With bullish tourism numbers to be hit by the time the World Expo lands in six years’ time, major sports events are playing an integral role in the growth of the economy in Dubai. Kevin Roberts travelled to the UAE to meet the major players and asked them how they are making it happen.
On March 14 this year, the governing body of cricket in India, the BCCI (Board of Control for Cricket in India), announced that the first phase of its 2014, super-charged, money-spinning Indian Premier League (IPL) would take place in the United Arab Emirates (UAE), 1,200 miles from Mumbai and some 1,700 from Bangalore.
The move was triggered by an approaching election and fears that the volatility of Indian political life could find an unwanted and potentially dangerous focus on the league.
The tournament was hosted at three venues, including Dubai Sports City, the development that houses the International Cricket Council (ICC)’s headquarters and academy as well as a 25,000-seater international cricket stadium.
According to Maqbul Dudhia, the former Zimbabwean cricket international who is now general manager for sports business at Dubai Sports City, the opportunity to host one of world sport’s most dynamic events was simply too appetising to turn down, even with little more than a month between the signing of the hosting agreement and the first game on April 16.
It was, says Dudhia, a project that perfectly illustrates the ‘can do’ spirit which locals say permeates Dubai and its ability to recognise an opportunity and pull together a myriad governmental bodies, private enterprises and individuals necessary to make things happen.
“It was a tremendous challenge to deal with the logistical and operational issues, but there was a will to get it done that came from the highest level in Dubai,” he told SportBusiness International.
But Dubai – and in particular its significant population from the Indian sub-continent – loves cricket, and the sell-out first game in Dubai between Royal Challengers Bangalore and the Mumbai Indians was followed by six more full-houses. Hundreds of millions more around the world, meanwhile, saw the pictures from Dubai on TV.
The success of the IPL’s road trip will surprise nobody who follows events in Dubai and understands the focus of one of the world’s most multicultural societies.
The emirate is driven by the vision of His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, vice-president and prime minister of the UAE and ruler of Dubai, a man who has overseen the city’s development into a key international business centre in just half a century.
Dubai’s population is a little over two million, of whom only 10-15 per cent are local Emiratis. The rest is made up of ex-pats from some 200 other states, drawn by the commercial and lifestyle opportunities offered in a city-state whose rulers have managed to embrace many cultures to create a welcoming environment for residents and visitors. All of which has been done without surrendering its own history and national identity.
Sport plays a key role in Dubai life in a number of ways beyond providing exercise and entertainment for local people. It is seen as a significant driver of tourism and will be a major weapon in achieving the massive growth in visitor numbers set out in the nation’s Dubai Vision 2020, which aims to double the 2012 level tourists to 20 million in six years’ time.
But let’s get one thing straight: while the value of sport is recognised, it is not the be-all and end-all. The biggest event that Dubai has ever bid for is the World Expo in 2020, which will run for six months and attract up to 25 million visitors from around the world. The World Expo, hosted next year in Milan and in Astana, capital of Kazakhstan, in 2017, is designed to highlight and promote the continuation of Dubai’s historic role as a centre for international trade.
Ex-pats in Dubai will tell you that the celebrations that followed the emirate’s winning of the World Expo were shared by the entire resident population and not simply those with Emirati passports; there was genuine joy and excitement, indicating a remarkable level of buy-in among the diverse international community.
Events have been identified as one of our three key pillars
There may be sports events – the FIFA World Cup and Olympic Games among them – which offer massive reach and a frisson of glamour, but the decision to go for the World Expo was typically focused and driven by practical outcomes. The event plays to Dubai’s strengths in business and as a tourism destination in different ways to sports events. It’s all about pragmatism.
According to Helal Al Marri, director general of Dubai’s Department of Tourism and Commerce Marketing (DTCM) and CEO of the Dubai World Trade Centre business complex, events and festivals are “a crucial part of Dubai’s current culture and a vital part of future growth”.
“Events have been identified as one of the three key pillars – alongside family and business tourism – that will enable us to realise Dubai Vision 2020,” he told SportBusiness International.
“Sports events are a valuable part of Dubai’s destination offer, and they will continue to be expanded by bringing in more internationally-renowned sporting matches to the emirate. This, in turn, will draw more visitors to the city from key markets, and further contribute to Vision 2020.”
Sport, brand-building and economic growth from tourism are inextricably linked, he adds.
“Along with bringing visitors to the emirate, events also put Dubai in the global spotlight, showcasing the city and its festivals and celebrations to a global audience,” says Al Marri.
“Events, and sporting events such as [golf’s] Omega Dubai Desert Classic and [horse racing’s] Dubai World Cup in particular, attract thousands of fans from around the world each year. Fans not only attend these events, but also stay in our world-class hotels, enjoy a variety of cuisines in our restaurants and enjoy any one of the exciting and unique leisure activities available throughout the city.
“Along with the direct positive economic impact these events have on the city, they also create iconic moments in Dubai history, such as leading tennis players Roger Federer and Andre Agassi playing tennis on top of the Burj Al Arab [hotel] helipad in 2009.”
Sport’s role in driving Dubai’s economy through tourism and nation brand-building is fuelled by the almost symbiotic relationship with state airline Emirates, which has become intrinsically linked to global sport as a result of a massive sponsorship portfolio that encompasses everything from leading football clubs and the FIFA World Cup to America’s Cup sailing, horse racing and much else in between.
A second commercial organisation that helps cement Dubai’s relationship with sport is Dubai Duty Free, the biggest and arguably, most visible operation of its type in the world.
Salah Tahlak, senior vice-president for corporate communications at the airport retailer, says the roots of its involvement in sport go back to 1983.
“That’s when it was decided sport provided a great opportunity to focus attention on the city of Dubai and the fledgling Dubai Duty Free brand,” he told SportBusiness International.
“In the early days, our sponsorships were very much locally based, but by the mid-1990s it became clear that hosting international events was the way to proceed in putting Dubai on the map as a sporting and leisure destination.”
The first toe was dipped in the water of international event sponsorship via snooker sponsorship during its late 1980s heyday, but the breakthrough came in 1993 when the ATP (Association of Tennis Professionals) sanctioned a World Tour event in Dubai.
The WTA (Women’s Tennis Association), meanwhile, sanctioned a Tour stop in 2011, and the men and women both now play in the tournament known as the Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships. It is estimated by an independent agency that the men’s event alone delivered $718 million of TV exposure for Dubai this year.
“In terms of investment, the Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships is our biggest event and, although staged in Dubai, it is an international event transmitted around the world,” adds Tahlak. “Beyond that, there is a fairly even split between our overseas sponsorships and our domestic partnerships.
“Overseas, our main focus is on international horse racing, such as the Spring Trials at Newbury, the Shergar Cup at Ascot and the Irish Derby [at Curragh].”
The association with racing in the UK and Ireland underscores the umbilical link between both Dubai Duty Free, the emirate itself and the sport of kings; Sheikh Mohammed is one of the world’s most successful and influential owners while, of course, the Dubai World Cup, held at the state-of-the-art Meydan Racecourse, is the world’s richest race.
Alongside its commercial and nation-branding roles, sport plays an increasingly important recreational and health promotion role in Dubai, and the body responsible for melding the two areas is the Dubai Sports Council.
Its secretary general, Dr. Ahmad Al Sharif, also explains that while its major events are “incredibly important”, they aren’t the only game in town.
“Our role is to create a balanced, integrated and comprehensive sports environment that meets the requirements of our whole society,” he told SportBusiness International.
“Dubai has an array of world-class sports and recreation facilities that are available to all. And I am pleased that huge progress has been made in hosting both grassroots and youth sports performance to pave the way for young talent to achieve at national, regional and international levels.
“Our key priorities are having an energetic and active population, making facilities available to all, supporting our talented athletes to perform to the best of their abilities and, of course, continuing to attract globally-renowned events to Dubai.”
Critically, one of the cornerstones of Dubai Sports Council policy is to link grassroots initiatives to major events being held in the emirate, says Al Sharif.
“We have multi-faceted partnerships with international organisations and teams such as the Chinese national table tennis team, FINA (the International Swimming Federation) and the Badminton World Federation (BWF),” he adds. “These partnerships allow us not only to host international events associated with their sports, but also to create programmes such as Ping Pong Dubai and Shuttle Time Dubai.”
The Ping Pong Dubai and Shuttle Time Dubai grassroots initiatives are led by the Dubai Sports Council and Falcon and Associates, the strategic advisory company working on behalf of Sheikh Mohammed.
“These allow the community to be involved and allow our national athletes to spend time with, and learn from, some of the very best sportsmen and women in the world,” says Al Sharif.
This December, Dubai hosts the BWF Superseries Finals at the Hamdan Sports Complex, the biggest multi-purpose facility in the world, completed in 2010 and host of the 25-metre FINA World Swimming Championships the same year.
The Superseries Finals are the culmination of a calendar of events that run under the aspirational banner ‘Destination Dubai’, a branding concept that builds on the success of the European Tour’s ‘Race To Dubai’, a title that effortlessly ticks every brand-building box by linking the aspiration of international sport to Dubai as a destination.
Golf, along with horse racing and rugby sevens, has been the foundation for Dubai’s sports-linked development strategies. February’s Dubai Desert Classic will be the 25th since the European Tour decided to move into the Middle East, becoming the 38th event on its schedule in 1989. Now title sponsored by Omega, it is played at the Emirates Golf Club where the background of Dubai’s space-age cityscape makes it instantly recognisable to TV viewers throughout the world.
Chris May, CEO of Dubai Golf, which manages both the Emirates Golf Club and Dubai Creek Golf & Yacht Club, puts the longevity and popularity of the event down to the enthusiasm of the world’s leading stars to play in Dubai – enthusiasm which is itself based on the quality of their experience of everything from the course and practice facilities to the hotels and restaurants.
“The players love being here and the Desert Classic features the very best in the world,” he told SportBusiness International. “But it’s not just about the tournament. Because of the standard of the facilities and the climate, many players like to come here to warm up for the season.”
The buy-in of leading players to the concept of Dubai as an accessible location with a range of world-class courses has also helped drive golf tourism into the city state. According to May, golf tourists currently number around 60,000 per year, but there is considerable excitement about the potential to build significantly on that number in pursuit of the state’s overall targets for tourism.
“Though at the moment golf tourism comes primarily from Europe, we can see great potential from China, reflecting golf’s growth there, as well as countries like India,” he adds.
“The courses here compare with the best in the world, and new hotels are being built to give visitors additional choice beyond the five-star experience associated with Dubai.”
As anyone who works in a senior position within sport in Dubai is quick to point out, the Dubai of 2008 – when the international press ran stories about ex-pats fleeing home during the property crash caused by the financial crisis – is long gone.
Instead, Dubai is thriving, vibrant and focused on new targets and making new connections around the world. The World Expo in 2020 underscores the city’s position as a leading global trading hub, and will attract millions of visitors, but the event is a milestone and not the end of the journey. The question remains, what major events will follow it?
Naturally, nobody in Dubai will discuss specific events or particular bid targets, but with an infrastructure growing in parallel with its reputation, it would be unwise to rule Dubai out of the running for more or less anything other than the Olympic Games or FIFA World Cup.