SPRINT TO WIN

UAE, Abu Dhabi 2015 | TOURISM | VIP INTERVIEW

TBY talks to HE Aref Al Awani, General Secretary of the Abu Dhabi Sports Council (ADSC), on the role of sports in the Emirate and UAE.

How are sports a part of the culture in Abu Dhabi and the UAE?

Whether its water sports, such as sailing and swimming, or equestrian sports, polo, or camel racing, there is a strong historical connection between the people of the UAE and sports, both traditional and modern. The late Sheikh Zayed continuously supported sport and the construction of sporting venues. In 1979 we hosted the qualifications for the Asian Cup at Zayed Stadium, our national stadium, which still hosts many leading football and sports events today. We also had an ice skating rink built in Zayed Sports City around the same time. We are proud today that the Abu Dhabi ice hockey team is becoming one of the top Division III teams in the Asian league. This is from a city not known for its winter sports! We also founded the Sheikha Fatima bint Mubarak Sports Academy for Women's Sports to raise awareness and education about sport for women, and to sponsor some of Abu Dhabi's female sporting talents. These and other sporting developments in Abu Dhabi began with Sheikh Zayed's vision, and continue today with our leadership and our passion for sport. The role of sport is very important for our communities, our families, and our country.

What led to the establishment of the Sports Council in 2006?

HH Sheikh Mohammed, the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi, found there was a need to develop a regulator for sports across Abu Dhabi, not to control sporting clubs and entities, but to support them and enable tournaments to operate at a high level. There was also a need to have an Olympic Committee to organize all types of sports and support new clubs. That is why the Sports Council was formed. We liaise with different segments of the government and private sector to put our joint efforts behind the success of all sports hosted in Abu Dhabi. To date, the Sports Council has successfully hosted many tournaments from different sporting disciplines.

“We would like to nurture more sporting heroes in different disciplines."

What is the next phase of development for the sports sector in Abu Dhabi?

At this stage we are trying to bring in more sporting events that have a direct benefit on the community and individuals using a one-to-one or B2B approach, thus promoting sport as a lifestyle. We would like to keep our calendar busy throughout the year but we are selective in what we host, mainly choosing events that have an international appeal while not overlapping with local sporting events. We are also aiming to establish different classes of tournaments. There is a need to have a mix between hosting official tournaments sanctioned by world federations and other countries, and having exhibition tournaments with a more social appeal. Part of our vision now is to concentrate on hosting sanctioned tournaments that are part of the tournament calendars of world federations. We are bidding for the Asian Cup 2019, and we hope to win it. We are also bidding for the FIFA Club World Cup again. We will host the finals for the Cycling World Tour 2015, which is similar to the Tour de France. We will host an ITU triathlon in 2015 and are bidding to host the FINA swimming 10K World Open Water Swim Tour. We now have an Aero Sports Club, which was founded in November 2014 for those interested in air shows and air sports, such as skydiving. Whenever there is a new sport to establish or support, there is always instruction by our leadership to create new entities. There is so much diversity in sporting disciplines, which reflects the diversity of our local community.

How do you ensure the success of tournaments and sporting events hosted here in Abu Dhabi?

Quality is crucial. There are a lot of stakeholders who sponsor various activities and sports, such as the Abu Dhabi Tourism and Culture Authority (TCA), the Mubadala Development Company, and the Health Authority Abu Dhabi (HAAD). In addition, the golf clubs, for example, are already hosting a number of well-known tournaments, such as the Abu Dhabi HSBC Golf Championship. It is not a matter of having the money, but having efficiency in what we do. We must see a return on any investment that we make. About 50% of all ticket sales for the Formula One at the Yas Marina Circuit were sold internationally. We had some 30,000 Formula One fans come from outside the UAE—that is the sort of success that we target. The combination of having financial support while at the same time being efficient is a top priority for us, no matter what we host. Our quality comes from that. We do not want to host something once and forget about it; we are looking for long-term consistency. That will never be connected to finance, but rather to efficiency and quality.

How important is it for private-sector companies to play a role in promoting sports and sporting events in Abu Dhabi?

Commercially, we would like to bring on board more companies from the private sector to show them that they can participate in sports by sponsoring social events or big international events. Major companies such as HSBC, Etihad, Mercedes Benz, Borouge, and ADNOC are doing a very good job. They are giving more, and truly understand the role they can play within the sporting community. They believe in the message that sports can deliver. When companies sponsor or work in partnership with an event they see immediate economic returns.

How does the Sports Council facilitate company sponsorships and private-sector support for various sporting events?

We have two types of events today. There are the social tournaments, of which we have around 40 to 50 throughout the year. These are directed at both individuals and families in the community. Such events appeal to companies that spend a portion of their sponsorship budget on CSR. Others go for specific events, such as HSBC, which prefers to target the golfing audience. We have created our own marketing and communication department, whose job it is to ensure an appropriate level of sponsorship. The TCA also brings a lot of sponsors into these kinds of events. We are also being approached more and more by companies in the private sector.

What are some of the major sporting events on the 2015 sporting calendar?

Cycling is one of the most important new events for us in 2015, as well as the triathlon, for which we will host the opening ITU event, and the Women's Bowling Cup 2015, following the Men's Bowling World Cup, which we hosted in 2014. The FINA 10K swimming event will be held for the first time in Abu Dhabi. There is the Mubadala Tennis tournament and HSBC Abu Dhabi Golf Tournament that is held in January every year. We have around 50 entities related to sport, and 27 of these come under our umbrella. Some 23 are actively working to bring more sports into Abu Dhabi. We are very lucky to have around 50% of our sporting activities operated by private entities, not by the government. Our role is to facilitate, if they need our help.

How do you view the role of sport in the national economy?

The economic effect of having over 30,000 sports fans coming to the UAE just to see the Formula One is huge. When you calculate the amount they spend from a tourism point of view, the effect is significant. Hotels receive the maximum benefit with full occupancy during events, some up to 10 days before an event. It is definitely something that affects every sector. From our perspective, we see immediate returns. We see how sport boosts our community and how it affects our reputation globally. Abu Dhabi's international sporting reputation is considerable due to the passion we have for sports.

What is your main aim as you look to the future of sport in Abu Dhabi?

Now with both the infrastructure in place and the government support, there is an opportunity to have more champions in different sports, whether it is running, cycling, the triathlon, or tennis. This is what we are working toward and planning for in the future. As an example, Mohammed Khalifa Al Qubaisi is the President of the Emirates Bowling Federation; he is very successful in his career working with ADNOC, but in 1983 he was also the World Bowling Champion. We also have two chess world champions. These sporting figures act as role models. We would like to nurture more sporting heroes in different disciplines. For our champions it is a great source of national pride and the whole country gets involved.

© The Business Year - February 2015