For instance, here is a scene - touched on only briefly in the story - that epitomizes how deals are accomplished in the Gulf. In September 2003, Abdul Rahman Falaknaz waited anxiously on the 44th floor of the sparkling Emirates Office Tower in Dubai. Falaknaz, a wealthy businessman and CEO of diversified United Arab Emirates business group Falak Holding, had come with two partners to propose a massive sports development on city-controlled land to his Highness Sheik Mohammad Bin Rashid al-Maktoum -- or as Falaknaz puts it, to secure “his highness’ blessing.”
The scheduled 10 a.m. meeting was in peril. Sheik Mohammad, the vice president and prime minister of the UAE and ruler of Dubai (one of the seven emirates that make up the country) had returned from London early in the morning but was nowhere to be found and not returning phone calls to his nearby palace. The three men decided to abort and were waiting at the elevators to descend when suddenly one of Sheik Mohammad’s aides came running to tell them he was on his way. Visibly tired, the Sheik told Falaknaz he had rushed over because he thought the partners might change their minds. Two questions later – how much would it cost and how long is it going to take? – Sheik Mohammad turned to his aide and thundered, “Do it.”
“That was it,” says Falaknaz of the birth of Dubai Sports City, an $8 billion, 50-million square foot mega-project that would make Ramses II envious. “That’s a world record. Nobody acts like that.”
ASPIRE SPORTS CITY (DOHA, QATAR)
Another question not addressed in the story: How big is the Middle East sports market? It’s hard to tell. Compared to North America it remains small. The quasi-public ownership structure makes it difficult to quantify how many billions of dollars are being poured into hosting, running, building and financing the sports industry. One thing is for sure: It’s increasing. The Asia Pacific region, which includes the Middle East, has already closed the spending gap with the second largest sponsorship spender, Europe, according to the IEG Sponsorship Report newsletter, a publication of Chicago-based consulting firm IEG LLC. In 2008, sponsorship dollars in the region are projected to reach $9.5 billion (two-thirds from sports) compared to $11.7 billion for Europe and $16.8 billion in North America. While IEG doesn’t break out Middle East dollars in the Asia Pacific category, “it’s growing rapidly,” says newsletter editor Williams Chipps.
No one is coy enough to pretend that petroleum (or, in the case of countries like Qatar, natural gas) isn’t spurring the sporting spigot’s flow. With oil setting weekly records and hovering around $110 per barrel until recently, it doesn’t take a genius to figure out why the Middle East, and in turn sport, is prospering. Officials don’t like to discuss it, but there’s even a subtle intra-city competition. Party-friendly Dubai has pursued a vision that could be descrbed as Vegas-meets-South Beach; the more reserved Abu Dhabi is positioning itself as a “green” center; Doha, meantime, has aligned itself with various high-level academic institutions such as Cornell Medical College and Georgetown University in its push to become an education center. Common to them all is the rush to lure the glitziest major sporting events.
That leads to another question: Why sports? Why now? There have been other oil booms, notably in the 1970s, that didn’t spawn an athletic arms race. One answer is that a new wave of foreign-educated leaders have tasted the power of sport and its ability to transcend cultural, religious and political barriers. Another is that the necessary infrastructure has arrived. For Dubai, a city roughly the size of Rhode Island with a population of 1.4 million (80% of which are ex-pats), it’s as much a smart strategy as a survival strategy. Unlike its wealthy neighbor Abu Dhabi, which boasts 10% of the world’s proven oil reserves, Dubai is within 20-40 years of exhausting its own supplies. According to Abdullah bin Suwaidan, deputy director with the city's Department of Tourism and Commerce, the sports-entertainment thrust is part of a prudent economic diversity strategy: Less than 5 percent of Dubai's reported $37 billion economy (2006 figures) derives from oil and natural gas revenues. Tourism, by contrast, accounts for 30 to 35 percent -- no surprise considering the more than 14 million visitors who arrived at Dubai's International Airport last year. Says women's tennis tour CEO Larry Scott, whose circuit will be playing its year-end championships in Doha the next three years: “There is a social agenda here, too. There is negative imagery they are trying to break down. What better way to have the leading global sport for women to come play here?”
What if oil drops back down to $75 or $50 a barrel? What if political tensions rise, or worse, conflict breaks out? That could act like a tough drug-testing program and cause the ripped, steroid-like industry to shrink. Not everyone is convinced that the build-it-and-they-will-come philosophy is the best, or only, strategy. Dr. Dieter Hackfort, a German-born world renowned professor of sport and exercise psychology, came to Dubai in 2005 as dean the Aspire Academy for Sports Excellence, a government-sponsored program that culls and trains local athletic talent. He says sport – from the Olympic to grass roots level -- must “be embedded in an overall strategy” and progress in “phases.” “Otherwise,” he says, “you are only spending a lot of money.” The sports fever that has gripped the Middle East could make such restraint elusive. Still, the mentality remains one that is akin to picking up a pricey free agent who is past his prime but can still bring fans to the stadium. As Emirates Airlines’ Boutros Boutros, who heads up the carrier's sponsorship programs, sums up: “Any government that is spending money on sports is not wasting money.”