DUBAI, United Arab Emirates — It’s 1 a.m. and the sprawling airport in this desert city is bustling. Enough languages fill the air to make a United Nations translator’s head spin.
Thousands of fliers arrive every hour from China, Australia, India, and nearly everywhere else on the planet. Few venture outside the terminal, which spans the length of 24 football fields. They come instead to catch connecting flights to somewhere else.
If it were not for three ambitious and rapidly expanding government-owned airlines — Emirates Airline, Etihad Airways, and Qatar Airways — they might have never come to the Middle East.
For generations, international fliers have stopped over in London, Paris, and Amsterdam. Now, they increasingly switch planes in Dubai, Doha, and Abu Dhabi, making this region a new crossroads of global travel. The switch is driven by both the airports and airlines, all backed by governments that see aviation as the way to make their countries bigger players in the global economy.
Passengers are won over by their fancy new planes and top-notch service. But the real key to the airlines’ growth is geography. Their hubs in Qatar and the United Arab Emirates are an eight-hour flight away from two-thirds of the world’s population, including a growing middle class in India, China, and Southeast Asia that is eager to travel.
In the past five years, the annual number of passengers traveling through Dubai International Airport — home to Emirates — has jumped from 28.8 million to 51 million, a 77 percent increase. The airport now sees more passengers than New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport.
‘‘Everybody accepts that the balance of global economic power is shifting to the east. The geographic position of the gulf hubs makes them much more relevant today,’’ said Willie Walsh, CEO of International Airlines Group, the parent company of British Airways and Iberia.
Persian Gulf carriers are already chipping away at some US and European airlines’ most lucrative business: long-haul international flights. But it is what’s ahead that really has other airlines worried.
Gulf carriers hold one-third of the orders for the Boeing 777 and Airbus A380 — two of the world’s largest and farthest-flying jets. That is enough planes to put 70,000 passengers in the air at any given moment.
‘‘They’re being very aggressive,’’ said Adam Weissenberg, who heads the travel and hospitality consulting group at Deloitte. ‘‘These airlines are not going away.’’