It was arguably the most dangerous game of tennis ever played.
When the Dubai Tennis Championships staged a photo shoot high up on the Burj Al Arab hotel helipad in 2005, Roger Federer and Andre Agassi were under strict instructions not to stray too far back to retrieve a shot. One false move and it was a very swift 210-metre drop to the artificial island below.
It was well worth the risk. The resulting photos were published across the globe, heralding the introduction to a worldwide audience of the United Arab Emirates as an aspirational sports destination.
In the background of the pictures was the ever-changing skyline of downtown Dubai, bristling with expensive office skyscrapers, while out to sea were the oil fields that originally gave the economy lift-off.
However, Dubai does not have the vast oil reserves of neighbouring emirate Abu Dhabi. Back in the 1990s, the ruling Al Maktoum family wisely decided to diversify from a fossil fuel economy into tourism, business and finance. They realised that professional sports events would be a major lynchpin in attracting holidaymakers and businessmen.
Dr Mahfoud Amara is a professor within Qatar University’s sport sciences programme and an expert on sport across the entire Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) region. “Dubai was a pioneer in the GCC region in using sport to diversify its national economy, and in linking sport to other sectors of tourism, retail, hospitality and transportation,” he told SportBusiness International.
Eleven years on from the famous tennis stunt, Dubai has a glittering roster of major sports events. There are two European Tour golf tournaments, the Dubai Desert Classic and DP World Tour Championship; horse racing’s Dubai World Cup; the Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships on the men’s ATP World Tour and Women’s Tennis Association Tour; the Emirates Airlines Dubai Rugby Sevens, a stop on the World Rugby Sevens Series.
The Standard Chartered Dubai Marathon and road cycling’s Dubai Tour take elite sport into the streets of the emirate, while Dubai is currently the host city of badminton’s season-ending Super Series Finals in a four-year deal that will expire in 2017. Dubai’s versatility as an event host also allows Jumeirah Beach to stage the annual Beach Soccer Intercontinental Cup.
When the UAE’s total of seven emirates are taken into account, the Gulf nation’s capabilities as an event host are even more impressive. The most high-profile event is the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix, the final stop on the Formula One World Championship calendar. However, there is also a national football league, recently renamed the UAE Arabian Gulf League, that is very popular with local Emiratis.
Another property is the Abu Dhabi Golf Championship. The International Cricket Council is also based in Dubai, with major Test matches and One Day Internationals having been played at UAE stadia. Three emirates are staging XCAT World Series powerboating races. The UAE will host the 2017 Fifa Club World Cup, the 2019 AFC Asian Cup, the 2020 Fina World Swimming Championships (25m). The list goes on.
How big is the UAE sports business? It’s gargantuan. According to Deloitte’s Sport Business Group, which last year published a report called ‘Economic Impact of Sport in Dubai’, the total annual expenditure related to sport in the emirate was more than $1.7bn (€1.5bn). The total economic impact of sport was $670m, with about 14,500 people employed in Dubai’s sports industry.
It is not just business and tourism driving this sports industry, however. As is so often the case with young nations – the UAE was established in 1971 – there is a political objective. Major sports events place the UAE, and especially its two most significant emirates, Abu Dhabi and Dubai, firmly on the world map. It is an exercise in so-called soft power.
Sport can also drive a nation’s infrastructure. Ben Faber is regional director of CSM, a sports and entertainment agency that operates across the UAE. “Look at Qatar and the 2022 Fifa World Cup,” he pointed out. “The development of a country in terms of roads, railways, airports and tourism infrastructure gets an enormous catalyst as a result of the World Cup. The UAE’s infrastructure has benefited from the sports events it stages there.”
According to Amara, Dubai has used sport “as a vector for urban regeneration” – a strategy that was later adopted by other key cities in the region including Abu Dhabi, Doha, Muscat, Manama and Jeddah.
There is also the public health factor. The Middle East as a whole has a serious obesity problem, with diabetes levels well above the global average. Forbes places the UAE 18th on a list of the world’s fattest nations, while the Emirates Diabetes Society notes that a quarter of all Emiratis are diabetic. Such figures have not gone unnoticed by the UAE Ministry of Health.
“Sports participation is a massive objective,” Faber said. “The healthcare costs in this country as a result of a relatively inactive population are enormous. As a young country, there is not the heritage of sports participation that Western countries have built up over centuries. There is an understandable desire to invest in sport, to create heroes for young people to aspire to, to stimulate participation and improve health. Grassroots programmes that are created off the back of global events – that is very real.”
Indeed, many of the nation’s professional sports venues also act as starting and finishing lines for mass-participation events. The Standard Chartered Dubai Marathon, with 25,000 runners, is the flagship event, but there are plenty of amateur races in triathlon, cycling, running and adventure racing. According to Deloitte, more than 85,000 people take part in Dubai’s mass-participation events every year, with $13m spent annually on sports equipment across the emirate.
Sports industry development in the UAE has not occurred without controversy or challenges.
There have been embarrassing scandals such as the 2013 horse doping scandal at the Godolphin stable, owned by the Al Maktoum ruling family of Dubai. In that case, the offending trainer was swiftly banned from racing.
A few years earlier the use of children as jockeys in camel racing caused uproar. There were accusations of child trafficking from other Asian countries to supply jockeys in the enormously popular pursuit. Again, the ruling families intervened, banning the use of children under the age of 15. Nowadays, many racing camels have robotic jockeys instead.
Regional political tensions have emerged in sport too. Recently there was controversy over the renaming of the UAE football league. Founded in 1973 as the UAE Football League, it became the UAE Pro League in 2007. However, it was in 2013, when it was renamed the UAE Arabian Gulf League, that problems started.
Arabs call the body of water between Iran and Arabia the Arabian Gulf, whereas Iranians call it the Persian Gulf. The political tension over the name is acute. In 2013 it resulted in the Iranian Football Federation blocking the transfer of Iran’s national team captain, Javad Nekounam, to UAE club Al Sharjah.
“The Persian Gulf will always be the Persian Gulf,” the player said on Iranian state TV. “Money is worthless in comparison to the name of my motherland. I received an offer from Al Sharjah three months ago and no one forced me to deny it, but I refused to do so myself. I would never join a team from a league offending the name of the Persian Gulf.”
James M. Dorsey is the author of a new book entitled ‘The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer’ and co-director of the Institute of Fan Culture at Germany’s University of Wurzburg. “To call it the Arabian Gulf League was deliberate and provocative,” he told SportBusiness International. “The dispute between the Iranians and the Arabs remains. It is part of a larger rivalry that’s going on and that often heats up and cools off.”
The year of Expo Dubai will also see the launch of an Emirati probe to Mars – the 1st of its kind in the Arab world pic.twitter.com/bhOjBdqCyI
— Dubai Expo 2020 (@DubaiExpo2020) February 16, 2016
Two major events that will give the UAE’s sports industry a further lift are on the horizon. Firstly, there is the international exposition, EXPO Dubai 2020. The organisers claim it will attract between 25 million and 100 million visitors. “There is significant scope to use sport to draw these visitors back to Dubai in future via the staging of events and demonstration of the emirate’s unique sporting infrastructure,” Deloitte said. Barcelona football superstar Lionel Messi was recently unveiled as global ambassador for the exposition.
Then there is the 2022 Fifa World Cup in neighbouring Qatar. “Doha is a small city,” said Faber of Qatar’s capital city, where much of the World Cup action will take place. “Yes, there are huge plans for its development, but by 2022 Dubai will still be a much larger city in terms of hotels and attractions than anywhere else in the Middle East. Cities like Dubai, Abu Dhabi and Muscat will do their utmost to attract fans, host teams and training camps.”
If Qatar can stage the World Cup, could Dubai have a reasonable tilt at an Olympic Games? Dubai has the facilities, the money and the will. The main barrier is the fierce summer heat.
“They could hold it in the winter,” Jamie Cunningham, the chief executive and founder of sports marketing and management company Professional Sports Group, told SportBusiness International.
“There would be problems with TV rights, but it’s not impossible. Or they could even stage an indoor Olympics. Nothing’s impossible. The appetite is here to stage the biggest and best sports events in the world.”
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