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Tiny Emirate of Dubai Suddenly Becomes Big-Bucks Sporting Venue

March 21, 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 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.

Dubai attracts the biggest names, whatever the sport.

Last month, five of the world’s top 10 players competed for the Dubai Tennis Open crown. Croatia’s Goran Ivanisevic walked away with the title and a check for $142,000.

Some of the players remarked that the hard-surfaced, brand new Center Court was among the best in the world.

The biggest names in golf, including Fred Couples and Seve Ballesteros, were here for the Desert Classic, in which Scotland’s Colin Montgomerie pocketed $164,000 in prize money on March 17.

Just as famous is the four-legged sports celebrity flying in for the World Cup.

Cigar, a remarkable 5-year-old colt who was the U.S. Horse of the Year and has a 13-race winning streak, will be hitting the Nad Al Sheba track in Dubai for the March 27 race.

The World Cup is the first international horse race to be staged in Dubai, and Cigar’s presence will ensure that it gets off to a flying start.

Cigar’s owner, American aviation magnate Allen Paulson, told Dubai’s Race Week magazine that there had been intense pressure to keep the colt in the United States and forego the World Cup in favor of the three-race California Classic Series.

World Cup organizers privately admit lobbying hard to get Cigar to Dubai.

The $4 million prize money for the World Cup 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 prize money alone is not enough to attract stars like Cigar, said Lord John Fitzgerald, secretary of the Emirates Racing Association.

``Of course its a great attraction, but some horses are worth a lot more than the prize money,″ said Fitzgerald, recruited by Dubai four years ago to help establish international racing standards in the emirate. ``Their owners wouldn’t have been persuaded to come unless they were sure our facilities were up to scratch.″

The facilities Dubai offers are more than up to scratch, they’re lavish and new. And the government wasted no time in getting them built.

To attract world-class thoroughbreds, the multimillion-dollar Dubai Equine Hospital was built in a year, ahead of the World Cup. For last month’s tennis tournament, a new $5.5 million stadium was completed in a record 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 in desalinated water.

Designed by American golf architect Karl Litten and 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, three-quarters of them migrant workers from the Indian subcontinent or blue- and white-collar workers from around the world, 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 gets Dubai noticed,″ Ewens said.

End advance for March 23-24

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