- The Washington Times - Friday, April 14, 2006

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates — Cocooned inside a concrete tunnel, an artificial ski slope runs into the sand dunes of the Arabian Peninsula.

In a desert where summer temperatures reach 120 degrees, the snow hill at the Mall of the Emirates in Dubai is a gimmick designed to draw customers to the region’s largest shopping center.

But while the slope won’t be attracting Bode Miller or any other top skiers, there are several serious sports projects around the Persian Gulf — financed by big oil money — that are drawing world-class events.

There are golf courses designed by Ernie Els and Vijay Singh, and soccer facilities are attracting famous teams such as Manchester United and Bayern Munich.

Investors hope the projects change the region’s image, draw tourists and boost annual golf and tennis events in the area. The $6 million Dubai World Cup already is the world’s richest horse race, and the defending champion of Dubai’s Desert Classic is Tiger Woods.

Separated by a few hundred miles, Dubai — one of seven states of the United Arab Emirates — and Qatar are spending almost $5 billion between them to build two elaborate sports complexes that would fit nicely in Southern California or Australia.

“We are building world-class sporting facilities with the aim of bringing serious, world-class sport,” said Englishman Malcolm Thorpe, sitting alongside the 18th fairway at the Emirates Golf Club. “People are very used to going to the States and seeing fantastic sporting facilities anywhere you go. People don’t say that about the Middle East.”

Thorpe is the marketing director for Dubai Sports City, a project to transform a vast, vacant desert into a sprawling, futuristic sports campus.

“It’s not just in the Middle East, but in Asia and what is known as the developing world, the culture of sports is going to drive very fast forward,” he said.

Qatar’s capital, Doha, is looking ahead to the Dec.5 Asian Games, with many events taking place at its Sports City complex. Qatar is the first Arab country to play host to the event, and the first in the Middle East since Iran in 1974.

“This will confirm the position of Qatar on the map of sport business,” said Abdulla Khalid Al Qahtani, director general of the Asian Games Organizing Committee. “Hopefully by the end of the games, we’ll be the center of sport excellence in the Middle East and be recognized as a center of excellence in Asia.”

Other Persian Gulf states are constructing sports venues with the same assumption: Build the facilities, and world-class events and athletes will follow.

The Formula One season began last month in Bahrain at a 2-year-old track. In Oman, a leisure-based facility called “Blue City” is planned to house sports venues and training academies.

With a population of about 1.5 million, Dubai has broken ground on its Sports City, a $2billion project to be completed in phases. The golf course will be ready in 2007, and the whole project should be operating in 2010.

“Dubai is really taking the lead in everything,” Al Qahtani said. “They should be given credit for the guts they have. I really envy them and their aggressive plans. I would say there’s some pride in the whole region to see what they are doing.”

Dubai is building five primary sports venues in its complex: a 60,000-seat outdoor stadium, a 25,000-seat cricket stadium, a 10,000-seat indoor arena, a 5,000- to 10,000-seat field hockey and track and field venue, and an Els-designed golf course.

Singh also is designing a course in Dubai.

“We compete on the golf course, and now we compete on the design level,” Els said. “Vijay says his course is going to be the best, and I say mine is going to be the best.”

Manchester United has opened a soccer academy and Bayern Munich regularly trains in Dubai. The ICC, which governs world cricket, relocated from London last year and is planning a training academy. American Butch Harmon is opening a golf school, and David Lloyd is doing the same in tennis.

Thorpe, who worked in Hong Kong before moving to Dubai, likened the frantic building in Dubai to China.

“You can compare it to the development of southern China 10, 15 years ago,” he said. “You look at the map and there aren’t many cities within a three- or four-hour flight of here which are going to be comparable.”

Dubai is accustomed to superlatives. The world’s tallest skyscraper — Burj Dubai — is going up in this desert boomtown. It also claims the Burj Al Arab, billed as the world’s first seven-star hotel.

With a population of 850,000 made rich by oil and natural gas, neighboring Qatar has budgeted about $2.8billion for the Asian Games, including about $700 million for its Sports City project. The centerpiece is the 50,000-seat Khalifa stadium, opened in 1976 and recently remodeled. The 15,000-seat Aspire Hall, completed last year, will play host to many of the Asian Games’ events.

Organizers also have built a 2,000-seat basketball arena and a neighboring aquatic center.

The Aspire Academy for Sports Excellence opened in 2004 and is training 140 student-athletes — 75 percent from Qatar. Organizers expect 450 in five years, with a goal of 1,000. The academy also hopes to add 70 women by 2009.

“We have excellent facilities, we would say these are the best facilities in the world,” said Andreas Bleicher, a German who is the sports manager for Aspire, which offers programs in soccer, track and field, table tennis, squash and sailing. Tennis is about to be added.

The academy has coaches from 20 countries and has recruited athletes from Africa and there are plans to recruit Brazilians to beef up the soccer academy.

“To get to the top in the world, there is much more than just being the best in Qatar,” Bleicher said.

Qatar, in particular, has been criticized for giving passports and lucrative salaries to Kenyan-born distance runners. The most famous is Stephen Cherono, who took the name Saif Saeed Shaheen and twice won the 3,000-meter steeplechase world title for Qatar.

“The sporting history in the Middle East is not that excellent,” Bleicher said. “The royal family is a big supporter of sports. They wanted to have champions made in Qatar, not just to buy them.”

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