DUBAI // While the prospects of the national game remain uncertain, the future of the country's oldest club has rarely looked healthier after Dubai Exiles agreed what is believed to be the most lucrative deal in the history of domestic rugby.
The Exiles have announced a three-year, "seven-figure" sponsorship agreement with AIG, the multi-national insurance and financial services conglomerate.
Given that rugby in the UAE has historically relied on philanthropy and barter deals for clubs to survive, the funding involved in the agreement - although an undisclosed amount - is likely to dwarf anything seen here before.
However, the Exiles will profit from more than just financing. AIG also sponsors the New Zealand rugby union.
As such, the club's members are set to be granted "exclusive access to a number of All Blacks players" as they return to New Zealand via Dubai from their annual northern hemisphere Autumn tour.
The Exiles players will also be offered training with the New Zealand sevens side, the six-time winners of the Dubai Sevens, in the lead up to the annual competition.
"This sponsorship will help us achieve a number of objectives we have set ourselves on and off the pitch and at all levels over the coming seasons," said Mike Wolff, the Exiles chairman.
"The management and coaching teams at Exiles are committed to getting the club back to the top across all sections in the region and this partnership with AIG will play a crucial role in that."
It may not be quite such prized real estate as the front of the All Blacks jersey, but the AIG logo will also adorn the front of the Exiles playing shirt this season.
Last season, the space was empty as the Exiles vied with the other clubs to secure the sort of financing which is so hard to come by in the amateur game here.
In terms of membership, the Exiles remain the largest club in the city, even if they have been leapfrogged at senior first team level by the likes of Jebel Ali Dragons and Abu Dhabi Harlequins in recent times.
The club have retained a booming junior section, which is understood to have appealed to AIG as the company seeks to make a mark in grassroots rugby.
"Dubai Exiles are one of the cornerstones of the rugby world here in the UAE and the Middle East region as a whole," said Mike Whitwell, the president of AIG for the Middle East and Africa.
"With our focus on rugby as an institution they were a natural choice for us to align with locally." AIG's willingness to inject corporate sponsorship into the domestic game is a major boon given the current uncertain climate within UAE rugby.
Some club chairmen, administrators and players have expressed concerns over the new direction the UAE Rugby Federation, who parted company with their chief executive Ian Bremner last week.
The federation aim to select exclusively UAE nationals for the country's sevens team from now on as they seek to build a competitive side for next year's Asian Games.
If the policy is extended to the XVs side and expatriates are excluded, clubs are concerned there will be a trickle-down effect into the domestic game.
If the lure of selection for international rugby after three-years' residency is taken away, clubs fear potential new recruits from abroad will opt to go elsewhere instead.
However, the terms of the Exiles-AIG deal could go some way to solving some of the existing problems of retaining talented players within the UAE rugby system.
In the past the Exiles, like all clubs here, have seen many of the young players they have nurtured travel abroad to work or study.
Now the club hope to be able to offer aspiring players the chance of internships with the company, thus encouraging players to remain in the country.
"We will be announcing some other fabulous developments soon, including tie ups with prominent youth academies in Europe and the southern hemisphere to facilitate the development of some of the exciting young rugby here," Wolff said.
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