Arabian Fights: How UFC Fight Island became a sales pitch for Abu Dhabi

On June 9, 2020, the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) announced the birth of Fight Island ™. Beginning with UFC 251 on Saturday night, the…

By: Karim Zidan | 3 years ago
Arabian Fights: How UFC Fight Island became a sales pitch for Abu Dhabi
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On June 9, 2020, the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) announced the birth of Fight Island ™.

Beginning with UFC 251 on Saturday night, the UFC will host four events — a Pay-Per-View and three Fight Night events — over a period of 15 days in pseudo-isolation on Yas Island in Abu Dhabi.

While this is not the first time that the UFC has held an event on Yas Island — see UFC 242 — it is the first time that a series of stringent health regulations have been taken to create a 10-mile “safe zone” specifically for the promotion’s fighters and staff on the premise. The bespoke infrastructure erected by the Abu Dhabi government makes it an essential component of the UFC’s live event business amid the global pandemic.

In many ways, Fight Island is a boon for the UFC — a promotion that has already held eight fight shows in the United States since ending its forced hiatus due to the coronavirus pandemic in May. However, the four-event spell on Yas Island is also a long term victory for Abu Dhabi, which has seemingly transformed into an adaptable sports haven capable of withstanding the brunt of a global health crisis, branded itself as a potential solution for other international sports keen to host events in the foreseeable future, and capitalized on its recent investments into UFC Fight Island to create a sales pitch for Abu Dhabi tourism.

Arabian Fights

Last year, the UFC announced a five-year partnership with the Department of Culture and Tourism (DCT Abu Dhabi), which guarantees a constant stream of title fights in the Emirati capital until 2024.

However, unlike the previous two Abu Dhabi based UFC events in 2010 and 2014, UFC, which took place in partnership with Flash Entertainment, a live events and promotion company that owned 10% of the UFC, the UFC’s partnership with Abu Dhabi is sponsored by the local government and is being used to enhance economic opportunities in the emirate.

“UFC will become a key component of Abu Dhabi’s thriving events calendar for the next five years, which is already packed full of not only great sporting events, but also cultural, arts and entertainment offerings as well,” Mohamed Khalifa Al Mubarak, chairman of DCT Abu Dhabi, said at the time. “This spectacular mixed martial arts event, which has a huge following around the world, will bring heightened impetus to visitation in the third quarter for the emirate and will no doubt boost incoming tourist numbers as fight fans across the world gather in Abu Dhabi.”

Photo by Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images

The partnership began with UFC 242, which took place in a bespoke 13,000-seat arena built specifically to host the PPV. The event was headlined by UFC lightweight champion Khabib Nurmagomedov, who defended his title against Dustin Poirier. Local UAE media later stated that the event “exceeded expectations,” claiming it “helped boost the economy” as well as the tourism sector.

In order to further entice its Abu Dhabi partners, the UFC also sold its exclusive media rights in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region to state-owned broadcaster Abu Dhabi Media (ADM) ahead of UFC 242. Three months later, ADM revealed the launch of UFC Arabia, a streaming service offering live digital coverage of all UFC show in English and Arabic, as well as archived footage for a monthly fee.

While the UFC-Abu Dhabi partnership was already in good standing, the introduction of Fight Island and a separate four-event deal in response to the global pandemic has further cemented the relationship.

A significant portion of the UFC’s roster are international fighters based outside the United States. Those fighters were unable to compete for the promotion due to travel and border restrictions that hindered their ability to travel to the U.S. By finding an international location like Yas Island to hold events, the UFC was able to circumvent the global and US-based restrictions and bring its international fighters to this private location.

Beyond its proximity to the Abu Dhabi international airport, Yas Island was also able to provide the necessary infrastructure and stringent regulations required to hold a relatively safe series of events. The Abu Dhabi government created a 10-square-mile safe zone dedicated to the UFC, limited traffic onto the island, and plans to administer thousands of tests to ensure the safety of those located within the island bubble.

Photo by Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC

“Once we got into the nitty gritty of what it was going to take to put this on, it was pretty clear that what Yas Island and Abu Dhabi delivered was frankly something no one else in the world could, certainly on short notice,” UFC COO Lawrence Epstein told SportsBusiness.

While UFC President Dana White has been quoted claiming that Fight Island is “so f**king expensive,” reports have since emerged confirming that Abu Dhabi is floating the bill for the UFC”s expenses, which includes infrastructure, COVID-19 testing, air travel, accommodations, and catering among others.

Beyond the aforementioned expenses, the Abu Dhabi government is also paying the UFC a hosting fee.

“The value in kind they’ve provided to put these events on is incredible, something nobody else in the world could have done. We’re going to deliver them four events in US primetime, generating a significant amount of exposure for Yas Island and Abu Dhabi,” Epstein said.

Abu Dhabi’s Long Game

There are a variety of reasons as to why the Abu Dhabi government is keen to host UFC shows as part of its overall repertoire of events.

Among Abu Dhabi’s primary goals is to boost the local economy and further ignite its tourism sector, both of which were reportedly achieved following the UFC 242 event. However, its more subtle aims include using the UFC’s substantial Western-based platform to rehabilitate the UAE’s image — a soft power strategy known as sportswashing.

Abu Dhabi has long used soft power strategies to rebrand the Emirates as a progressive and tolerant nation despite its atrocious human rights record. In February 2019, Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, crown prince of Abu Dhabi, hosted Pope Francis for an interfaith summit, allowing the Pope to deliver a public mass in the Muslim-majority nation. The Pope did not address any of the UAE’s human rights concerns during his visit.

With regards to its use of sports as a political tool, Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed Al Nahyan — half-brother of current President of UAE, Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan — is the owner of the Abu Dhabi United Group (ADUG), a private investment group that acquired the Manchester City Football Club, along with MLS-based New York City FC. The acquisition of Manchester City, which has since led the club to various title wins, has had an insidious effect on the club’s fans, many of whom have resorted to tribal loyalty and willful ignorance when it comes to discussing the UAE’s human rights record. This, effectively, is sportswashing in action.

Beyond its rehabilitation project, Abu Dhabi is also playing a long game by using the UFC as a litmus test to determine whether it can safely hold events on Yas Island. If so, the local government can continue to entice the organization to hold events there instead of the United States for the foreseeable future.

As COVID-19 cases continue to skyrocket in the United States, including in the UFC’s home base of Las Vegas, it appears likely that the promotion will continue to use Yas Island as a base for its international fights.

Photo by Chris Unger/Zuffa LLC

“We’re going to be going back-and-forth to Abu Dhabi until the world comes back,” White told Arabian Business. “This is an international business, and most of our fighters are international. We have to put on so many international fights, or I’ll end up smoking all the US talent like that and we wouldn’t be able to put on any events. We’re going to be going back-and-forth to Abu Dhabi I’m assuming for a very long time.”

Though Abu Dhabi is taking a significant financial risk through this investment, it appears as though it will eventually reap its rewards. The executive director of Abu Dhabi’s Department of Culture and Tourism, Ali Al Shaiba, told Bloomberg that the government is unlikely going to break even on its investment in Fight island, but that its main intention was “media exposure” and the eventual benefits that would bring.

“The primary goal of the Abu Dhabi tourism authority was to let the world know about the all the great stuff going on in Abu Dhabi and Yas Island, and the idea is that when the world goes back to normal, people can come and check out what they’ve seen,” Epstein said.

Al Shaiba also revealed that the Abu Dhabi government has received proposals from other sports organizations about potentially turning Fight Island into an adaptable sports haven fit for football, basketball, and a variety of other sports and events.

Assuming, that is, that things go smoothly on Fight Island.

“We have a few proposals on the table for events to be on the island. We are studying them very carefully,” said Al Shaiba. “We care about the media value and exposure that this event will bring to Abu Dhabi. It’s not just about hosting an event. It’s about the message we want to send to the globe.”

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About the author
Karim Zidan
Karim Zidan

Karim Zidan is a investigative reporter and feature writer focusing on the intersection of sports and politics. He has written for BloodyElbow since 2014 and has served as an associate editor since 2016. He also writes for The New York Times and The Guardian. Karim has been invited to speak about his work at numerous universities, including Princeton, and was a panelist at the South by Southwest (SXSW) film festival and the Oslo Freedom Forum. He also participated in the United Nations counter-terrorism conference in 2021. His reporting on Ramzan Kadyrov’s involvement in MMA, much of which was done for Bloody Elbow, has led to numerous award nominations, and was the basis of an award-winning HBO Real Sports documentary.

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