In early September, Abu Dhabi made waves in the global and sporting press when the Abu Dhabi United Group for Development and Investment (ADUG) confirmed that it had bought the British football club Manchester City, reportedly for more than £200 million ($366 million [USD]). Foreign ownership of Premiership football clubs is nothing new, but the growing influence of the Middle East has been closely observed. With the region’s recent acquisitions and prime time sponsorships, the Middle East is changing the international sports landscape.
Tiger Woods, American golf champion, with the trophy with The Emirates Golf Club Gentlemans Captain after winning the Dubai Desert Classic, on the Majilis Course at the Emirates Golf Club, on February 3, 2008 in Dubai, United Arab Emirates. Tiger Woods has designed a golf course in the region. (David Cannon/Getty Images)
But the investments, frequently perceived as vanity projects, often have more to do with developing non-oil-dependent assets and driving tourism.
While large deals like the Manchester City acquisition make headlines, Middle Eastern airlines and tourist boards have long been the region’s most active players on the international sporting scene, choosing sport as a favoured channel for brand building abroad.
Emirates Airline, the region’s most proactive sports presence, has ties that span sailing, golf, horse racing, cricket, Australian rules football, powerboats and rugby. The airline is a global sponsor of football’s FIFA World Cup, and is emblazoned across Arsenal’s shirt and stadium. In July, Gulf Air paid a record £7 million to become shirt sponsor of the newly acquired and cash-rich Queens Park Rangers, while Etihad sponsors Chelsea FC.
While the Middle Eastern travel industry aggressively pursues lucrative sporting partnerships abroad and leading investment organizations make headline-grabbing acquisitions, the region is just as quickly looking to bring sports home,
Governments throughout the Middle East have poured enormous investment into sports infrastructure. Dubai recently announced a bid for the 2016 Olympic Games, before pulling out of the race. Nonetheless, this has not slowed the development of its £2-billion ($3.6 billion) Dubai Sports City.
“Our commercial strategy looks to support one major event in six core sports – football, rugby, cricket, hockey, golf and tennis – that will run every year in Dubai,” explained Malcolm Thorpe, marketing director for sports business at Dubai Sports in a press release.
The International Cricket Council, the sport’s governing body, is now based in Dubai, making a first cricket World Cup in the Middle East a near certainty.
Abu Dhabi is similarly focused on international sporting competition. The city is set to complete its Ferrari Park in 2009, which will include a motor circuit intended to host the emirate's first F1 Grand Prix, also next year.
“A number of events could now be hosted in the Middle East. An equivalent to the Ryder Cup would be an obvious one, especially as Tiger Woods has designed a course in the region. I would also envisage a Rugby World Cup here before long, and a major tennis event such as the Masters would be another,” M&C Saatchi Sports & Entertainment chief executive Steve Martin told the Economic Times.
“Ultimately,” Rupert Pratt, managing partner of sponsorship agency Generate, explained to the Economic Times, “Dubai is using sport to build a tourist destination.”