With just 17 days until the opening ceremony of the Olympic Games in Beijing, only one Emirati company has stepped forward to sponsor the national team. The poor response to the attempts of the National Olympic Committee to drum up support for the squad is in stark contrast to the fierce competition in other countries between brands keen to pay for the privilege of being associated with the Games.
Here, only Hydra Properties, the Abu Dhabi-based international developer, has offered its support to the seven-strong UAE squad. "I'm looking for more sponsors," said Ibrahim Abdulmalik, the secretary general of the committee. "I have Hydra and if I can get another sponsor, I would not mind." Estimating the cost of Olympic sponsorship at "around a million dirhams", he said such involvement did not appear to be a priority for the business community.
Although the national team did not need funds to get it to Beijing, the support offered by a sponsorship was more than just financial, said Mr Abdulmalik. "Private sector companies don't view sports as important. Basketball, yes, but other forms of sport, no." If they looked into the sponsorship opportunities, "they'd see the value in it". At least one other UAE company besides Hydra does have plans to back an Olympic athlete - but not an Emirati.
A spokesman for the Abu Dhabi-based airline Etihad confirmed that it was considering a link with a non-Arab "famous ex-Olympic gold medallist". He declined to say who it was. The airline - which has several sports sponsorships, including Ferrari's Formula One team, Chelsea Football Club and the Harlequins rugby team - was also hoping to sponsor the VIP lounge in Beijing's Westin hotel. "This will give us branding opportunities and access to up to 12,000 key corporate guests attending the Games," said the spokesman.
The UAE's only Olympic medallist, Sheikh Ahmed Mohammed bin Hasher Al Maktoum, who won gold in the double trap shooting event in 2004, is believed to be unhappy with the lack of corporate support and the efforts of the country's sporting chiefs to attract sponsorship. He tried to get personal sponsors for the Beijing Olympics, but is understood to have been turned down by several corporate giants.
"Sheikh Ahmed is a super athlete," said Ahmed al Kamali, the newly elected president of the UAE Athletics Federation. "He is a thorough professional and thinks at a very high level. "I can understand Sheikh Ahmed's anger, but I believe the UAE National Olympic Committee have been working very hard. They have done their best." The chief executive of the only company to support the UAE's Olympic effort said Emirati companies were traditionally reluctant to sponsor teams that might not fare well on the sporting field.
"They always see that the UAE nationals don't get good results in the Olympics," said Sulaiman al Fahim of Hydra. "We've only had one gold medal. They always like to sponsor what's already getting good results and they'll get more media coverage." But he considered sponsoring the team "a kind of responsibility from a local company to my country and the athletes". Hydra's four-year deal means the property developer will be the main sponsor for all National Olympic Committee activities during that period. The athletes will wear the company's logo on their kit, although not, in line with IOC regulations, during the Games.
But even that was not guaranteed, said Dr Fahim. "Some of them are from the Royal family; you can't force him or her to wear your logo." However, he said, that was not the most important factor. "It's about the intangible things, like offering support, that's what I was looking for. I wasn't looking for putting my brand on T-shirts." Seven athletes are due to represent the UAE at the Games: Sheikh Ahmed (shooting), Sheikha Maitha bint Mohammed bin Rashid (taekwondo), Sheikha Latifa Al Maktoum (show jumping), Obaid Ahmed Obaid (swimming), Omar Juma al Salfa (athletics: 200 metres), Saeed Rashid al Qubaisi (judo) and Adel Khalid (sailing).