Flying high as first Saudi pilot of world’s largest aircraft

Wesam Sameer Al-Najjar has spent nearly 4,000 hours in the cockpit and flown to more than 100 countries, all before his 29th birthday later this month. (Issa Alkindy)
Updated 18 October 2018
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Flying high as first Saudi pilot of world’s largest aircraft

  • Wesam Sameer Al-Najjar, also the youngest KSA national to fly the A380, has big dreams
  • Al-Najjar has flown the A318, A319, A320, A330 and A330 Cargo aircraft, among others

ABU DHABI: As the first Saudi A380 pilot in the world, senior first officer Wesam Sameer Al-Najjar has already spent nearly 4,000 hours in the cockpit and flown to more than 100 countries, all before his 29th birthday later this month.

Having joined Etihad Airways in 2013, Al-Najjar has flown the A318, A319, A320, A330 and A330 Cargo aircraft, among others. It was in 2016 that the Saudi national was selected to fly the A380 as the world’s first Saudi pilot of the world’s largest aircraft. To date, he is still the youngest Saudi national to have flown the Airbus. 

Among his biggest achievements was being selected to co-pilot Etihad’s flagship Year of Zayed-branded A380 on a special flight to Jeddah to mark the Kingdom’s National Day on Sept. 23 this year.

“It was such an honor to fly this flight,” he said. “Taking it all the way to Jeddah, the first Etihad A380 to fly this route. It was great to be part of a movement that reflects a great relationship between the two countries.

“Flying an A380 is incredible; you fly a cruising speed of 575mph all the way into the sky. To fly such a big aircraft motivates me to learn more, to study more, to achieve more. To know more and more about the world of aviation.”

When he received the email to say he had been selected as an A380 pilot, Al-Najjar was just 26.

“It was a huge honor and a dream come true and something that continues to motivate me,” said Al-Najjar. “I was very proud of myself. It was my dream.

“I remember receiving an email through flight operations. I just felt so happy. To fly the biggest aircraft in the world with destinations to London, Paris, New York and Sydney — it was a true honor and a dream — and I would say a large part was due to my family support and Etihad’s support, the UAE government’s support and the Saudi government’s support.”

One of 10 children, with four older brothers and five sisters, Al-Najjar said the first person that he called was his uncle, having lost both his father and mother. “He told me he was very happy and he is very proud of me,” said Al-Najjar. “He has supported me all my life.”

Growing up in western Saudi Arabia, in the city of Madinah, Al-Najjar said that he first envisioned being an engineer, but in his late teens decided being a pilot would be a “the perfect job” — and to pursue his dream after graduating from high school.

After a brief spell in London to brush up on his English, Al-Najjar moved to the UAE. There  he enrolled in EDIC Horizon International Flight Academy, a flight school in Al Ain, when he was just 19. He trained alongside his older brother Wadi Al-Najjar, now 33, who is also with Etihad, co-piloting the A320. 

“There was only myself and my brother and a girl who was from Saudi Arabia,” he recalled. “I was one of the youngest guys in the group.”

After 18 months in the academy, which also saw him train in Bahrain, Al-Najjar secured his pilot credentials at the age of 21 and joined Etihad shortly afterwards.

The lifestyle of his chosen profession is the most rewarding aspect of his job. “You fly everywhere,” he said. “You fly cold weather, warm weather. It is a wonderful job; it makes you learn more about different cultures by seeing many places in the world. Every flight is a new experience; new cultures, different flight crew, different personalities, different countries. And you really gain a family; sitting with a co-pilot for 16 hours and traveling with the flight crew; it really is a bonding experience.”

Paris, London and the south of France remain his favorite destinations, but Al-Najjar said a stand-out trip was working with Etihad partner airline Air Seychelles on the A320, where he had a “wonderful time” exploring the archipelago of islands in the Indian Ocean.

“I also loved the Maldives, China and exploring West Africa and Uganda. I have been to many, many countries, more than 100.”

In his career there are few places Al-Najjar, who co-pilots four flights a month, has yet to fly to.

“I am so grateful to Etihad airlines; it is one of the biggest airlines in the world and the fastest growing. They have a great team, and I am happy to be in the UAE and feel like I am in my home country. There is a really deep relationship between my country and the UAE government. And I would like to thank the UAE government, together with Saudi’s government, for their joint support and helping me reach all my achievements. I would love one day to meet all them. It would be such an honor.”

Despite the sheer size of the plane and being responsible for the 500-plus passengers on board, Al-Najjar said that he never gets nervous before a take-off or landing. “It is always two people in the cockpit, so we take care of the responsibilities from point A to point B. But I never feel nervous. If you are knowledgeable and know what you are doing, you are not nervous. The difficult — but best part — of the flight is the landing.”

So what is next for Al-Najjar? “It would be great to also be one of the top guys — whether here in Etihad or back Saudi Arabia’s airlines — to play a major role in aviation. But maybe one day I will even get to fly the royal flights for Saudi Arabia or the UAE. That would be a real honor. I hope it will be an achievement in the future.”

He also said it would be “a dream” to co-pilot a flight with his brother, and one day he aims to train other young aspiring pilots. “It would be great to be in management, and I think that is a consideration for the future.”

Any words of wisdom for aspiring pilots? “You have to be responsible. It is a big role. You have to be really keen to learn more. But I would say it is one of the best jobs in the world, so I would recommend people to join the aviation industry. I think many young Saudis would love to be pilots, and they are studying to do so — especially now there is a new cadet program for Saudi National and the establishment of a new flight academy, the CAE Oxford Authorized Training Center in Dammam. I think there are many Saudi youth — women and men — who want to fly and I hope one day more will do so.”


Shoura Council: We are the ears of Saudi society

Updated 19 November 2018
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Shoura Council: We are the ears of Saudi society

  • The Shoura Council that the King is addressing today has a vital role to play in government
  • Female Shoura Council members have played a major role in raising their voices over many issues concerning social development in Saudi Arabia

JEDDAH: When King Salman gives his annual speech that will open the third year of the Shoura Council’s seventh session today, it will set the tone for what lies ahead for the Kingdom, laying the groundwork for the consultative assembly to help to move the country forward.
“The King’s speech in the Shoura Council lays the road map to achieving Vision 2030,” said Lina Almaeena, one of its 30 female members. Women make up of 20 percent of the council, the same percentage of women who now hold seats in the US Congress.
While only midway through its seventh session, the roots of the Shoura Council date back to before Saudi Arabia’s founding. After entering the city of Makkah in 1924, King Abdul Aziz Al-Saud entrusted the council with drafting the basic laws for the administration of what was to become the future unified Kingdom.
In 1928, amendments were made as public interest grew. A new law consisting of 24 articles, which included the permanent appointment of a vice-president by the King, was issued to facilitate the council’s work.
In 1953, the council’s jurisdictions were distributed between the Council of Ministers and other government entities, reducing the Shoura Council’s power, although it continued to hold sessions until its mandate was once again broadened this century.
Its current format consists of a Speaker and 150 council members, among them scholars, educators, specialists and prominent members of society with expertise in their respective fields, chosen by the King and serving a four-year term.
The council convenes its sessions in the capital of Riyadh, as well as in other locations in the Kingdom as the King deems appropriate. Known as Majlis Al-Shoura inside the Kingdom, its basic function is to draft and issue laws approved by the King, as the cabinet cannot pass or enforce laws, a power reserved for the King to this day.
The Shoura can be defined as an exchange of opinions, and so another of its functions is to express views on matters of public interest and investigate these issues with people of authority and expertise, hence the 14 specialized committees that cover several aspects of social and governmental entities. From education, to foreign affairs, members assigned to committees review proposed draft laws prior to submitting them to the King, as they are able to exercise power within its jurisdiction and seek expertise from non-Majlis members. All requested documents and data in possession of government ministries and agencies must go through a request process from the Speaker to facilitate the Shoura Council committees’ work.
Female members are a fairly recent phenomenon. In September 2011, the late King Abdullah stated that women would become members of the council. In 2013, two royal decrees reconstituted the council, mandating that women should always hold at least a fifth of its 150 seats and appointed the first group of 30 female Shoura members.
Five years on, female Shoura Council members have played a major role in raising their voices over many issues concerning social development in Saudi Arabia. “It’s a golden age for Saudis and, as women, we’ve come a long way,” said Almaeena. “We’re living an era of historical change, and we’re making up for lost time.”
As part of their roles, members of the council have the right to discuss general plans for economic and social development, particularly now with the Vision 2030 blueprint. Annual reports forwarded by ministries and governmental institutes, international treaties and concessions are also within the council members’ remit, to discuss and make suggestions that are deemed appropriate.
“Many positive changes have taken place in the past few years, and the Shoura Council’s role has always put social developments first and foremost,” said Dr. Sami Zaidan, a council member of two terms. “The appointment of women diversified and expanded the discussions and has added value.”
Major achievements were chalked up in this term’s second year. Many of the draft proposals discussed received approval votes. On Nov. 8, a proposal with 39 articles to protect informants from attacks, threats and material harm was approved by the majority of the council. The draft law, suggested by the Ministry of Interior and the Ministry of Economy and Planning, would provide whistle-blowers with protection.
In May, the Shoura Council also approved legislation criminalizing sexual harassment in the Kingdom. The Cabinet, chaired by King Salman, backed the legislation, which required a royal decree to become law. Under it, perpetrators may face a jail sentence of up to five years and a SR 300,000 fine.
Draft regulations must go through a two-step process. The first, a chairman of a committee reads a draft of a proposal on the floor, and council members vote on referring the proposal to the designated committee. If members agree to the referral, each article is discussed thoroughly, studies are conducted on the aspects of the proposal, and after completing all the necessary checks, it reaches the second stage. The council then discusses the committee’s recommendations and a vote is set for each article proposed in an earlier session by the committee’s chairman.
Other proposals on the discussion table for this session include one that recognizes the importance of voluntary work in the community, in compliance with Vision 2030, which talks about one million volunteers in the Kingdom by 2030. The council has also asked the General Sports Authority to speed up the development of sports cities and to diversify its functions in different parts of the Kingdom to help the organizational level of women’s sports become an independent agency affiliated to the GSA chairman.
The council has also discussed a recommendation for women to hold leadership positions in Saudi Arabia’s diplomatic missions abroad, from a report by the council’s Foreign Affairs Committee. With approximately 130 women working at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the report recommended the necessity of an appointment as an affirmation that Saudi women are able to take over leadership positions as ministers, ambassadors and Saudi representatives in international forums.
Almaeena pointed out that Shoura Council members are the ears of society, playing an important role in relaying the public’s message to the designated committees. “The Shoura Council’s doors are always open, although not many know this,” she said. “The public is always welcome and can attend sessions, scheduling ahead of time. The doors to the council have always been and will always be open to all.”