GREEN FOR GO

Abu Dhabi 2016 | SPORTS | INTERVIEW

TBY talks to HE Aref Al Awani, General Secretary of Abu Dhabi Sports Council (ADSC), on the social and economic benefits that accompany Abu Dhabi's growing reputation for holding world-class sporting events.

HE Aref Al Awani
BIOGRAPHY
HE Aref Al Awani holds a bachelor’s in business administration and bank services from the UAE University, and has over 16 years experience in management of administrative and sporting affairs. He has worked extensively within the Emirate’s media industry, with experience at the Emirates Telecommunication Corporation as Executive Director of the Etihad Limited Printing & Distribution Company-the Emirates Media Incorporation, and many others before joining the ADSC.

Abu Dhabi is attempting to develop a sporting culture within the Emirate. How do you assess that goal, and what is left to achieve?

There are specific reasons why we are developing this sporting culture. We want Abu Dhabi seen as a preferred destination for major, world-class events, which has an obvious knock-on effect on the Emirate's overall international positioning and its tourism appeal by delivering huge global media exposure whilst also enriching the lives of residents and visitors alike. We also want to build a sporting culture as it is clearly in line with the aims of the Abu Dhabi 2030 vision of embracing contemporary living and respect for the diverse cultures of those that reside in Abu Dhabi, of strengthening our sense of community, building social cohesion, and encouraging healthy lifestyles among all ages while promoting wellbeing. We assess our progress with surveys at our major events, through stakeholder meetings, through our regular interaction with the community clubs, schools, and universities, and we can clearly gauge the progress. There has been a proliferation of private-sector sports facilities and fitness clubs throughout the Emirate that serve a wide cross-section of the community. Is there more to do? Always. We are never complacent. We also appreciate that sports is a business and can open up a world of career opportunities for UAE nationals, and not just those who want to demonstrate their prowess on the sports field, but the many ancillary jobs behind the scenes, in events organization, marketing, and also the financial arena. People with a passion for sport can find their niche here.

How have you gauged Emirati involvement with sports since the council's creation?

We are regularly in touch with schools, colleges, and universities, assisting them to build their own sporting cultures and supporting their programs where necessary. We are also in regular contact with the many local sports clubs around the Emirate, helping to establish many, with the aim of encouraging grass roots sports within the community. We have come a long way. If just five years ago you were to visit the annual Abu Dhabi HSBC Golf Championship you would be unlikely to see any Emiratis around, but now we even have one competing—Ahmed Al Musharrekh, the first Emirati golfer to turn professional. Only 25 years old, Ahmed is now teeing off alongside the world's best players and he's subtlety delivering a message to our own youth that you shouldn't scared of challenge and to take the opportunities that are presented. Another example is Adil Khalid, who was part of Abu Dhabi's winning Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing team, which clinched the last Volvo Ocean Race. Adil has a huge following across the region and has fans around the world. As the first Arab, let alone Emirati, to compete in this round-the-world endurance race, he sent out a clear signal to our youth that anything is possible. Other Emiratis were also involved in that victory, serving on the vital shore team. Women are not left out either and have the sterling example of our medal- winning and budding Olympic weightlifter Amna Al Haddad to look up to. Her sporting example is admired and hopefully will inspire more young women into the sporting arena.

What wider, socio-economic impact does ADSC expect to see from bringing in events such as this one?

Sports can make a profound and positive impact on individuals, communities, and wider society. There is firm evidence worldwide that physical activity, including sports, helps reduce the risk of illnesses, including cardiovascular disease and some cancers. The socio-economic benefits are wide-ranging and include long-term savings to healthcare costs. Through major events we encourage people to take up sports at a grass roots level. The ITU World Triathlon Series is a great example because it allows budding amateur triathletes, even juniors, to get out and tackle the same course as the elites. Toward the end of last year, ADSC teamed up with HSBC to launch the Emirate's largest grassroots program, Champions of Tomorrow, which has introduced more than 2,000 local school children to the game of golf. This program engages youngsters through modules, including free taster sessions at our golf clubs and unique hour-long guided tours of the Abu Dhabi HSBC Golf Championship. Our golf professionals visit schools and the children also receive beginner coaching courses at one of the four golf clubs taking part. This is a long-term program that will grow golf within the local community while helping to set youngsters out on a journey of healthy lifestyles, sportsmanship, and competitive spirit. Of course, there is also an economic impact back to the host destination for major sporting events. For instance, our hosting of the Volvo Ocean Race in December 2014 delivered an economic impact of AED189 million to the destination, while the annual Abu Dhabi HSBC Golf Championship brings AED147 million of economic impact to the greater UAE. Some 60,000 people turn up to see the F1 Etihad Airways Abu Dhabi Grand Prix for instance, and many stay on to experience the destination, and then there's a considerable number in the competing teams and their support teams. Airlines, hotels, restaurants, yacht charters, and shops see a spike in revenue, as do event organizers and their ancillary suppliers. With all major sporting events the travel industry benefits by designing packages around them. For example, in 2014 the Abu Dhabi HSBC Golf Championship pushed hotel occupancy levels, revenue per available room, and the average room rate up for the month of January by 5.4%, 7.6%, and 16%, respectively. There was a conscious effort to develop tailored packages as hotel providers teamed up with other travel service providers to highlight Abu Dhabi's potential as a golf destination. And this is only on the events side.

How do you assess the development of infrastructure that facilitates the Emirate hosting prestigious sporting events?

We have excellent infrastructure, from our three championship golf courses, each an award-winner, to the Yas Marina Circuit, our football stadiums, and the state-of-the-art Zayed Cricket Stadium, which is arguably one of the world's finest cricket grounds. The Abu Dhabi Sailing & Yacht Club is being enhanced, the wakeboarding park at Al Forsan has hosted the Wake Park World Championships, Wadi Adventure in Al Ain will this year host the World Rafting Championships, while the Hazza Bin Zayed stadium in Al Ain is a head turner and has become something of a landmark. I also look upon our Corniche as a sporting venue in its own right; the promenade is extensive and the waters off its shores are ideal for swimming, sailing, and other aquatic pursuits. This is why we include it in the triathlon course and chose it to host the recent FINA Swimming Marathon World Cup and High Diving World Cup. The area lends itself to hosting spectator sports, in a comfortable and picturesque surrounding.