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Tiny Emirate of Dubai Suddenly Becomes Big-Bucks Sporting Venue

March 22, 1996

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (AP) _ With lush green golf courses carved out of the harsh desert and state-of-art tennis arenas praised by star players, this tiny desert emirate has emerged as a major venue for world-class sporting events.

Already this year, it has played host to the $1 million Dubai Tennis Open and the $1 million Desert Classic golf tournament, a European PGA event. The World Championship Hobie Cat sailing race also was held here.

Now, Dubai is gearing up for the crowning event on its glitzy sports schedule: the $4 million World Cup, the richest horse race in the world.

Why has Dubai, one of the seven United Arab Emirates, become home to so many big-bucks events?

Mainly because the government saw international sports as a splashy way to get this oil-rich city-state on the map, giving it name recognition with tourists who might vacation here and business executives who might invest in the region.

``Sports are Dubai’s window to the world,″ said Alan Ewens, press manager of Dubai’s power boat Victory Team, the reigning world champion in the sport.

The sports boom is also driven by the traditional competition between the sheiks who rule the tiny emirates that line the shores of the Persian Gulf.

But unlike some of its neighboring emirates whose oil earnings are far greater, Dubai relies on tourism and trade for much of its revenue.

Every year, the government spends tens of millions of dollars on sports in a worldwide campaign to promote Dubai, which covers an area slightly larger than Rhode Island, as a popular tourist destination and a great place for low-tax shopping.

The World Cup is Dubai’s first crack at international horse racing. The $4 million prize money comes entirely from the government and local sponsors. There is no entrance fee for the race, and betting is not allowed because gambling and games of chance are forbidden in Islam.

But Dubai has made sure it has other attractions. The facilities are lavish and new. And the government wasted no time getting them built.

To attract world-class thoroughbreds, the multimillion-dollar Dubai Equine Hospital was built in a year. For last month’s tennis tournament, a new $5.5 million stadium was completed in six months.

The Emirates Golf Club, which shimmers amid its desert surroundings like an oasis, offers an all-grass course _ very rare in the parched Middle East _ at a cost of millions of gallons of desalinated water.

Opened in 1988, its grass surface sits on a bed of gravel, fiber cloth and medium-granule sand. A network of pipes feeds sprinklers throughout the course. A unique variety of grass that thrives in the scathing desert temperatures was air-freighted in special containers from Tifton, Ga.

With a population of only 650,000 people, three-quarters of them migrant workers from abroad, Dubai seems determined to extend its influence beyond its size.

If it’s a sport enjoyed by the wealthy, it seems, there’s a place for it in Dubai.

This month’s Hobie Cat championships were beamed to 450 million homes worldwide by Watersports World of the United States, the biggest watersports broadcast program in the world.

``That kind of publicity,″ said Ewens, ``gets Dubai noticed.″

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