Open Talk 7: Sports in the UAE


The seventh session of Open Talk with businessman Khalaf Ahmad Al Habtoor, Founding Chairman of Al Habtoor Group (AHG), addressed the topic of "Sports in the UAE". It stimulated a great interaction from the attendance of both genders. Several sports issues, in particular investment in sports, were discussed, highlighting that sport is the best investment in societies for a healthy lifestyle.

The "familial" session, hosted by Al Habtoor Group, was attended by many businessmen, athletes and media representatives, including businessman Khalaf Ahmad Al Habtoor, Dr. Ahmed Saad As-Sharif, Chairman of Association for Sports, Sultan Al Habtoor, former Al-Ahli player, Mohammad Al Habtoor, Chairman of UAE Polo Federation, and the football star Mohammed Omar, previous player with the UAE national team, as well as al-Wasl and al-Ain teams.

The session was opened with a welcome note by the hosts Noura Badawi, AHG Communications Manager, and Khaled Al Ali, who facilitated the dialogue professionally and smoothly. They highlighted the sponsorship and support provided by AHG in the sports field, including the sponsoring of the annual Zayed Marathon in New York and Egypt, the organizing and supporting of the Al Habtoor Tennis Challenge for female players, the support to the national UAE basketball team and the first football team in al-Ain club, the champion of Asian clubs, the participation of the AHG team in the NAS Sports Tournament, the polo and equestrian events in the Al Habtoor Polo Resort, and the participation in Her Majesty's Polo Championship in UK.

Khalaf Al Habtoor highly commended the successful organization of the World Cup in Doha: "We were very happy for our brothers in Qatar. I have watched previous world cups, and there is no comparison. Success has exceeded all expectations, and it was like a feast and big celebration for all of us."

Concerning the participation of the Arab national teams in the World Cup, Al Habtoor said that it was a positive experience, adding that Morocco and Saudi Arabia made us very proud. He also considered that Morocco's finishing 4th in the World Cup was really a great achievement.

Al Habtoor commented on the move of the international football star Cristiano Ronaldo who joined the Saudi Al-Nassr team: "Al-Nassr club did well by investing in a player like Ronaldo because this is better than investing in advertisements. The gains the club would make in media, advertisement and promotion exceed by far the sums it paid to bring Ronaldo to the team. He is a great asset not just for Saudi Arabia but for the whole Gulf region."

Asked about his passion for tennis, Al Habtoor said: "Sport is innate to the people of UAE and the region. The simplicity of life gives those who practice fishing, hunting and riding in the sea and land, strength, perseverance and good health." He recounted that a coach encouraged him to train, so he was attracted to playing tennis which became his passion, because it is a noble sport that suits all ages. And he has been generously supporting Al Habtoor Tennis Challenge for two decades and a half.

As is the case with investments in the economic projects, those who invest in sports should have enough experience for their efforts to be crowned with success, said Al Habtoor. He added: "It is unlikely that I buy a foreign club because I do not approve of investing in a business that I don't know very well. I previously called to establish an integrated sports city, and a study was put for this huge project. However, for any project to achieve economic success, continuity must be guaranteed. I hope that the football enterprise would turn into real companies, and that the national companies and institutions would invest in these companies to alleviate the financial burden of the government."

"Our youth are intelligent, highly skilled and have great abilities. Nevertheless, we should encourage and motivate them, give them the opportunity and hope, show them the path, and guide them in a proper way. This is best illustrated by the achievement of our Olympic champion, Sheikh Ahmed Bin Mohammed bin Hasher Al Maktoum, who won a golden medal in shooting in the 2004 Athens Olympics, and our national team qualifying for the 1990 World Cup," added Al Habtoor.

Asked about the opening of several academies in the UAE, Al Habtoor said: "I am in favor of these academies because the foreigners are experienced in the field. Just as we learned trade from them and succeeded, this would be true again, and with perseverance we would succeed."

Al Habtoor called on the sports media to play their role as a key partner in success stories to motivate and encourage athletes because money alone cannot lead to achievements.

Dr. Ahmed Saad As-Sharif said he was pleased to participate in the session. He thanked businessman Khalaf Al Habtoor who embodies "the sports' spirit", adding that sports in UAE went through four stages. The first stage was from 1945 to 1953; and the second one started with the introduction of education and systematic courses in 1953 until the establishment of the Federation in 1971. This stage witnessed great progress and real renaissance during the seventies; it was marked by high achievements including Said Ahmed Said's crowning in the World Junior Chess Championship, Mohammed Khalifa al-Qoubaissi's win in the World Bowling Championship, and our national team's qualifying to the World Cup finals in Italy in 1990.

Dr. As-Sharif added: "Work in the sports sector was supposed to turn into institutional work, but unfortunately this did not happen. Therefore, the private sector is more successful than the public sector in the sports field. We have not witnessed other tangible achievements, as evidenced by the fact that the biggest results we achieved in the Asian continent were in bowling, snooker and billiards. It would be possible to achieve better results if the private and public sectors work in tandem."

Dr. As-Sharif pointed to the importance of investment in sports, noting that recruiting Ronaldo to play with a Saudi team would allow Saudi Arabia to gain revenues amounting to billions of riyals. Al-Nassr club received orders for 2 million shirts with the Ronaldo's name, and the shirt is sold at 250 riyals. Thomas Bach, President of the International Olympic Committee, and Gianni Infatino, FIFA President, are present in the World Economic Forum in Davos, which paves the way for the conclusion of deals that enhance the sports activities in general and football. As-Sharif added that the recent organization of the Arabian Gulf Cup in Basra was a great investment because it revived sports in Iraqi courts, thus contributing to getting life back on track. "We may not incorporate sports in all life aspects but let us at least capitalize on it to introduce our culture and civilization to the whole world," said As-Sharif.

Dr. As-Sharif concluded: "Given the changes and technological progress, we are in dire need for giving students more physical education classes in schools. Each school day should include a physical education class to protect our children from obesity and diabetes. Statistics confirm that 46 percent of Dubai residents practice sports, which is a high percentage. Sports is a social issue that can be beneficial to all people. There is nor a general strategy for sports neither an institutional sports system in the Arab world, knowing that these would ensure the flow of talents and the communication between generations. A global statistic shows that for every 40 thousand athletes, there is one true talent."

Asked about his beginnings and journey with polo, Mohammed Al Habtoor, Chairman of UAE Polo Federation, said: "In 1999, I started playing polo at Ali al-Bawardi court. I treated horses as an integral part of me and participated in matches starting from 2000. Practicing sports made me realize that the private sector is more successful than the public sector in this field, due to the speediness of the decision-making process, as decisions can be taken within 24 hours. This provides the means of success, since it is a matter of gain and loss, and the time factor is very important." He gave the tennis tournament as an example, saying it involves high costs but is also profitable.

Regarding the participation of Emirati players in competitions abroad, Mohammad Al Habtoor said that Her Highness Sheikha Maitha bint Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum participated on behalf of the UAE in a polo tournament in Argentina and was able to reach the finals. He added: "We represented the UAE in Her Majesty's Polo Championship several times. We also participated in polo tournaments in Argentina where we won the championship once and reached the finals twice."

Mohammed Omar, former star of our national football team, stressed that Ronaldo's playing in Saudi Arabia is a great investment for football in the Gulf in general. "Al-Nassr club was previously followed by 800 thousand people on social media, and now the number has reached 13 million followers in less than two weeks. The future looks brighter. Ronaldo's participation in the Saudi League will raise the level, and Saudi nationals would double their efforts to join the team. This would also enhance the technical skills and increase the audience. We hope that other Gulf countries would follow the steps of Saudi Arabia because this would give a great boost to their teams," said Omar.

He added that most famous players are seeking to join Saudi teams, which is very important.

The session attendees came out with a firm conviction that sports investment and marketing play an important and vital role in the development of sports. It is one of the most important economic tools with great benefits and positive outcomes towards building a futuristic sports strategy at the core of sports institutions for the benefit of future generations.