Updated: September 16, 2020 5:32:23 pm
On September 19, at the Sheikh Zayed Cricket Stadium in Abu Dhabi, the inaugural match of this year’s Indian Premier League will be played – marking the opener of a marquee sports league that for the first time will entirely take place in the United Arab Emirates (UAE). And in case India fails to get a grip of the pandemic next year, chances are that the 2021 edition, expected to kick off in March, too will be played in the Gulf. The choice of the destination is not surprising. At the World Travel Awards last December, Abu Dhabi was given the award for the World’s Leading Sports Tourism Destination.
Staging the IPL on foreign shores is not an alien concept to the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI). The entire 2009 edition was held in South Africa, and the first 20 matches in 2014 took place in the UAE – both due to security issues surrounding the general elections. But the BCCI’s decision to shift this year’s edition abroad comes due to the rising Covid-19 cases in India. And the IPL going to the UAE fits with the trend of major global sporting events choosing the Middle East nation as the venue.
But just as prominent as their expertise in hosting events is the glaring absence of an Emirati sportsperson of a world-beating calibre in global sports. Granted, the country has won a gold (2004 Olympics) and a bronze at the 2016 Olympics, an Emirati competing at the highest level of a sport has been a rarity – especially at the events the country hosts. A part of the reason is that of the 9.89 million population in 2020 (according to the World Bank), 88.52 percent are expatriates (Source: Global Media Insight).
“We are a very fresh and young country (UAE gained independence from the United Kingdom in 1971). Since we comprise a lot of expats, we have produced a lot of key players who are expatriates,” explains Harmeek Singh, strategic director of the UAE Athletics Federation. “But then again, now we are looking forward to expatriates getting that kind of representation from UAE. We are one community over here, expats and locals, because we all value UAE as one country.”
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Despite no great challenge from the home contingent, the UAE has become an unparalleled sporting destination. But what makes the UAE such a sporting hub?
“The infrastructure that we have here is state-of-the-art, something that makes the developed countries want to look at us. Dubai and UAE has always been known for being the leaders, rather than following, so we bring the biggest and the best,” says Singh, who was the first expatriate to represent the UAE.
“Anything that we talk about, we were probably ahead of the game. We started working on training equipment and facilities to be provided according to international standard. To be a part of global events, sports was one of criteria that the (government has) followed. The kind of approach that UAE attracts with the sports facilities, and openness to having sports events, has been a revelation.”
Over a wide array of sports, the UAE has been a go-to destination. For the moment though, despite the country attracting major sporting names and events, there remains a Gulf in class between foreigners and Emirati sporting competitors.
In 1998, Sharjah held the trination series between Australia, New Zealand and India, an event that is more famously called ‘Desert Storm’ because of Sachin Tendulkar’s back-to-back centuries.
UAE is considered the ‘home’ venue for Pakistan’s cricket teams, especially during the international ban that forbid Pakistan to host matches in their own country.
The International Cricket Council (ICC), the sport’s governing body, also has its headquarters in Dubai.
Meanwhile, the UAE national team, an associate nation, has qualified for two ODI World Cups – in 1996 and 2015, and have won just one (against the Netherlands, 1996) of their 11 matches at the competition. They also made it to the qualification round ahead of the 2014 T20 World Cup.
Arguably the most popular sport in the country, the national men’s team is ranked 71 in the world and eighth in Asia. They hosted the U-20 Men’s World Cup in 2003, the Asian Cup in 1996 and 2019 (finishing as runner-up and fourth respectively), and have hosted the FIFA Club World Cup for four years (2009-2010 and 2017-18).
English football giant Manchester City is also owned by Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed Al Nahyan, a member of the Abu Dhabi Royal Family. Subsequently, the team has made trips to the country during the cold European winters to train.
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Similarly, a number of top European teams, such as, but not limited to, Bayern Munich, Manchester United, Arsenal, and Liverpool have held camps in the UAE. AC Milan also beat Real Madrid 4-2 in an exhibition match in Dubai in December 2014, and last year, at the Al Jazira Stadium in Abu Dhabi, Brazil played South Korea in a friendly.
Dubai hosts one of the richest tour events in both the WTA and ATP calendars, in back-to-back weeks. The WTA Premier event in 2020 had a total prize money of $2,643,670 and the ATP 500 event the following week had a total of $2,950,420 on offer. Both events have attracted top players from their inaugural editions (2001 for WTA and 1993 for ATP) such as former world no 1s Martina Hingis, Venus Williams, Andy Roddick, Petra Kvitova, Andy Roddick, Caroline Wozniacki, and the Big 3 – Roger Federer-Rafael Nadal-Novak Djokovic.
The UAE has also been a prominent residence for players – mainly due to its tax benefits and facilities. Borna Coric (former world no 12), Karen Khachanov (world no 16) and Lucas Pouille (former world no 10) reside in Dubai according to their ATP profiles, and Federer too had reportedly purchased an apartment in the city.
Meanwhile, the UAE’s highest ranked ever tennis player is Omar Alawadhi, who last played a competitive match, according to his ATP profile, in 2018 and has a career high of 805.
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Dubai was the official sponsor of the mighty Chinese national Table Tennis team from 2013 to 2017. The city also hosted the World Team Cup in 2010 and 2015.
The country’s highest ranked player – 404 – currently is Salah Albalushi. There are no women players in the ITTF rankings.
Dubai hosted the Super Series Finals (year-end finale) for four years from 2014 to 2017, but has not produced a prominent badminton player yet.
The Abu Dhabi Grand Prix has been a permanent fixture on the Formula One calendar since its inaugural race in 2009. The country, however, is yet to produce a driver who competes at the pinnacle of motorsport.
Dubai hosts the Dubai Rugby Sevens, a prominent event in the World Rugby Sevens Series – for both men and women. The men’s event had first started in 1970 and, according to the Dubai Rugby Sevens website, “is the longest-running sports event in the Middle East.”
All events take place at The Sevens Stadium – a venue built especially for the sport – since 2008.
In comparison, the national federation was formed only in 2009 and was affiliated to the international body – World Rugby – in 2012. Furthermore, the UAE national team has competed in a World Series event just once, at the home event in 2011.
The UAE hosts the prestigious PGA European Tour events Dubai Desert Classic and DP World Tour Championships – the latter being the finale of the Race to Dubai. The country, however, has just four golfers in the current world rankings – Ahmed Al Musharekh (the only professional in the list) and amateur golfers Ahmed Skaik, Saif Thabet and Abdulla Al Qubaisi. All of them are ranked last, tied-2014 in the week of September 7
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