Letter From Dubai: A desert fantasy made real

Where else in the world would it be possible to watch Colin Montgomerie in the afternoon, Tim Henman in the evening and Frankie Dettori before bedtime
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The Independent Online
THE TEMPTATION was to pop this dispatch from Dubai in a green pillar box outside Ballinasloe Post Office, which is just as Irish as it sounds. Fortunately I was warned that the post box is purely ornamental, unlike the rest of the replica Irish village, which was shipped from Dublin and built into the side of the $7m (pounds 4.32m) tennis stadium here. Even the Guinness has travelled well.

It is not a mirage. Nor was the feast of sport on offer here last week. Where else in the world would it be possible to see Colin Montgomerie play a $1.36m PGA Tour event in the afternoon, watch Tim Henman take part in a $1m tennis tournament in the evening, and catch Frankie Dettori at the track before bedtime (albeit finishing second on a horse named Playacting)?

Investment in high-profile sports events has helped Dubai's rulers convert a desert into an international centre for trade, tourism and entertainment, in the knowledge that within the next 25 years they will have no oil to sell. "Many oil countries live entirely on their oil, but less than 25 per cent of our economy is from oil," says Sheikh Mohammed, the Crown Prince of Dubai, the world's wealthiest owner of race horses, and the motivator of most of what moves here.

This morning the build-up to the fourth running of the world's richest horse race, the $5m Dubai World Cup, sponsored by Emirates Airlines, on Sunday 28 March, is due to gather momentum with a press conference at the local Ritz-Carlton Hotel, featuring a slide presentation of possible contenders. The purse has been increased this year by $1m to stay ahead of the field.

Next may come a move to stage the $3.6m ATP Tour Championship, the year- end finale to the men's tennis tour, which is open to offers now that its residence in Hanover is about to end in November.

Big-time sport arrived here in a duty free bag carried by Colm McLoughlin, whose home in Ireland is the real village of Ballinasloe (pop. 6,000) in County Galway. His father, Thadgh, 91, and mother, Mel, 81, still live there. The middle of five children, McLaughlin's two older brothers, Ray and Felidim, played rugby for Ireland, Ray captaining the country in the 1960s and also playing for the Lions.

Colm McLoughlin, 55, worked his way to general manager of the duty free shops at Shannon Airport, via a Didcot canning factory, a Walls meat factory and jobs in London as an encyclopaedia salesman, a trollybus conductor and a stockroom boy at Woolworths in Acton, rising to deputy manager of the Oxford Street branch.

In 1983, Dubai Civil Aviation, through its Irish counterpart, invited McLoughlin to help them establish a duty free operation at the airport. He came on a four months' consultancy, bringing with him two compatriots, John Sutcliffe and George Horan. They have been here ever since, McLoughlin as managing director.

McLoughlin, encouraged by Sheikh Mohammed, began to promote Dubai through sport, starting in 1988 with the Dubai Duty Free Snooker Classic. Golf, powerboat racing and basketball followed, and Dubai Duty Free has owned and organised the tennis tournament since 1993, McLaughlin becoming a key figure in initiating and overseeing the construction of the stadium, which was completed in five months, the last touch of paint being applied on the eve of the 1996 event. The stadium is also used for concerts, and Chris Eubank has punched his weight there.

The bar-restaurant in the Irish Village, which has a staff of 25 from Ireland, flourishes all year round. McLoughlin rates it the busiest in Dubai. The flagstones on the terrace are from a quarry in the west of Ireland, and the cobblestones are from Dublin. The post box may not be in use, but it is possible to make calls from the Irish telephone box.

McLoughlin made a small confession. When the signwriters were working on the replica post office, he asked what name they were going to use. He was told Westport, a town in the west of Ireland. Tongue-in-cheek, he asked them to make it Ballinasloe so that he could photograph it and show his father that the old post office had been transferred to the Middle East.

The Dubai tennis tournament has won the ATP Tour's "Award for Excellence" for player services. Alex Corretja, of Spain, the ATP Tour champion, marked the occasion by presenting McLoughlin with a crystal trophy. Waterford crystal, naturally.