Marking the 25th anniversary of the Omega Dubai Desert Classic this year, Mohamed Buamaim - Vice Chairman and CEO of golf in DUBAi, the promoters of the event – speaks to sportindustry.biz about the sport’s growth in the region, the challenges involved, and the future for the women’s game.
The Omega Dubai Desert Classic, the first European Tour to be held outside Europe, is celebrating its 25th anniversary this year, in that time how have you seen the sport grow in the region?
The Omega Dubai Desert Classic has done a wonderful job in promoting the city of Dubai, and positioning the city as a global destination for golf in a short span of time. We are proud to be helping to realise the vision of His Highness Shaikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice President and Prime Minister of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai, who first identified golf as a tourism driver for the city 30 years ago and subsequently came up with the idea of building the region’s first all-grass course and then went on to host the first European Tour event outside of Europe.
The fact that a player of the calibre of Tiger Woods has made seven appearances in the Omega Dubai Desert Classic shows the tournament is up there with the best.
However, the tournament’s significance goes well beyond attracting the world’s leading players from both sides of the Atlantic and promoting the city around the world. It can lay claim to being the catalyst that has made the Middle East a golfing paradise, not only for professional golfers, but for the thousands of golfing tourists who visit the region to enjoy truly world-class standards on every level: from golf courses to hotels, restaurants and leisure facilities
Realising the growing popularity of the event and golf in the region, major real estate developers like Emaar have done the smart thing by building a whole new city around the Emirates Golf Club, the venue of the Omega Dubai Desert Classic. Today, Dubai boasts some of the finest courses in the world and it’s all down to the success of the Classic.
You set up ‘golf in DUBAi’ 10 years ago to promote Dubai as a leading golf destination, what have been the biggest challenges?
We created golf in DUBAi in 2005 as a marketing tool to promote Dubai as one of the world's leading golfing destinations and to underline Dubai's other international attractions to the world. Being the promoters and organisers of the Omega Dubai Desert Classic and the Omega Dubai Ladies Masters, our intention was to collectively showcase what Dubai has to offer in terms of golf.
‘golf in DUBAi’ is not just the figurehead for the oldest and most important tournament in the Middle East, it is also a mission to change the Arab world’s attitude to golf, and produce its homegrown stars. Therefore in 2006, we set up the Shaikh Maktoum Golf Foundation to encourage and promote emerging Arab talent on the world stage. One of the foundation’s initiatives, was the establishment of the MENA Golf Tour to provide a much-needed springboard for both amateurs and professional to take their game to a new level.
The tour creates playing opportunities for all MENA national professionals and amateurs in the region and since its inception in 2011 has grown from four events to ten events, carrying a total of prize of $525,000.
In addition, the MENA Golf Tour instituted the Shaikh Maktoum Golf Foundation Award in 2014 to honour leading Arab professional and amateur players in a fresh move to spice up the competition and boost the region's talent. Open to MENA nationals the award, valued at $52,000 in cash and gift certificates, recognises the top-3 amateur and professional performances at every MENA Golf Tour event.
But it’s time for the local people to embrace this great game and produce a few stars of our own. And that remains our biggest challenge.
Lastly, in 2011, to assist the promotion of Dubai ‘s world-class facilities, we launched GOLF CITIZEN, a worldwide golf reservation website. Developed and programmed from the ground up, the site (www.golfcitizen.com) gives any golf club in the world an instant online presence and facilitate golfers to book, in real time, in any of the golf clubs available on the system.
You recently signed the promising young British golfer Matt Fitzpatrick as an ambassador, what was behind choosing Matt to promote Dubai as a golfing destination?
We feel it is vitally important to invest in and support players on the European Tour because they are the lifeblood of its past, present and future. We want to give young people the opportunity to be the best and we see Matt as somebody who will not only fulfill his massive potential, but he also demonstrates the quality of character, richness of spirit and strength of self-belief which golf in DUBAi holds so dear.
Matt is emblematic of the city in that he is young, dynamic and willing to undertake great challenges as he puts himself against the best in the world. We believe that this is the start of a long and very successful relationship as we support Matt in his pursuit to become one of the games superstars.
golf in DUABi also supports some of the most respected golfers in the world, stars such as England’s Dame Laura Davies, Stephen Gallacher (Scotland), Jeev Milkah Singh (India), Zane Scotland (England) along with renowned coach Peter Cowen.
As the organiser of the Ladies European Tour’s Omega Dubai Ladies Masters, do you think the women’s game is growing at the same rate in the region as the men’s?
Definitely, the women’s game is growing, and recent statistics show that globally new participation is increasing at a faster rate than men. We want to take that one step further and see women integrate golf into their lifestyle; we don’t have enough avid women golfers in the region. This doesn’t mean the region’s women do not engage in sports; they do. It’s just that golf is still relatively new to the social fabric here.
The Omega Dubai Ladies Masters has certainly played a role in popularising the game among women in this part of the world. When you have big players of the statures of Annika Sorenstam, Karrie Webb, Michelle Wie, Laura Davies and Lexi Thomson playing here, it does create awareness about the game. The fans are now familiar with most of the names in the field and have struck their own rapport with them; some of them even invite the players to be their guests during the tournament week. We don’t charge any entry fee to the Omega Dubai Ladies Masters as the intention is to encourage more and more golf fans to show up and cheer top lady golfers.
When it comes to promoting women’s golf in general, the onus is actually on different clubs to have more playing opportunities and facilities for ladies. Certainly, the number of events in some of the clubs has increased, reflecting the growth of the game. More women are playing golf than ever before, especially in the UAE, and that augurs well for the future of the game.
Having founded the MENA (Middle East and North Africa) Tour in 2011 – how important has that been in developing regional talent and interest in the sport?
For me, the whole idea behind the tour is to have amateurs from this part of the world try and develop. They are the ones who will encourage more people to take up golf, not necessarily the likes of Tiger Woods and Lee Westwood.
We're aiming to have Arab names become household stars because hopefully that will bring other golfers through. These things don't happen overnight, it'll take a long time. We want to encourage our players to turn professional, but not rush them.
We want to see them first doing well in amateur tournaments worldwide, and hope that encourages more nationals to take up the game and at the right age. It's important how many MENA players we have and how well they do. If we keep seeing in the press an Ahmed or an Al Musharrekh, people will take notice. It's the only way.
We have also gone into the curriculum of some schools — for example, we are experimenting with Rashid School for boys, where golf is a part of the curriculum and they think it is one of the most successful programmes because they find that the kids really like it.
What are the challenges in distinguishing the region from its global competitors when promoting both the MENA Tour and Dubai as a golfing destination more generally.
The MENA Tour is definitely the right thing to move forward and take to the next stage to underpin the promotion of golf in Dubai and across the region. We need sponsors, which is hard to find since the sponsors need to see some sort of recognition from the international federations. And I’m not sure why that hasn’t been forthcoming. I think we need more support from the leading tours in the world.
I just want it to be a good tour, encourage more people to play golf and bring out the best in this region. It's not commercial, it's self-funded. We don't take money from anybody except sponsors. We can only try. I have no problem at all if it doesn't work, as long as we tried. If it doesn't, it doesn't. But I know it will.