ABU DHABI // Hundreds of fans gathered at the official opening of the CityStore Abu Dhabi to meet the Manchester City player Adam Johnson last night.
Blues old and new arrived at the capital's Marina Mall to take photographs with and get autographs from the 23-year-old winger.
"City fans are loyal and passionate - whether in the UK or Abu Dhabi," Johnson said. "The store gives supporters here the opportunity to feel like they are part of the club, and that's really important to City."
In recent years Man City has placed an increasing focus on its Arab fans. In July 2009, the club launched an Arabic version of its website. The home page, www.mcfc.co.uk, underwent a complete makeover and now offers bilingual content to satisfy the demand from its growing army of Middle East supporters.
CityStore, the first stand-alone store of any English football team in the region, features the full range of club merchandise, as well as a shirt-printing service to personalise items.
According to Johnson, who is recovering from an ankle injury sustained during a training session last month, a growing enthusiasm for Manchester City is what made Abu Dhabi the strongest contender for an expansion of the UK retail presence.
Ernie Armstrong, for one, has been an avid Manchester City fan for more than half a century. In the UAE on holiday, yesterday he held a signed autograph as he described how he thought the team has changed over the years.
"In 1964-65, there were no foreign players, now it's 60 to 70 per cent," he said.
Mr Armstrong was in the stands when Man City won the League Cup in 1976, the last time the team won major honours, but he says there has been a shift in attitude since Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed bought the club in 2008.
"Now there's more money and more ambition," he said. "The team wants to be the best in the world."
The team stand third in the English Premier League.
Ahmed Sami, a 19-year-old student, took the bus from Dubai with his little brother to get Johnson's autograph and see the store.
Two years ago he was an Arsenal fan, but since Sheikh Mansour's purchase of the club, he and many others in the Middle East have come to think of Manchester City as their home team. Ahmed said Sheikh Mansour has been able to raise the profile of the team in the UAE.
"It's a UAE team now," said Mohamed al Tamimi, a former Chelsea fan who was buying his son a football shirt. "First we support Arab teams, then Man City, then the rest."
To help woo fans, the store is holding a promotion that runs until March 25. With every purchase of a City shirt, customers can enter a draw to win a trip for two to attend Manchester City's final home game of the season, against Stoke City on May 14.
One hopeful contestant, nine-year-old Zaim, from Malaysia, has only recently begun playing football. A diehard World Wrestling Entertainment fan, Zaim left the store with a freshly purchased football shirt and a picture of Johnson.
"He's a newly converted fan from yesterday," his mum joked. "So the store is working."
"Obviously football is quite new over here and the whole place is growing," Johnson said. "As more people start liking football from an early age, and with the heavy backing of the UAE, [the sport] is going to be massive."
He has been using his time in Abu Dhabi to rehabilitate and to meet the fans.
"I'd rather not be injured, and be at home playing, but the opportunity to come out and open a shop over here is a great honour for me," he said, adding that the last five days have given him time to relax and recover from the injury, while taking in the sights of the capital.
"I think the trip has had a really positive impact on my rehabilitation, and I am looking forward to playing again as soon as possible."