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Khaldoon Al Mubarak is Abu Dhabi’s man of sport

20 July 2009 | Posted in Notes & Insights | By David Cushnan | Contact the author

As it seeks to emulate the investment in tourism by its near-neighbour Dubai, Abu Dhabi has discovered sport as a way of attracting people and business to the emirate. At the heart of the plans, which include a Grand Prix and ownership of an English soccer club, one man is managing the strategy.

If there is a public face of the multi-billion investment in sport and sporting infrastructure in Abu Dhabi, then it is undoubtedly Khaldoon Al Mubarak. The 33-year old has enjoyed a meteoric rise, having started his professional career as a humble sales executive for Abu Dhabi’s national oil company. Educated in America, he now oversees Abu Dhabi’s strategic policy through his chairmanship of the emirate’s Executive Affairs Authority (EAA) - the governmental department that oversees and facilitates all strategic decisions and communications for Abu Dhabi.

When it comes to sport, Al Mubarak appears to oversee much of Abu Dhabi’s burgeoning industry; organising events such as the emirate’s annual golf tournament and its first Formula One race at the end of this year. At the launch of the project in February 2007, Al Mubarak was appointed the first chairman of Abu Dhabi Motorsport Management, formed by the government to manage the Grand Prix and circuit. Eighteen months later, he was appointed chairman of Manchester City, the English Premier League club bought by Sheikh Mansour Bin Zayed Al Nahyan, brother of the ruler of Abu Dhabi.

Al Mubarak will oversee Abu Dhabi's first Formula One raceThe sheer breadth of his role indicates his influence in the emirate, especially at a time when Abu Dhabi is hard at work positioning itself as a prestigious and sophisticated tourist destination with global appeal, following the lead of its neighbour Dubai. In the last five years Abu Dhabi, which has a population of around 1.6 million, has prioritised tourism after watching the popularity and international standing of Dubai rocket as a result of its sustained push for tourists.

The rise in prominence of Abu Dhabi as a venue for development can be traced to a change in governmental policy four years ago, allowing UAE nationals to trade land within designated areas for the first time and for foreigners to buy 99-year leases. Combined with the big push for tourists, it has made previously unworkable projects feasible for the first time.

Al Mubarak believes that speed is at the heart of Abu Dhabi’s development: “We move fast. Think about it: How many places in the world can you say, ‘I’m going to establish an airline,’ and boom, two years later you have 21 planes and 37 destinations?" he asked in 2007. "How many places in the world can you say, ‘I need 15,000 hotel rooms,’ and boom, you have 100 new hotels in the works? How many places can you say, ‘I want world-class hospitals, universities and museums’, and boom, the Sorbonne, Cleveland Clinic, Guggenheim, and Louvre are on the way?”

Nevertheless, there was still a great deal of surprise that same year when it was announced that Abu Dhabi, not Dubai, had won the race to host Formula One, a move that is virtually guaranteed to yield a healthy increase in the number of tourists. Like Bahrain, Singapore and the city of Valencia before it, the Abu Dhabi government decided that, despite the vast expense, hosting a Formula One race is the best way to make the city a tourism hotspot.

Al Mubarak believes that “motorsport is a huge part of the sporting culture of the Middle East” and is therefore a natural fit in Abu Dhabi. He says: “The prestige and benefits of hosting a Formula One Grand Prix are in the same category as an Olympic Games or World Cup and its global reach and resonance is unrivalled.” He adds: “The opportunity that a Formula One Grand Prix presents through increased international attention and visibility will deliver very real benefits for Abu Dhabi and indeed the entire UAE. Beside the sport itself, it is also very much a commercially driven decision.”

Dubai already has its own permanent race circuit, the Dubai Autodrome, but Bernie Ecclestone, president of Formula One Management, was reportedly attracted by the vast scale and ambition of the plans shown to him in Abu Dhabi before the announcement of the emirate’s seven-year renewable deal to host a Grand Prix. It wasn’t simply press conference hyperbole when Ecclestone said at the announcement: “We might have signed a seven-year deal with Abu Dhabi, but it is one of the greatest places in the world and I’m sure we will be coming here forever.”

The Formula One circuit will, in fact, be a relatively small element of a US$40 billion man-made island development project on the east coast of Abu Dhabi. Yas Island, one of the 200 islands that make up Abu Dhabi, lies some five minutes from the emirate’s International Airport and 20 minutes from the city centre. The island is vast in scale; some 2,550 hectares. The stated intention is to “create a unique international tourist destination.” Completion will not be until at least 2014 although the circuit portion of the island will be ready for the inaugural Grand Prix in November this year. Even by the UAE’s lofty standards, it is an ambitious project.

Aerial view of Yas IslandSays Al Mubarak: “We are trying to set a new benchmark in motor racing. The track will be the best track in the world and it will set the benchmark for future tracks. We have made a giant leap in terms of design, in terms of technology, in terms of unique features. I think the world will look at it – it’s a new game.”

When everything is ready the Yas Island complex will include 32 kilometres of beach, some 300,000 square metres of retail space, between 14 and 16 hotels, a marina, a Ferrari-branded theme park, three championship golf courses, plus residential areas including villas and apartments; all of which will be linked to a four-million square foot entertainment and retail complex. In total 130,000 car parking spaces have been built into the design.

Construction firm Aldar Properties has been charged with building and delivering the project. Aldar was established to create and manage real estate developments in Abu Dhabi, as the emirate geared up for a major tourism push. The company has an estimated US$100 billion worth of developments currently on its books, of which the largest is Yas Island.

Aldar was founded by a group of other companies, notably including the Mubadala Development Company. Mubadala owns five per cent of Ferrari and began sponsoring the team in 2007. It was set up in October 2002 and is described as a “wholly owned investment vehicle of the Abu Dhabi government.” The other founders of Aldar are the Abu Dhabi Investment Company, Abu Dhabi National Hotels Company, the National Corporation for Tourism and Hotels, and National Investor, an advisory firm. Somewhat predictably, Al Mubarak is heavily involved. He is chief executive officer and managing director of Mubadala Development Company, which “develops projects, creates new businesses, and invests in existing enterprises to generate financial returns and sustainable benefits for the emirate of Abu Dhabi.”

With such a diverse range of positions and responsibilities, managing his time and delegating key projects is an integral part of Al Mubarak’s life. An insight into how he works was gleaned during January’s Abu Dhabi Golf Championship, a championship he describes as “critical in our plans for Abu Dhabi.”

Several British journalists and broadcasters covering the event were determined to snatch a few words with Al Mubarak, primarily to discuss Manchester City. However Al Mubarak, who kept a relatively discreet presence behind the ropes around the course, politely declined all requests, reportedly insisting that his focus was on golf that day. True to form, he later spoke publicly but only about the importance of golf to Abu Dhabi. He said: “There will soon be many more world-class golf clubs and championship-standard facilities in Abu Dhabi; the Gary Player course on Saadiyat [another US$30 billion island project that includes 29 hotels, three marinas and 150,000 homes] is going to be a great course and there will also be a Links course on Yas Island. New courses will continue to expand the popularity of the sport locally.” The journalists went home disappointed - but probably not surprised.

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