x Abu Dhabi, UAE Thursday 20 July 2017

Oman looks to sail away from an oil dependency

Business of sport: Still riding high from a recent success in Rio de Janeiro, Oman Sail is looking to triumph on the business front. Backed by the government, the enterprise aims to establish a network of companies with young locals at the helm.

Oman Sail racked up two podium places in the Extreme Sailing series event in Rio de Janeiro after four years of hard work. Lloyd Images
Oman Sail racked up two podium places in the Extreme Sailing series event in Rio de Janeiro after four years of hard work. Lloyd Images

As the EFG Bank Sailing Arabia race series kicks off today, the crews from Oman Sail are riding a wave.

They go into the event charged by their team's performances in last year's Extreme Sailing series final event in Rio de Janeiro last month, where they racked up two podium places - their two boats, The Wave, Muscat and Oman Air came first and third in the final race, and in the overall race series, first and second.

Those results were the culmination of four years of hard work by David Graham, the chief executive of Oman Sail, and a textbook study on how to harness home-grown sporting drive to put your country on the map.

"This all began in 2008 with the idea to hold an offshore race," says Mr Graham.

"And now we are a flagship for the country's ministry of tourism, with a mission to establish Oman as a world sailing destination, and a world sailing competitor."

Oman Sail is a business. It might depend on government support but only until it has built the bedrock of an industry that will deliver one more alternative to Oman's hitherto dependency on oil.

"Until now Oman has had a high dependency on oil for its GDP, so the project in 2013 for Oman Sail is to continue trying to create a small to medium-size enterprise network of companies that is non-energy based, and getting young Omani people in to run them," adds Mr Graham.

"Commercially we are incubating many small businesses, training people to run marinas, sailing schools, charter businesses, diving schools.

"In the early years we were 100 per cent government-funded. Last year the split was 70 per cent government and 30 per cent sponsorship. By 2020 the government funding will fall to 45 per cent, with sponsorship delivering 35 per cent of their budget and the rest coming from their own commercial activity; corporate days, marina operations and sailing schools.

"I run the organisation with specific objectives … to wash its face financially and to put the Arabian coast on the map as a sailing venue and destination. We want it to stack up commercially but it's more about selling the country and the sport and at the core is our youth programme.

"Everything is about people development. The population of Oman is very young; 50 per cent under the age of 18. It's a very young country. We have taught 10,000 young Omanis how to sail. We have 50 Omani qualified instructors. The schools are run by Omanis and the instructor logs are in Arabic.

"And if people get a taste for the sport then there is a clear path to follow that will get them into the Omani national squad if they are good enough, and even to the Olympic Games. This is the most important thing we are doing."

But not the only thing. The EFG Bank Sailing Arabia - The Tour 2013, when it starts today in Manama, Bahrain, will deliver 15 days of intense sailing across Bahrain, Qatar, the UAE and Oman, calling at seven marinas.

"The event was initially launched in 2011 to promote the region and create an offshore course for offshore sailors," says Mr Graham. "We also wanted to built a platform where GCC countries can race against each other competitively. So far it's been very successful in terms of the boats we've attracted. This year there will nine boats, from as far afield as Monaco and Holland, as well as regional teams from Dubai and Abu Dhabi. The teams will be competing in a fleet of identical Farr 30 keelboats, one of the grand prix racing world's most exciting boats.

"It's an honour for us to have EFG International as a sponsor of the third edition of Sailing Arabia - The Tour 2013 because EFG International is a globally recognised name in private banking and has sponsored a number of high-profile sporting events, with sailing as one of its focal points. Our partnership with EFG International, which is the first time they have sponsored sailing in the Gulf, will draw considerable attention to this unique event, and provide invaluable support to Oman Sail in our efforts to rejuvenate the great tradition of competitive sailing in the region," says Mr Graham.

The event will feature a series of races progressing along the Gulf coast, finishing in Muscat on February 25. The longest single race leg is about 320km.

"The event already is attracting international interest and will feature on CNN's yachting magazine programme. We're not generating any revenue from TV yet but are gaining significant coverage from CNN," adds Mr Graham. "We are also creating a rights package to sell to future sponsors."

The event's main sponsor, EFG Private Bank, came about because it recognised the advantage of sponsoring such a high-end event; the logic being ocean racing is glamorous, and glamour is good at attracting high net-worth clients - and that made Sailing Arabia a good vehicle.

"EFG International has a strong commitment to sailing and is pleased to be the title sponsor of Sailing Arabia - The Tour 2013," says George Catsiapis, the EFG managing director.

"Thanks to the success of the previous editions of the race, and Oman Sail's commitment to youth mentoring and sail training, we felt that the sponsorship was a good fit with our sponsorship goals."

The event is not the only one Oman Sail is bringing to the Gulf this year. The Extreme Sailing Series, which closed so memorably for Oman Sail in Rio de Janeiro after 209 races staged across seven venues and 11 months of global touring, will this year begin in Muscat, on March 5, with eight teams set to take part.

Oman will join a list of host venues on Extreme Sailing Series that have included Qingdao in China, Istanbul and Porto and Nice on the French Riviera.

This year Oman Sail has played host to the opening event of the seventh season of RC44 class yacht Championship Tour with the RC44 Oman Cup presented by Oman Shipping Company.

Oman will also host sailing's World Laser Standard Championship and World Laser Masters Championship this year, at Musannah Sports City. The back-to-back tournaments will be spread over three weeks from the end of November.

The World Laser Standard Senior Championship is one of the most competitive events in the world sailing calendar and has a restricted entry of 180 competitors. It is by bringing such events to its waters, says Mr Graham, that Oman is rediscovering its rich maritime heritage - and plotting a course to a bright future.

dblack@thenational.ae