Oasis of sport taking shape in the desert

The oil is running out, so government in the United Arab Emirates is looking to leisure. John Roberts reports from Dubai; 'We'll look at any sport which will evoke the interest of people here. Sport is the best thing to go for'
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The Independent Online
There was a time when the sporting impact of the United Arab Emirates amounted to offering refuge to a beleaguered England football manager. Not any more. The pace with which major events have burgeoned here suggests that it may not be long before Dubai bids for the Olympic Games.

The scene has been transformed in the past four years, let alone since Don Revie's defection from Lancaster Gate in 1977. While football remains a national passion, and traditional pursuits such as camel racing, dhow sailing and falconry continue to flourish, the large-scale promotion of international sports has become an integral part of the government's long- term economic policy; a case of mixing business with pleasure.

It is not difficult to understand why. The oil which brought untold wealth to the region is expected to be exhausted within 25 years. As an alternative, it was considered imperative to establish Dubai as the commercial, tourist, and sporting capital of the Middle East, with the assistance of worldwide television coverage.

Last Sunday night, Goran Ivanisevic became the fourth winner of the $1m (pounds 650,000) Dubai Open tennis championship. The Croat received a prize of $142,000, and at least the same amount in appearance money, which is legitimate practice in a third-tier event on the ATP Tour. The tournament, which cost a total of $7m, is sponsored by Dubai Duty Free.

Next month's attractions are the inaugural running of the world's richest horse race, the $4m Dubai World Cup, and the seventh edition of golf's Dubai Desert Classic, at the Emirates Club, with prize-money of pounds 650,000, a 40 per cent increase.

The tournament, which features 10 of the 12 members of the victorious European Ryder Cup team, is organised by the Dubai World Trading Centre and sponsored by the Dubai Aluminium Company.

Negotiations with a potential title sponsor for the horse race are nearing completion, and considerable government investment in the sport has assured the participation of 14 of the world's leading thoroughbreds for a duel over 10 furlongs of a sand track. First prize is $2.4m, and the favourite is the American horse, Cigar, winner of 13 consecutive races.

Powerboat racing (a local, Saeed Al Tayer, holds the Class One world offshore title), snooker, billiards and karate have also featured prominently on the Dubai calendar, and the list of possibilities appear to grow daily.

Enquire about the prospects of creating a circuit for Formula One, or building a cricket ground in Dubai to supplement the one in Sharjah, with hosting the World Cup in mind, and you are likely to be told that a memo is already in the tray labelled pending.

The driving force behind everything, naturally, is General Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Crown Prince of Dubai, Defence Minister of the UAE, chairman of the Economic Department, poet, colossus of the racing world, and all-round good sport.

His achievement in bringing international horse racing to the home of the desert Arabian stallion, from which the thoroughbred dynasty originated, is a typical example of his influence.

Although Sheikh Mohammed has 2,000 horses in training around the world, and has enjoyed enormous success in the classics, it was only four years ago that the Emirates Racing Association was recognised by the International Cataloguing Standards Committee. First, the UAE had to be declared disease free with regard to horses and livestock, and gain international acceptance of its quarantine procedures.

Sheikh Mohammed was then able to introduce the Godolphin Operation, which enables horses to spend six months of the year in Dubai before campaigning in top international racing.

Three years ago, 10 of the world's leading riders gathered at the Nad Al Sheba track for the first International Jockeys' Challenge. The next logical step was to bring the world's best horses, and the course has been refurbished for the big race on 27 March.

Channel 4 are the host broadcasters, in conjunction with Dubai Television, and for its first year the event will be available free to networks around the world, underlining the point that publicity for Dubai is paramount.

Admission to race meetings here is free, and for this occasion 500 VIPs from overseas have been invited, all expenses paid. The horses and their connections will also be catered for at the host's expense.

Gambling is prohibited here, but it is possible to win 10,000 dirhams (pounds 1,800) by picking the winners of the six races on the card in free-to- enter competitions held at all the meetings.

Although a grass track runs alongside the sand course, it is intended to run the race annually on the sand. "We are in a desert," Kevin Greely, the Racing Secretary, reminded us. Not that irrigation is a problem in Dubai, where water can be found as little as three metres below ground.

Golf has blossomed since the Emirates Club appeared like an oasis in 1988. The impressive Dubai Creek Club, opened in 1991, has been voted the best new course on the Asian PGA Tour. And there is even a nine-hole floodlit course at the centre of the racecourse (latest tee-off time 10pm).

"There is no red tape when we do things," said Mohi-Din Binhendi, Director General of Dubai Department of Civil Aviation (it was his idea to launch Dubai Duty Free in 1983) and the nearest equivalent to a minister of sport.

In addition to other projects, Binhendi supervised the construction of a magnificent new tennis stadium, which was completed in six months and cost pounds 3.6m. "I'll tell you how I built my stadium," he said. "Sheikh Mohammed said: 'How much? How long? Go ahead', and left it all to my team."

Mark Miles, the chief executive of the ATP Tour, described the Dubai Open as "a model tournament". Binhendi would like a larger model, in terms of both size and status. A hotel at the tennis centre is planned for next year, and a women's tournament is also in the offing.

"Let's put it this way," Binhendi said. "We'll look at any sport which will evoke the interest of people here. Sport is the best thing to go for. It's a prestigious, respectable thing to sponsor, because it contributes to the society and the youth.

"We are developing a business community, rather than depending on the oil-based revenue in the economy. The infrastructure has been put together with the port, the airport and television. We are attracting business. What Dubai is also known for is the upkeep of whatever we do." The only thing missing, Binhendi said, was a centre for sport with expert international trainers and coaches to find and develop local talent. Perhaps one will materialise overnight.

He makes no apology for beating the competition in the market for sporting events. "There are other cities of other countries who have as much, or more money than us, but they have not taken the initiative," he said. "We get things done."