How Dubai became a global sports capital

Before Saudi Arabia and Qatar started spending big, the United Arab Emirates used sports to remake its economy

An illustration featuring a cityscape representing Dubai in the United Arab Emirates. A large-scale tennis racket pops out from behind the Burj Al Arab, a luxury hotel in Dubai. In front of the skyline are boats along the water.
(Illustration by Joey Guidone for The Washington Post)

In 1993, a low-level men’s tennis tournament was played in the United Arab Emirates, pulled together by an Australian businessman and a Dubai Duty Free executive, staged in what was essentially a sports desert with no formal stadium and only temporary scaffolding surrounding the hard courts.

“Nothing. There was bare sand and a gap in the schedule,” said Jeff Chapman, a former Australian rules footballer who has built his fortune across a variety of ventures over the past four-plus decades. “You’d go and talk to the players and they’d say, ‘Where’s Dubai?’ You’d have to pull out the map and point to a dot.”

Chapman oversaw the Dubai Tennis Championships in those early years and chuckles at their modest beginnings. He recalls a windstorm — called a shamal — sweeping through the area and spreading sand across the courts. “I said to the players: ‘Well, don’t just sit there. Go pick up a broom and start helping everybody clear the sand off the courts,’ ” Chapman, 75, said.

Dubai’s population at the time was less than 600,000 — about the size of Baltimore — and the country’s gross domestic product was estimated at $55 billion.

What has changed since then? Only everything.

Barely three decades later, more than 3 million call Dubai home, and the UAE cranks out an economic output valued at more than $500 billion. That barren athletic wasteland has exploded into a year-round sports festival, featuring major mixed martial arts events, NBA exhibition games, cycling tours, Formula One races, FIFA soccer tournaments, pro golf and, for more than 30 years, the Dubai Tennis Championships, which lists Roger Federer, Novak Djokovic and Venus Williams as past champions.

The Middle East’s play to rule global sports

The UAE was the first Persian Gulf nation to recognize the potential of sports investment, and it has made sports and tourism cornerstones of its plan to become less dependent on oil riches. While Qatar and Saudi Arabia have made big splashes in recent years by spending billions — much of it focused on soccer — the UAE was early in this space, and for many leagues it is still the safest, most anodyne of potential Middle East partners.

“The Emiratis in some ways — we’ll see how long that lasts — have been a Teflon state,” said James Dorsey, author of “The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer.” “They have managed their reputation in ways in which nothing sticks, fundamentally.”

The UAE has managed to develop relationships with sports leagues and organizations around the world. The UFC first went to Abu Dhabi in 2010 and now stages at least one major event there each year. Lawrence Epstein, the organization’s chief operating officer, said the UAE has become “a permanent part of the UFC ecosystem,” and Yas Island — a tourist-focused entertainment hub with a state-of-the-art, 18,000-seat arena and a Formula One track — has become a second home.

“What’s happened in Abu Dhabi makes Las Vegas seem sort of small,” Epstein said. “The physical transformation of not just the Yas Island, where we do these events, but the entire area, it’s been mind-boggling.”

Long before Qatar and Saudi Arabia started passing out big checks, the UAE embarked on a plan to wean the nation off oil revenue, building much-needed infrastructure, envisioning entertainment districts and showcasing to the world its postcard beaches, duty-free shopping and dazzling architecture. The UAE’s oil reserves aren’t as vast as those of neighboring gulf nations such as Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Iran and Iraq, and the emirates were early to identify a need to diversify the economy.

“No doubt about it, the Dubai government had settled on a policy of using sport as a way to take its way of living and its trading operations around the world,” Chapman said. “It needed to find something to supplement the oil reserves, and it settled on sport as the medium to do this.”

So while Qatar spent billions hosting the World Cup last year and the Saudis are on a sports spending spree, the UAE has managed to improve its global reputation over time, using sports as an invitation to the world and growing itself into a travel destination, said Kristian Coates Ulrichsen, a Middle East fellow at Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy.

“The UAE is far more focused on mass tourism than, say, Qatar, which has aimed instead at more of a niche constituency, and Saudi Arabia, which focused on religious tourism,” said Coates Ulrichsen, whose books include “The United Arab Emirates: Power, Politics, and Policy-Making.” That’s because “the UAE already has developed a strong regional and international profile and is less in need of a ‘new’ narrative.”

Sports have always been a key component, dating from the 1989 launch of golf’s Dubai Desert Classic, which has been a staple of the European tour since. The Abu Dhabi Golf Championship began in 2006, and the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix was added to the Formula One schedule in 2009. That same year, the DP World Tour Championship was held for the first time in Dubai. The UFC staged an event headlined by Anderson Silva in Abu Dhabi a year later, and soon after top cyclists converged on Dubai and Abu Dhabi for races that would merge in 2019 to form the UAE Tour.

The country’s major airlines, Emirates and Etihad, hold the naming rights to notable soccer stadiums in Europe and sponsor sporting events around the world, including the U.S. Open tennis tournament, Formula One, cricket, horse racing, golf, rugby, cycling, sailing, Australian rules football and the Special Olympics. And Mubadala Investment Company, the UAE’s sovereign wealth fund, is the co-title sponsor of the longtime men’s and women’s tennis tournament in Washington.

A UAE private equity fund, run by government officials, purchased Manchester City for $330 million in 2008 and has transformed it into one of Europe’s premier soccer franchises — a feather in the cap for a nation where athletic success amounts to victory on a global stage.

“The transformation of Manchester City from a middling English team into the winners of the UEFA Champions League has associated Abu Dhabi — and, by extension, the UAE — with success,” Coates Ulrichsen said. “And City’s victory in the Champions League final [in June] was celebrated widely in the UAE as a triumph for Emirati soft power and strategic vision.”

When UAE leaders launched a new initiative in 2017 — a road map to make it the best country in the world — one of the plan’s four pillars touched on the role of sports in creating a “happy and cohesive society.” As its gulf neighbors storm into the space, the UAE is only getting more aggressive.

In June, government leaders adopted its “National Sports Strategy 2031,” which outlines 17 initiatives, including the development of professional athletes, identifying and cultivating young talent and increasing the number of people participating in sports to more than 70 percent of the population. In addition, the country hopes to qualify at least 30 athletes for the Olympics — it sent five to the Tokyo Summer Games in 2021 — and aims for sports to account for at least 0.5 percent of the GDP.

The UAE had to undergo massive change to become a major tourist destination as it tried to project a modernized society that was more open and forward-thinking than that of some of its gulf neighbors. Foreigners have long faced punishment for harmless activities such as kissing in public. But government leaders have steadily relaxed strict laws in recent years, improving protections for women, toughening punishment for rape and sexual harassment, loosening regulations on alcohol and decriminalizing cohabitation of unmarried men and women. But same-sex couples still do not receive the same legal protections, and homosexual acts are illegal in the UAE.

“It has been easy for the sports industry to look the other way as the UAE has worked effectively to veil its darker side,” said Micheline Ishay, a professor of human rights at the University of Denver and director of the school’s Center for Middle East Studies.

She pointed out that the UAE is “more open to Western culture, ideas and tourism,” noting that New York University maintains an Abu Dhabi campus and the Louvre has a partnership to help run an art museum there. But that only “obscures human rights organizations’ criticism of the country’s deployment of some of the world’s most advanced surveillance technology in violation of individuals’ rights to privacy, freedom of expression, association and other civil rights.”

It is difficult to tabulate the economic impact of the UAE’s massive sports investment. Government officials declined to comment, but according to the Ministry of Economy, travel and tourism accounted for 11.6 percent of the country’s GDP in 2019 — more than $49 billion. The department’s goal is for tourism to account for 15 percent by the end of the decade.

Sports serve as an import-export business of sorts, and while Dubai and Abu Dhabi have spent millions outside the UAE, a primary goal is to draw the biggest events and athletes into the country. Hall of Famers Mariano Rivera and Barry Larkin invested in a UAE-based baseball league set to begin play this year, and the NBA has been active there since at least 2010, when Dikembe Mutombo traveled to Abu Dhabi to lead a youth basketball clinic. That relationship has only grown, and while the NBA has been televised in the UAE for more than three decades, the league recently has made moves to stake out a bigger presence.

“That part of the world was the only place in the world where we hadn’t played live games,” said Mark Tatum, the NBA’s deputy commissioner who oversees global strategy. “We’ve played live games in Africa, we played them in Asia, we played them obviously in Europe, we played them in Latin America and South America. But the Middle East was the one place in the world where we hadn’t done it.”

In October 2022, the NBA staged a pair of exhibition games on Yas Island between the Milwaukee Bucks and Atlanta Hawks. Both were sellouts, and league officials said people traveled from more than 60 countries to see NBA action in person.

“It felt, quite frankly, like you could be in any U.S. city,” Tatum said of the exhibitions.

But he said the relationship goes beyond staging games. The NBA opened a store on Yas Island, is helping run specialized basketball schools in Dubai and is engaging with locals through Arabic social media platforms. According to league data, the NBA has more than 6.2 million social media followers from the Middle East.

“The NBA’s international strategies are very clear: preseason games, developmental academies, lots of focus on the next generation of athletes coming through, commercialization of media rights and merchandising — and then build a business,” said Michael Goldman, a sports management professor at the University of San Francisco. “And so the Middle East has got to be core … to what the NBA is thinking about in the next decade.”

The U.S. men’s basketball team traveled to Abu Dhabi for exhibitions against Germany and Greece in August, in preparation for the FIBA World Cup. Those games took place on Yas Island as well.

The UFC initially partnered with the UAE in 2010 after selling a 10 percent stake to an Abu Dhabi government-owned firm. For the UFC, it was a chance to spread its brand and attract a new audience.

“We felt like we had a couple of great data points that would indicate we could have success long term,” said Epstein, the UFC executive, pointing to the region’s affinity for combat sports, particularly Brazilian jujitsu. “And it absolutely played out that way.”

The UAE sold back its stake a decade later when Endeavor purchased the UFC for $4 billion. But the relationship continued and even ramped up during the coronavirus pandemic. As sports leagues around the world shut down, UFC officials were determined to continue operations and found willing partners in the UAE.

They created Fight Island, a series of events in a “bubble” on Yas Island that were among the only professional sports competitions in the world in the summer of 2020. While there were plenty of skeptics and there was considerable uncertainty, UFC officials look back at it as a huge success that drew attention to the UFC and the UAE from a sports-starved world.

The UFC announced in October that it would expand its reach in the region with plans to stage its first event in Saudi Arabia in March.

“We certainly had outreach from all of the countries that are looking to put on major events in the region,” Epstein said earlier this summer. “We’re looking forward to visiting some of these other places, but we’re going to do it in partnership with our friends in Abu Dhabi.”

‘Grabbing center stage’

Western companies from virtually every industry are by now well accustomed to doing business in the UAE, and the country’s track record of hosting events in Dubai and Abu Dhabi has only increased demand. The UFC and NBA said they have multiyear commitments — the Dallas Mavericks and Minnesota Timberwolves played two preseason games at Etihad Arena in October, two weeks before the same venue hosted UFC 294 — and new leagues are trying to get on the bustling events calendar.

Jagdish Mitra helped launch the Global Chess League this year and settled on Dubai for its first event. As Mitra tells it, the start-up had options: “Many countries and many cities had approached us — not just in the Middle East but in Europe, in Southeast Asia and in America. And we chose Dubai.”

“It is grabbing center stage right now,” he added. “It’s easy to get to. It’s got the huge mix of business and entertainment, which is what we are trying to promote to our brand. And third, we think that it’s a place where people want to live, and it’s a great opportunity to start building it also as a knowledge capital and a knowledge center.”

Chapman regularly travels back to the UAE, most recently visiting Dubai this year. It is not the same city where he launched his tennis tournament three decades ago. Back then, he recalls one major chain hotel and a small city surrounded by sand in every direction.

“Now they’ve got the seven-star this and the eight-star something else, all of them reaching up into the sky,” he said. “It’s just colossal.”

But it’s still a region that is trying to grow bigger, and sports are just one vehicle for that. The Dubai Tennis Championships is now a premier event on the men’s and women’s tours. No players need to be shown a map to find Dubai.

“In my days, you’d fly in, meet with X, Y and Z, and you’d have three deals done by lunchtime,” Chapman recalled. “It’s just electric and charged. It was not anywhere near the big cosmopolitan city it is today. But it grew and grew and grew, and through some brilliant, innovative leadership, it really positioned itself as one of the key trading hubs around the world.”

Adam Kilgore contributed to this report.

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