Dubai riches attract the world's best

Leading tennis players provide latest showcase for entertainment capital of Arab world as extrovert American conquers Kournikova
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The main attraction here last year was Tiger Woods, lured to the Dubai Desert Classic for a reported $2.25m (£1.58m). Yesterday the Dubai Duty Free Open was dominated by the two most compelling players in women's tennis, the powerfully successful Venus Williams, soon to be the world No 1, in action against Anna Kournikova, sport's most beautiful under-achiever.

It did not take a Tiger's ransom to persuade Williams and Kournikova to compete in the Middle East for the first time, but it did cost slightly more than the total prize-money, $585,000, to guarantee their appearance, along with Monica Seles, the No 2 seed.

A portion of that took the form of accommodation in $8,000-per-night suites at the Burj Al Arab Hotel, which rises impressively from the sea in the shape of a dhow sail. Seles took one look at her digs and said: "Wow!" Martina Hingis occupied one of the Burj Al Arab suites, measuring 667 square metres, when she played, and won, the inaugural women's event here last year as the world No 1.

Sport is serious business in Dubai, commanding an annual budget of $50m. It is an integral part of the government's long-term economic policy, independent of oil revenue, a means of publicising the 21st century image Dubai strives to achieve as the entertainment, tourism and commercial capital of the Arab world.

Next week, the men of the ATP Tour will be in town. Goran Ivanisevic, the Wimbledon champion, Thomas Johansson, the Australian Open champion, Tim Henman, the British No 1, Juan Carlos Ferrero, the defending champion, Russia's Yevgeny Kafelnikov, and the Swiss Roger Federer will be among those competing for total prize-money of $1m and a winner's cheque for $167,000.

The tennis stadium cost £4.32m and was completed in six months, the last lick of paint being applied on the eve of the 1996 tournament. Since then, the outer shell has been utilised to create an Irish village and row of international restaurants.

As soon as the tennis professionals have packed their bags, the likes of John Daly, Mark O'Meara, Colin Montgomerie and Thomas Bjorn will be shooting for a share of £1m and a first prize of £166,660 in the Dubai Desert Classic at the Emirates Golf Club from 7 to 10 March.

Sheikh Mohammed, the Crown Prince of Dubai and the motivating force behind the country's transformation, approved the concept of developing a grass golf course in the desert in 1986. The Emirates club was opened two years later. Irrigation is not a problem in Dubai, where water can be found as little as three metres below ground.

Racing, the sport of kings and sheikhs, abounds in Dubai, as it should in the home of the desert Arabian stallion from which the thoroughbred dynasty originated. Sheikh Mohammed, who has more than 1,000 horses in training around the world, introduced the Godolphin operation, which enables horses to spend six months of the year in Dubai before campaigning in top international racing.

Sheikh Mohammed's ambition to present the world's richest race at the city's Nad Al Sheba track was achieved in 1996, and the latest running of the $6m Dubai World Cup is due to take place on 23 March. Total prize-money at the seven-race meeting is $15.25m.

When Williams, Seles and Kournikova arrived at Dubai airport this week they were escorted through a new concourse, containing an in-house hotel, which is the first phase of a massive development programme involving the construction of another concourse and a new terminal exclusively for Emirates airlines, to be completed by 2006. The expansion also includes a cargo terminal, due to be completed by 2018.

Dubai's growth is viewed with ambivalence and a even a degree of suspicion in some quarters. "Many oil countries live entirely on their oil, but less than 25 per cent of our economy is from oil," says Sheikh Mohammed. "My eldest brother [Sheikh Maktoum, the Emir] told me: 'When you meet a person, you like him or dislike him from the face. The airport is our face, so concentrate on that, always remember that'."

The shop floor of the duty free area of the new concourse is the size of 27 tennis courts. This is the domain of Colm McLoughlin, the managing director of Dubai Duty Free. McLoughlin, from Ballinasloe (population 6,000) in County Galway, began to promote Dubai through sport, encouraged by Sheikh Mohammed, 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.

McLoughlin, 58, is the middle of five children. His two older brothers, Ray and Felidem, played rugby for Ireland, Ray captaining his country in the 1960s and also playing for the Lions. Colm 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 encylopaedia salesman, a trolleybus 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.