x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

Ocean race has captured more than tourists' dollars

The Volvo Ocean Race stopover in Abu Dhabi has its critics, but a closer look reveals plenty of reasons to like the event.

It sometimes seems that scarcely a month goes by in the UAE without a major local event filling the newspapers, bringing business to regional airlines and stuffing area hotels and conference centres with people.

We've had the Formula One Grand Prix, powerboat racing, regional and international political summits, trade shows, martial arts championships, concerts by world-famous pop groups, top class cricket - the lists of events that raises the UAE's profile and stimulates its economy is long and seems to be growing by the year.

By and large, most of these events fail to capture my attention and I'm very rarely tempted to go and visit for any length of time, unless work obliges me to do so.

Over the last few days in Abu Dhabi, however, I've found the Volvo Ocean Race and all of the excitement surrounding it to be a rather different kettle of fish.

Not only has the race attracted an enormous amount of international attention - 70 broadcasters from 50 countries, for example - but it has also provided considerable enjoyment to thousands of visitors (an estimated 25,000 room nights in hotels) and to residents of the capital, young and old.

The fact that the yachts themselves can be seen and enjoyed without the need to purchase a ticket is part of it, but there's more.

Unlike most of the international sporting occasions that we see here, the Volvo Ocean Race has ties to the UAE's own heritage. The sea, as much as the desert, has been an integral part of the local way of life for thousands of years.

It's reasonable to assume that staging such an important maritime event in the UAE will provide a strong boost for the sport of sailing locally. Thanks to the efforts of bodies like the Emirates Heritage Club, sailing is now being enjoyed by a growing number of Emiratis, from seven or eight years old on up, as well as by expatriates. Young UAE sailors even won medals at the recent Arab Games.

Sailing, as the Heritage Club's training supervisor told me the other night, is not only about learning to handle a boat or rig a sail. It's also about learning to respect the power of the sea - the winds, the tides and the currents. That respect for the environment isn't something you learn by racing around a tarmac track at over 160 kilometres an hour.

Participants in sailing also learn some valuable life lessons, like how to compete and to develop individual skill and teamwork. These are valuable lessons in a world where young people too often assume that life is easy or that benefits are given, not earned. It's pretty important to learn that you achieve things through hard work.

The unexpected star of the event has been the Galway Hooker Nora Bheag, a traditional sailing boat from the west of Ireland. Its arrival was meant to encourage visitors to the town of Galway next July, where the race ends.

The Nora Bheag, nearly 100 years old, represents the centuries-old tradition of maritime skills in the west of Ireland, much in the way that the UAE's sailing dhows represent an equally-old tradition in the Arabian Gulf. In July, six UAE dhows, with crews of young Emiratis, will be sailing in Galway Bay, courtesy of the Emirates Heritage Club, the Abu Dhabi Tourism Authority, the Irish tourism body and others.

Building relationships between governments is relatively straightforward. Doing the same between peoples and cultures is much more difficult. In any event, the exchange of traditional sailing vessels between the UAE and Ireland, two nations with a shared heritage of direct ties to the sea, seems to be an inspired way of trying.

I've heard some complaints about the amount of money being spent by the Abu Dhabi Tourism Authority to bring in the Volvo Ocean Race. But to me, it's money well spent.

This event has brought business and favourable media coverage. It has put Abu Dhabi on the map of world sailing. It has highlighted an important aspect of the country's heritage. And it's been fun. What more could one want in a world-class sporting event?

Not much, unless of course you're one of the crew members aboard the Abu Dhabi boat, the Azzam. They will be looking for fan support, and most of all favourable winds, when they set sail on Saturday.


Peter Hellyer is a commentator on the UAE's culture and heritage and current affairs