When you think of Dubai, think sportsWritten by Dan Johnson | | email@example.com
Mention Dubai and for most people it conjures images of hotels, manmade islands, shopping malls, iconic buildings and more recently, an ambitous city that is weathering the full impact of the global economic crisis. Dubai gets more than its share of international news coverage in which these images are regularly reinforced by western media with pictures of the Burj Al Arab (world’s only seven-star hotel), the Burj Khalifa (world’s tallest building) or the Dubai Mall (world’s largest mall).
But there is another Dubai that is known by the world’s sports enthusiasts: It is Dubai, the “sports capital of the Middle East.”
I consider myself among the average people who are easily captivated by the “world’s only …” “world’s tallest …” or “world’s largest …” of anything. I’ll go out of my way to see or experience such record-setting man-made edifices. They are always interesting, fun and make fascinating conversation topics. However, unlike the world’s sports enthusiasts, what I did not know before coming to Dubai was its complete immersion in sports … sports of nearly every type. I may have known that Tiger Woods liked to hang out in Dubai but beyond that, I had little knowledge of just how serious Dubai and the United Arab Emirates (U.A.E.) were about sports. But now, all that has changed. When I think of Dubai, I now think “sports.”
As it turns out, the history of Dubai is also a history of a sporting culture. Traditional sports like horse racing and camel racing have been inherent features of the culture of Dubai. falconry continues to be a prominent, though different, type of sport long associated with the culture of the region.
Dubai, as well as Abu Dhabi, have established themselves on the international sporting stage by holding many of the world’s major events including golf, horse racing, motorcar racing, polo, hockey, tennis, football (soccer), rugby, cricket, sailing, powerboat racing, deep sea fishing, swimming, diving and even snooker, chess and, of course, camel racing. Numerous publications about the U.A.E. report on these sporting events and the several daily English and Arabic newspapers have huge, color-photo filled sports sections describing the play-by-play competitions. The television news devotes hours to its sports coverage and our cable service includes dozens of sports channels covering every form of sport. Any evening I can watch one of 10 or more soccer games (the nation’s number one participation sport) and, through a subscription service, I could, if I wished, watch five or six of them simultaneously. The same is true for tennis and other sporting events.
The branding of Dubai is increasingly linked to its many sports events. These events not only attract large numbers of competitors, sports enthusiasts and fans from around the world, they are also attracting increasingly larger numbers of local sports men and women into the competition. The faces of international sports superstars are found on billboards throughout the U.A.E. Sports businesses are an increasingly important sector in the ongoing economic development of the Emirates. Dubai and Abu Dhabi have been successful in using their many sporting events as a platform for showing off the attractions of their business environments and high quality — dare I say world-class? — hospitality industries.
Sports are serious business in Dubai as reflected in the establishment of the Dubai Sports Council (DSC). The May meeting of the DSC Board of Directors had as its major agenda a review of its strategic plan for 2010-2014 which covers sports clubs, local and international sports events, increasing society’s awareness of the importance of sport as a lifestyle, upgrading sports facilities and enhancing sports initiatives.
In April, Dubai hosted more than 1,500 executives and organizers from the Olympics and over 100 international sports federations in what was described as the “largest sports convention.” The convention participants discussed everything from the funding of sports federations to the shifting geography of the international venues …
One of the recent sports headlines here and around the world was that the Ruler of Dubai, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, announced that Dubai is considering whether to officially bid to host the 2020 Olympic games. Sheikh Mohammed indicated that “We are conducting feasibility studies to evaluate the costs and benefits of a bid…and our ability to meet the criteria to host the Olympic Games.” Such a bid will encounter serious challenges as have been pointed out by the media and others including, most notably, the hot summer weather. Others have raised the question of U.A.E.’s relations with Israel and whether athletes from that country would be allowed entry. It will be quite interesting to follow this sports story.
I’ve never thought of myself as an avid sports fan, but living here in Dubai, in a culture that takes sports seriously, I find myself being slowly drawn in by the excitement of all kinds of sports going on in the region including soccer, horse and camel racing, and the many other games described in depth in the daily papers and on television. But it goes beyond sports-as-entertainment for me.
In my role as Provost and Chief Operating Officer of Zayed University, I am challenged by the task of building sports programs at the university where we have a new campus in Dubai and a new billion-dollar campus nearing completion in Abu Dhabi. What is the role of the university in emerging sports hubs in the region? Are there lessons to be learned from American universities’ experience with sports? If we could rewrite the history of sports in American higher education, how would we do it today? Is the American university sports model a good one for the U.A.E.?
Clearly, sports have become one of the defining characteristics of the U.A.E. and the emirates of Dubai and Abu Dhabi are emerging as sports capitals of the Middle East. And, although wagering is illegal in the U.A.E., I would bet on its emergence as a leader and strong competitor among international sports venues during the next decade.
I’m still pondering the role of the university in all this.
Dan Johnson is provost and chief operating officer of Zayed University, U.A.E. and President Emeritus of UT.