Air Cargo Update the company’s priorities, challenges, and opportunities facing ADAFZ in its mission to become a leading hub for cargo and logistics.

Boosting Business Logistics

Most of ADAFZ landbank is located next to Abu Dhabi International Airport, providing easy access to air, sea, and land transportation networks. Thus, it has become a preferred destination for businesses involved in cargo and logistics operations.

According to Polmans, ADAFZ’s priority is to execute and speed up the strategy agreed upon for cargo and logistics. “This means building the team and getting the right resources on board, speeding up the delivery of real estate projects, designing and developing a new air cargo terminal, having offerings in place for our customers and tenants such as sea-air solutions, and growing the number of airlines, forwarders, distributors, and other players in the value chain to deploy activities at Abu Dhabi.”

ADAFZ offers several free zones at different airports in the Emirate of Abu Dhabi, each with its own specific customer focus. From an airport city to a logistics area, from offices to MRO zones, the Free Zones offer a range of products and services to companies setting up a business.

Polmans, who is also the current chairman of the  international trade body, The International Air Cargo Association or TIACA, underscored the importance of having the Free Zones connected to an airport, thus, benefit from the airport ecosystem. “Besides that, our Free Zones offer a range of products and services to companies setting up a business, and also different government and investment authorities are keen to discuss support for new initiatives,” he says. This makes ADAFZ an attractive option for businesses looking to set up in Abu Dhabi.

To enhance its cargo operations, ADAFZ is in constant discussion with its existing and potential future customers to understand their needs and concerns. “We also work with customs, police, and handling to make little steps and further improve the processes at the airport. the government is making big efforts, such as for example the introduction of ATLP, a single window for trade in Abu Dhabi. This platform digitally facilitates trade through the sea, land, air, industrial and Free Zones. It enables transparency, predictability, simplified procedures, and efficiency,” Polmans added.

Challenges and Opportunities

The biggest challenge facing ADAFZ is time. Polmans said there are numerous projects and momentum and ensuring that everything is done in time and coordinated between all teams and stakeholders is a challenging exercise.

In the past, ADAFZ’s focus was more on supporting and growing Etihad Cargo. While Etihad remains the home carrier and most important partner, the Free Zone is again diversifying its focus and wants to do this in a balanced and sustainable way. However, challenges linked to opportunities, as is the case for ADAFZ, are often the nicer ones to deal with.

Polmans is an advocate and supporter of collaboration between all stakeholders and a strong ecosystem, whereby the airport acts as the conductor of the orchestra.

“If you want to build a strong and growing business in line with our strategy, collaboration is a must. So, we actively talk with all airlines and forwarders, with government agencies such as customs and police, and organize joint events such as the World Cargo Summit some months ago, and we do not do this on the airport community level. We do this too with AD Ports and other logistic clusters to offer future customers and investors an overall solution as Abu Dhabi, one that best fits their needs, expectations, or requirements,” he noted.

Expanding Cargo Capabilities

As the global air cargo industry continues to grow, ADAFS is gearing up to meet the needs of this expanding market. With a vast array of infrastructure and facilities available, including modern warehouses, cutting-edge handling equipment, and reliable customs services, it has positioned itself as a hub of choice for cargo operations.

“All infrastructure is present at the moment to handle all types of cargo, and we constantly update existing infrastructure. However, the biggest need currently is the construction of a bigger and brand-new air cargo facility. Currently, we are in the design phase of this building and later this year we will tender for construction,” said Polmans. “This building will double our capacity for cargo and allow us to handle all types of cargo in the most modern environment and setup. It will be constructed opposite the new passenger terminal, in East Midfield, and the area has huge room for further growth. In the first phase, we will be able to handle 1.5 million tons of cargo, but we can easily expand this to up to 3.5 million tons if needed.”

He further added, “All buildings in the Cargo Village and Terminal are being constantly modernized to meet local and international regulations and safety standards. We also expand where possible or needed, such as with the recently opened new pharma facility of Etihad or the brand-new DHL first-line facility that will open in Q2 of this year. Many more projects are in the pipeline or already in the design stage, so you can expect a lot of new announcements and updates in the years to come.”

ADAFZ’s focus in the future is not limited to expanding infrastructure and fostering a robust air cargo ecosystem. Polmans said measuring success at ADAFZ is not about total cargo volume alone, but also about diversifying their portfolio and increasing the presence of local forwarders and cargo operations.

While they aim to grow their cargo volume in the coming years, the airport’s goal is to support the growth of their Free Zones and the economy in Abu Dhabi as a whole. This strategy includes attracting new airlines and increasing the share of local cargo, as well as promoting the growth of businesses in the region.

Exceptional Connectivity Edge

ADAFZ’s location is not only strategic but its world-class operational support system (OSS) also sets it apart from other destinations for companies looking to establish a foothold in the region.

“Our Free Zones offer unique airside connections, which are highly desirable for businesses seeking a competitive edge. This exceptional connectivity, combined with the rapid growth of the local economy and the expansion of Etihad, positions ADAFZ as an ideal location to capitalize on the burgeoning opportunities presented by the air cargo market,” Polmans explained.

He noted that ADAFZ’s growth prospects are substantial, with enormous potential for greenfield developments, airside-connected warehouses, and new infrastructure to support the company’s cargo operations. As part of its strategic plan, ADAFZ aims to foster a robust air cargo ecosystem, attract new companies, and enhance efficiency.

Polmans re-affirmed ADAFZ’s vision is “100% aligned” with Abu Dhabi’s economic vision, and the company is committed to playing a significant role in enabling its execution. With its state-of-the-art airport, innovative Free Zones, and collaborative stakeholders and customers, ADAFZ is dedicated to supporting the growth of the logistics industry and positioning Abu Dhabi as the preferred hub for air cargo operations.