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Gaining ground

With regional competitions growing in size and world-class events being staged across the country, the sporting scene throughout the UAE is well and truly thriving.

At a time when desert dunes dominated the terrain and mass investment had yet to transform the nation, there were just a handful of sports that flourished in the UAE. Falconry and camel racing were both an integral part of Arab culture and had taken place for centuries, but it was not until the late 1980s, when the country began to invest in its future and welcome visitors from around that world, that the sporting landscape underwent a monumental change.

Beginning life as a modest venue with limited seating, Sharjah Cricket Stadium was one of the first major sporting facilities to open in the country in 1982. Just two years on, it would host a one-day international between Pakistan and Sri Lanka as cricket began to grow in popularity throughout the emirates. Then in 1988, Emirates Golf Club would bring the first grass golf course to the Middle East and, just one year later, would attract the European Tour’s leading lights for the inaugural Dubai Desert Classic. 

Fast forward nearly three decades and the UAE is now famed for hosting an array of international tournaments and attracting world-class talent across numerous sports. Abu Dhabi is home to the season-closing Formula One race, Sharjah regularly hosts test match cricket and Dubai has established itself as the most popular stop on the Rugby Sevens world tour.

Tournaments are held throughout the year, even during the extreme heat of the summer thanks to the first-class indoor facilities, but it is throughout January and February that the events come thick and fast as a range of sports make use of the ideal cooler climate.

The action gets underway on January 5 with the start of the AFC Asian Cup. Held every four years, the high-profile football tournament will see 24 teams compete, with 51 games being play in eight stadiums across the four host cities of Abu Dhabi, Al Ain, Dubai and Sharjah. It’s a rare chance for those in the UAE to watch the best talent in Asia. Previously Japan has triumphed on four occasions, while Australia, the reigning champions, overcame South Korea to win the title for the first time in 2015. 

Playing on home soil, the UAE team will be hoping they can reach their second final (which will be played on February 1) and will be looking to Ali Mabkhout to lead the way after star player Omar Abdulrahman was ruled out of the tournament with a knee injury.

Also taking place in January are two European Tour events, the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship taking place from January 16 to 19 and the Omega Dubai Desert Classic running from January 24 to 27. Part of the Desert Swing, these two high-profile golf tournaments regularly attract the world’s leading players, with the likes of Tiger Woods, Sergio Garcia and Rickie Fowler all playing in recent years.

In 2018, Tommy Fleetwood cinched victory in the capital and China’s Li Haotong claimed the title in Dubai, with four-time major champion Rory McIlroy coming up short on both occasions as he finished third and second respectively. This year, world number 3 Dustin Johnson will be aiming to claim the Falcon Trophy when he returns to Abu Dhabi Golf Club, while Ryder Cup stars Henrik Stenson and Ian Poulter will be in action at Emirates Golf Club. 

On January 25, world-class athletes will flock to Dubai for an event that has grown from humble beginnings. The Standard Chartered Dubai Marathon saw just 48 runners finish the first ever race in 1998, but now attracts more than 30,000 participants and thousands of supporters. Last year Ethiopia’s Mosinet Geremew won with a course record of 2h:04m:00s to claim the US$200,000 first prize, while this year Olympic silver medalist Feyisa Lilesa will make a welcome return to the Middle East when he joins the elite line-up for the 2019 edition of the race. 

Moving into February the action shows no signs of slowing down with cricket, tennis and cycling all taking centre stage. Taking place from February 14 to March 17, the fourth edition of the Pakistan Super League will see six teams competing for the coveted title. Featuring some of the world’s best Twenty 20 players, the likes of Shahid Afridi, Shane Watson and Mohammed Hafeez will all be in action, with games played in Sharjah, Dubai and Abu Dhabi.

The Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships will also return as the leading players on both the ATP and WTA Tour battle for the crown. Played from February 17 and March 2, all-time great Roger Federer holds the record for the most titles, with seven in total, while last year Spain’s Roberto Bautista Agut triumphed in impressive fashion. Played at the Dubai Duty Free Tennis Stadium in Irish Village, the popular tournament provides fans with a chance to see the best players on the men’s and women’s tour, with the likes of Andy Murray, Novak Djokovic, Venus Williams and Caroline Wozniacki all lifting the title in the last six years.

Finally, the UAE Tour, a brand new event, will take place from February 24 to March 2 with the world’s leading road cyclists descending on the emirates for a gruelling week of racing. Starting in Abu Dhabi and working its way through all of the seven emirates before its conclusion in Dubai, the UAE Tour will include two mountain stages, a coast-to-coast stage and a team time-trial.

The cycling extravaganza will be the only World Tour race in the Middle East and is expected to attract top-class riders such as Marcel Kittel, Peter Sagan and Mark Cavendish. What’s more, a four-race series for amateur riders will coincide with the event and provide a chance for enthusiasts to emulate their heroes by tackling four challenging races.

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