Abu Dhabi’s reputation as a first-class sports destination has been enhanced by numerous high-profile football, cricket, golf, tennis and mixed martial arts events that have been staged to widespread acclaim over recent years in the capital of the United Arab Emirates.
However, this December, three days after the chequered flag is brought down on the 2021 Formula 1 World Championship at Abu Dhabi’s Yas Marina Circuit, one of the most eye-catching events so far will take place just a five-minute drive south on the stunning Yas Island.
From December 16-21, the FINA World Swimming Championships (25m) will be held at the state-of-the-art, 18,000-seat Etihad Arena, which opened to spectators in January 2021.
Abu Dhabi has invested in building multiple dedicated aquatics venues as part of a transformation of its sporting infrastructure over the past 15 years.
Reconfiguring Etihad Arena as the centrepiece of the World Championships, though, will give the event an extraordinary home.
Furthermore, the project will represent an immense feat of planning and logistics, underlining Abu Dhabi’s efforts to set new benchmarks in terms of the experience for spectators, officials, commercial stakeholders, media representatives and, of course, competitors.
Etihad Arena transformation
Two swimming pools, measuring 25m x 26m and 25m x 20m, are being shipped from Italy to the UAE via 10 containers. The pools will be surrounded by a 3,000m deck raised by 2.2m to pool level.
It will take between three and four days for the water to be pumped into the pools by tankers as part of a 14-day set-up, and then four days to dismantle the facilities.
One of the key benefits of situating the event at Etihad Arena is its close proximity to numerous hotels, with more than 22,000 room nights required to host the 3,000-plus athletes, teams, officials and media members.
“The FINA World Swimming Championships (25m) will be by far and away the biggest event to be hosted at Etihad Arena since its opening and, as such, a huge level of collaboration is required to ensure that all the systems and infrastructure are ready to host an event of this scale,” says Abdulla Alwheibi, the Championships’ tournament director at Abu Dhabi Sports Council.
“Thankfully, the collective efforts so far have helped to ensure everything is on course for the venue to host what will be a truly breathtaking spectacle.
“The first key milestone was bringing together a world-class local organising committee – namely the Abu Dhabi Sports Council, which has a long-established record of delivering world championship-level events – and we have harnessed our experience and knowledge to assemble a team capable of delivering at the highest level.
“The partnership with Yas Island and Etihad Arena, enabling us to develop a purpose-built swimming venue inside the MENA region’s largest state-of-the-art indoor entertainment establishment, was another major milestone.”
Delivering such a project, whilst simultaneously implementing Covid-19 protocols to protect participants and attendees, will demonstrate Abu Dhabi’s capabilities as a host and its adaptability, which has been amplified during the pandemic.
Back in January, an Ultimate Fighting Championship spectacle was staged at Etihad Arena, with a capped capacity of 2,000 and strict ‘bubble’ format ensuring its success, establishing a blueprint for many other event operators worldwide.
“A huge amount of collaboration between the Abu Dhabi Sports Council, government entities such as NCEMA (The National Emergency Crisis and Disasters Management Authority) and key stakeholders has been required every step of the way,” Alwheibi explains.
“The World Championships will be one of the first events in the region to be hosted with spectators and integrating athletes outside of a ‘bubble’ format. Putting together a robust and comprehensive Covid-precautionary plan is a top priority for us to ensure the safety of all involved.”
The overall project to host the Championships has been “years in the making”, Alwheibi adds.
The hosting rights were secured nearly three years ago, but Abu Dhabi has nurtured a fruitful relationship with FINA, the global governing body of aquatic sports, over many years. Since hosting its first open-water swim back in 2015, the UAE capital has staged a number of FINA World Cup events, helping to drive engagement and increase interest locally.
Organisers will also make significant efforts to engage visitors through a ‘Market Street’ village at the event. Open from 10am to 10pm every day during the World Championships, this space will offer athlete appearances and brand activations, as well as access to hotels, retail outlets, restaurants, seating, screens, entertainment venues and family-friendly attractions.
There will also be an Aquatics Festival, providing a performance platform for elite athletes across a range of disciplines, such as high diving and open-water swimming, with a 27m high dive tower built into the waters of Yas Bay.
“The World Championships will shine a spotlight on some of Yas Island’s recently launched assets which, along with the newly-launched Etihad Arena and Yas Bay, include the Hilton Abu Dhabi Yas Island hotel and conference facility, and Pier 71, a new and popular venue that features a host of exciting food and beverage outlets,” Alwheibi says.
“This flagship event will showcase the full development, and really put Yas Bay on the map – not only from a global perspective, but also within the local communities here in the UAE.”
Global exposure of Abu Dhabi is guaranteed via broadcast coverage that is expected to take the event into more than 190 countries, while more than 150 journalists are expected to be accredited to work at the on-site International Media Centre.
This worldwide interest will undoubtedly strengthen Abu Dhabi’s standing as an elite event location. The UAE capital has been crowned the World’s Leading Sports Tourism Destination for eight consecutive years at the prestigious World Travel Awards – and thoughts are already turning to what the future may bring.
“Abu Dhabi’s fast-growing reputation as a global sporting hub has been aided significantly by its ability to host events such as the FINA World Swimming Championships (25m), and it is through key relationships, such as the one we enjoy with FINA, that the UAE will continue to shine under the global sporting spotlight,” Alwheibi adds.
“The competition will bring the curtain down on a huge year of sport here in Abu Dhabi and, with many of the world’s best short-course swimmers set to be involved, the theme of Abu Dhabi hosting and attracting the world’s biggest sports’ names looks set to continue.”