Not so long ago, if someone had asked you to name a premier global destination for elite sporting events, the chances are the UAE wouldn’t have featured particularly high up on your list.
While perhaps not technically a ‘sport’, one UAE-based event that continues to generate a surprising amount of nostalgia online is the World Chess Olympiad 1986 – no doubt because of this joyous promotional video produced by the UAE Chess Federation.
Quaint though this clip may seem by today’s standards, it’s an early and fascinating example of the UAE’s instinct for attracting an international audience. And while our nation has evolved dramatically in the almost four decades since this video was filmed, the most striking changes of all relate to infrastructure.
Whereas Deira Clock Tower and the aerial views of Dubai Creek may remain familiar to modern viewers, today’s Dubai is barely recognisable when compared to this grainy, sun-soaked footage. The video contains no indication that Dubai International Airport (DXB) would grow to become the world’s busiest in terms of international passenger traffic; no sign of Dubai Metro; and no major tourist attractions, such as The Dubai Mall, the Burj Al Arab or the Burj Khalifa.
And these observations apply to just one emirate. When you consider that this footage was captured such a comparatively short time ago, the pace of progress across the UAE has been astounding.
An ever-growing industry
The expansion of the UAE’s sporting calendar is one of the few things that has managed to keep pace with the nation’s infrastructural development during this period. Today, the Emirates is home to a dizzying array of elite-level events, which draw huge crowds of residents and international visitors alike.
This year alone, the UAE is hosting the Dubai Desert Classic; the Abu Dhabi HSBC Golf Championship; the DP World Tour Championship; the Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships; the Mubadala World Tennis Championship in Abu Dhabi; the Dubai World Cup; the UAE T20 League; NBA games in Abu Dhabi; and Formula 1’s Abu Dhabi Grand Prix.
The UAE has also become a popular destination among high-profile football clubs as a venue for winter break training camps, with the likes of Paul Pogba, Cristiano Ronaldo and Mo Salah training in the country during recent years.
Add to this the fact that the emirates has twice hosted the Indian Premier League (IPL) as well as the first three editions of the Pakistan Super League, and it’s clear to see that our nation has firmly established itself as a favourite among sports stars and fans alike.
Why? Because while some well-established locations around the world have seemed content to trade on their sporting heritage, the UAE has been busy transforming itself into a destination that is not only infrastructurally equipped to handle the large volumes of visitors that elite sports events attract, but which also offers myriad world-class attractions – from hospitality to leisure and entertainment – that appeal to tourists regardless of whether they are sports aficionados.
This situation has no doubt been helped by the willingness of sports personalities to not only promote the UAE as a destination, but to make it their home. Many international stars have ties to our nation, from former Wimbledon tennis champions Marion Bartoli and Roger Federer to football icon David Beckham.
Maintaining the pace
Building a sporting calendar is one thing but sustaining it is quite another. Even so, I am supremely confident that the UAE can cement its status as a global home for elite sport long into the future. Why? Because of Expo 2020 Dubai.
I fully appreciate the World Expo was not a sporting event (although it did feature an array of sports-related events and activities, not to mention ambassadors such as Lionel Messi). That doesn’t stop it from providing cast-iron proof of the UAE’s ability to welcome the world to its shores.
Overall, Expo 2020 Dubai attracted 24.1 million visits during its six months. Almost a third of those who visited came from overseas, with 178 countries represented. Put simply, Expo succeeded in attracting a diverse audience of millions – exactly the type of crowd that international sports competitions dream of.
So, who knows? Perhaps before long, we’ll be planning for the Abu Dhabi Summer Olympics or the FIFA World Cup UAE. Such a statement would have been unimaginable back in 1986, but that certainly isn’t the case today.
And even if I’m wrong, you’ll be pleased to know that the UAE Chess Federation is still going strong to this day.