On Sunday, the United Arab Emirates stunned the professional cycling world by winning the overall prize in France’s first stage race. The team’s victory comes only three years after securing funding from UAE-based sponsors. Their investment joins a series of recent sponsorships in the Middle East and underlines the growing popularity of cycling among businesses in the region.
This year, a record three of the 22 teams that took part in the Tour de France were from the region (United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Israel). And coincidentally, these three countries signed standardization agreements last week at the White House.
But against the backdrop of the allure of entertainment, sports like cycling are often used as a canvas by the region’s leaders to exert gentle power, raising the profile of a business or country by hosting lavish events. in large scale.
“Even in the Emirates, the benchmark sport for the elite is not golf but cycling,” United Arab Emirates team general manager Giuseppe Saronni told La Gazzetta dello Sport at the end of 2016, just after the event. ‘team announced at the end of 2016. “Those who have a certain level and a certain social position have a high-end bike.
First-rate cycling events have been a staple in the region since the 2002 Tour of Qatar and Tour of Oman were established a year later.
But it is only in the past three years that the region’s professional cycling events have caused a stir on the world stage. In 2019, the Abu Dhabi and Dubai circuits merged into the United Arab Emirates circuit and made racing part of the professional world program. This year, the Tour of Saudi Arabia, organized intermittently since 1999, was raised to a category 2 (just below the professional circuit).
“We are involved in the emergence of a new racing scene in the Middle East,” said Yann Le Moenner, CEO of ASO – the company that organizes the Tour de France, among other large-scale races – after the October announcement of the new Saudi. Event.
And the teams have become serious professional contenders. In 2017, Bahrain launched the Bahrain-Merida team (now known as Team Bahrain McClaren). It was the first and only top-level team in the Middle East. But not to be outdone, at the last hour a UAE real estate group jumped in supporting another team struggling to find a financier. The capital, Abu Dhabi, provided its name until it was changed months later when Emirates airline signed up as a naming rights sponsor.
“We went from a family team to a national team. Our investors believe in this project, and it will not be just a short-term project, ”Saronni told La Gazzetta dello Sport.
Since then, other Middle Eastern sponsors have been closely monitoring the results of both teams. There were signs of early success when UAE Team Emirates placed a rider in the Tour de France top 10 for two consecutive years (2017 and 2018). And in 2018, the first runner of a Middle Eastern team won a stage in the popular race.
The country’s new partner has since followed suit. In December 2019, the Israel Cycling Academy (now known as the Israel Start-up Nation) was promoted to World Tour status.
But despite excessive efforts, it took a long time for fans to line up the tracks. While some sponsors are showing interest, the rush to fund these events and teams is still largely absent, as evidenced by the cancellation of the Tour of Qatar in 2016 due to a lack of financial support.
Sports such as cycling have become a popular way for governments in the Middle East to raise their international profile and attractiveness, and to facilitate commerce and trade.
Regional leaders have sometimes used the cycle racing caravans and podiums as extravagant shows, adorned with Bugattis and Ferraris and lavish VIP villages scattered among the rolling sand dunes.
Critics of governments in the region are not inclined to give sports a pass, accusing them of “sports washing” or of using international competition to veil human rights and other issues at home. . Just two months ago, a Saudi-backed financial group withdrew an offer for English Premier League football club Newcastle United FC after the BBC learned the league was seeking clarification on the links between investors and the Saudi state. There is speculation that similar critics will follow sponsors and athletes at events such as the February tour of Saudi Arabia.