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Annual fixtures and eclectic one-offs help Dubai diversify from oil to tourism

Dubai changes so quickly that even the relatively recent past is barely recognisable.

Its unashamed opulence and other-worldly landmarks – from the man-made Palm Jumeirah archipelago to the sky-scraping Burj Khalifa – inspire awe among onlookers, who only 50 years ago would have been standing in a humble fishing port.

One landmark, the Burj Al Arab hotel, has become known worldwide as the setting for high-profile sports publicity events. Global superstars like Tiger Woods, Rory McIlroy, Andre Agassi and Roger Federer have all appeared on its rooftop helipad since its opening 20 years ago.

But the emirate’s sports strategy has been built on deeper foundations than photo opportunities. It is underpinned by recurring annual events that have been carefully nurtured over many years to adapt to an evolving demographic landscape.

The Dubai Sevens, Dubai Desert Classic, Dubai Tennis Championships and Dubai World Cup have all been regular fixtures on the sports calendar since well before the turn of the century.

This consistency provides the blueprint for the emirate’s future event-hosting strategy, which since 2005 has been steered by the government-funded Dubai Sports Council.

Changing with the times

The Dubai Sevens rugby competition, the longest-running annual sports event in the Middle East, was first held way back in 1970, when Dubai’s population was just 100,000. Nowadays, the tournament attracts more than 40,000 spectators each day through the turnstiles of its modular host venue.

Other events have moved with the times while retaining links with the past. The Dubai Tennis Championships first took place in 1993 in front of temporary stands at the Aviation Club. It is now a permanent fixture at the 5,000-seat Dubai Duty Free Tennis Stadium.

Golf’s Dubai Desert Classic, the first European Tour event to be staged in the Arabian Peninsula, was launched back in 1989. Twenty years later, the DP World Tour Championship was unveiled as the climax of the European Tour’s Race to Dubai.

Meanwhile in horseracing, the Dubai World Cup – now the world’s richest race – was held at the Nad Al Sheba Racecourse from 1996 before moving to the state-of-the-art Meydan development in 2010.

While the settings and surroundings may have changed, Dubai’s key sport events present a picture of stability. But stability doesn’t mean stagnation and new events continue to be added to the calendar, such as the Dubai 24 Hour motor-racing event (since 2006), the Beach Soccer Intercontinental Cup (2011) and the season-ending World Series Squash Finals (2016).

Mohamed Elshorbagy of Egypt (R) and Ali Farag of Egypt (L) compete during the men’s final match of the PSA Dubai World Series Finals 2018 at Emirates Golf Club on June 9, 2018 in Dubai, United Arab Emirates. (Tom Dulat/Getty Images)


While Dubai’s real estate and construction industry continues to grow – the Burj Al Arab is one of 70 skyscrapers above 200 metres to have opened over the past two decades – the emirate still has no publicised plans to build a permanent outdoor stadium capable of holding in excess of 30,000 spectators, despite being advised in a 2015 Deloitte white paper that “among Dubai’s sports stakeholders it is felt that the emirate’s sporting offering would benefit greatly” from such a facility.

“As for a permanent 30,000-plus capacity outdoor stadium, there will be some announcements in the near future,” says Nasser Aman Al Rahma, DSC’s assistant secretary general. “That is all I can tell you for now.”

Al Rahma points out that another key recommendation from the report – “the addition of a purpose-built indoor 10,000 to 15,000-capacity multi-purpose arena” – has not only been fulfilled but surpassed.

“The Coca-Cola Arena, a 17,000-capacity indoor arena, is ready for action. Besides, the Hamdan Sports Complex is a multi-purpose indoor facility that can seat 15,000 and has already hosted many international events, from aquatics to tennis, volleyball, basketball, badminton, table tennis and others,” he says.

“We have some amazing sports facilities in Dubai. The Meydan Racecourse and the Hamdan Sports Complex are among the most spectacular venues you will find anywhere in the world. We have more than 100 sports facilities in Dubai, indoors and outdoors, catering to virtually every possible sport, from shooting to motorsports.”

Dubai’s sports strategists certainly could not be accused of a lack of vision. In November, four Para snow sports events were all held at Ski Dubai, an indoor resort in the desert.

“Being a young nation, we are fortunate to be free of legacy thinking,” Al Rahma adds. “We will need to adapt and embrace change, build smart stadiums and make use of technologies like augmented reality, artificial intelligence and blockchain to develop our sports sector.”

Measured approach

Even back in 2011, when rumours of an Olympic bid were rife after Dubai hosted the SportAccord Convention, the UAE National Olympic Committee was insisting that “there is a need…to get people into sports in the next few years if Dubai is to host the Olympics…[and] we want to do it professionally and not just host the event.”

There was further evidence of this measured approach when DSC pulled out of talks to host SportAccord in 2016, citing the emirate’s focus on delivering hosting obligations for a series of upcoming events, including the Fina Swimming World Cup, Badminton World Federation World Super Series Finals and the Dubai Tour.

By positioning itself as a reliable partner for international federations’ top-tier events, Dubai’s credibility has undoubtedly been boosted.

Forty-six of these championships helped to generate a total of $250m (€223m) in gross expenditure in 2014, according to the most recent report from Deloitte – approximately 35 per cent of the total across Dubai’s sports events portfolio that year. Dubai’s seven biggest events of the year – the Dubai Marathon, Dubai Tennis Championships, Dubai World Cup, Dubai Sevens, Dubai Desert Classic, World Tour Championship and cycling’s Dubai Tour – accounted for 57 per cent of the total.

The remaining seven per cent of gross expenditure was generated by local events, with Al Rahma highlighting the growth of “homegrown” additions to the calendar in recent years.

“Having enjoyed our hospitality at the 2009 Fifa Beach Soccer World Cup, the beach soccer fraternity wanted an event that would keep bringing them back to Dubai every year and so the Intercontinental Cup was born. The Al Marmoom Ultramarathon and the World’s Ultimate Strongman are among the other homegrown events,” he explains.

Roger Federer of Switzerland plays a shot in his Men’s Singles Final match against Stefanos Tsitsipas of Greece during day fourteen of the Dubai Duty Free Championships at Tennis Stadium on March 02, 2019 in Dubai, United Arab Emirates. (Francois Nel/Getty Images)

Eclectic mix

Between 85 and 90 per cent of Dubai’s 3.2 million population are expats, with the emirate home to more than 200 nationalities, with a significant proportion from the UK and western Europe, as well as across Asia.

As a result, DSC – with the support of the country’s rulers – has pursued a schedule of one-off events that is necessarily eclectic, from the 2012 Asian Futsal Championships to the 2013 Asian Senior Men’s Volleyball Championship and the 2014 Fiba U17 Basketball World Championship.

“The stated vision of DSC is to create a distinguished and happy sports community, and our event-hosting strategy is based around this singular principle,” Al Rahma says. “Our focus at DSC is to serve every member of this community so our sports calendar includes events that appeal to every segment of our community, from a star-studded fortnight of tennis to rugby, cricket and even dragon boat races.”

Depending on the event, bidding processes involve various stakeholders, including “government entities, sports federations, sports councils and even private financiers”, he adds.

The thriving private sector looks certain to play an increasingly significant role in the future as the introduction of the so-called ‘Pledge Law’ two years ago made it easier in principle for companies and event-organisers in Dubai to secure financing for major projects.

That is likely to encourage private companies to commit to delivering events which are helping drive the Dubai economy as it continues to diversify.

The success of diversification efforts is highlighted by data from banking group Emirates NBD which shows that, in February, Dubai’s non-oil private sector expanded at its fastest rate
since January 2015, stoked by record tourism activity.

Although Dubai’s economy was initially built on oil, sales of petroleum and natural gas now account for less than five per cent of the emirate’s gross domestic product, with tourism flourishing in its place.

Dubai’s Department of Tourism and Commerce Marketing reported 15.79 million international visitors in 2017, with the vast footfall opening up possibilities beyond the scope of traditional ‘sports tourism’.

For perspective, according to DSC’s recently-published 2019-2039 events guide, only 56 per cent of ticket holders for the 2018 Professional Squash Association World Series Finals travelled to Dubai for the primary purpose of attending the competition. Twenty-six per cent of them were in Dubai on holiday, while 18 per cent were there on business.

Al Marmoom Ultramarathon


The reputational value of hosting global and internationally-renowned sports events should not be underestimated for a destination that considers tourism and associated business and trade opportunities as key to its economic future in a region that is packed full of aspirational rivals.

However, Dubai’s rulers are also well aware that has an important part to play in public life in knitting together its disparate communities, improving general fitness levels and reducing the burden on health services.

Back in 2015, obesity rates in the UAE were double the global average. However, childhood obesity in Dubai declined from 10.1 per cent to 8.9 per cent between 2015 and 2017, according to a new study published by the Dubai Health Authority.

Multiple factors will have contributed towards this improvement, but in an attempt to build on the momentum, public participation in sport continues to be a priority post-event goal for DSC.

“Legacy is always an important consideration when we are making decisions about events,” Al Rahma says. “Take cycling, for example. The Dubai Tour has put this sport and the facilities available for it at the forefront. Now you can see thousands of people on their bicycles, using the cycling tracks that have been built around the emirate.

“The Fina Swimming World Cup and the Badminton Super Series Finals have also left a lasting legacy: Thousands of kids are now playing badminton in Dubai’s schools or have taken to swimming.”

Drawing up a profile of the average Dubai resident is difficult, given that the emirate is a melting pot of different nationalities and demographics. That has shaped this flexible approach to hosting and promoting sports events which is given direction by the unswerving focus on the goals of enhancing Dubai’s international reputation as a tourism hub and the need to deliver opportunities at grassroots level.

“Our event-hosting strategy is about making every member of our community feel at home,” Al Rahma says. “Whatever their sports craving, we want to deliver.”


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