Pilgrims flock to Mecca (Photo: Reuters)
Saudi Arabia on Thursday officially opens a billion-dollar aviation gateway aimed at Muslim pilgrims, in the kingdom's first airport privatisation.
Local media said King Salman would inaugurate the Prince Mohammad bin Abdul Aziz International Airport in the holy city of Medina.
About two million pilgrims annually visit the western cities of Mecca and Medina for the hajj, which this year takes place in September.
Medina's domestic airport was upgraded to international status because of "the importance and the role of the air transport sector in the service of pilgrims and visitors to the Prophet's mosque," the website of the airport operator says.
TIBAH Airports Development Co. won the bid and in October 2011 signed a build, transfer and operate agreement with the kingdom's aviation regulator, the General Authority of Civil Aviation (GACA).
The consortium includes Turkey's TAV Airports along with local firms Al-Rajhi and Saudi Oger.
TIBAH said the project "represents the first partnership between the public and private sectors in airports" in Saudi Arabia.
Medina airport's annual passenger capacity will rise from last year's 5.7 million to eight million, before doubling to 16 million by the end of the 25-year agreement for operating the facility, TAV said.
The project "represents a new direction" because it was privately built and will be run by the joint venture, said GACA, which operates 27 airports in the kingdom.
Some of those are also targeted for privatisation.
Aeroports de Paris is among seven candidates invited to bid for a concession at the country's busiest airport in Jeddah, south of Medina, GACA president Suleiman al-Hamdan told AFP last month on the sidelines of the Paris Air Show.
A new terminal under construction in Riyadh will also be operated by an international company, said GACA.
Saudi Arabia is the Arab world's largest economy and is spending billions of dollars on building and upgrading its air terminals.
National carrier Saudi Arabian Airlines announced at the Paris Air Show an order for 50 Airbus passenger planes worth about $8 billion.
Carriers based in neighbouring Gulf states -- Emirates, Qatar Airways and Abu Dhabi's Etihad -- have won a large chunk of global air travel, turning their airports into major transcontinental hubs.