Sportswashing Spyware: Why is the UFC promoting an AI company behind an alleged UAE spy app?

When UFC President Dana White arrived on stage for the UFC 257 ceremonial weigh-in at the Etihad Arena in Abu Dhabi, he did so…

By: Karim Zidan | 3 years ago
Sportswashing Spyware: Why is the UFC promoting an AI company behind an alleged UAE spy app?
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When UFC President Dana White arrived on stage for the UFC 257 ceremonial weigh-in at the Etihad Arena in Abu Dhabi, he did so wearing a black t-shirt emblazoned with a minimalist red-and-white logo that read “G42.”

After years of wearing UFC branded gear and plain polo shirts, White’s latest clothing choice did not go unnoticed.

“Great to see [Dana White]…in G42 gear at the UFC 257 event presentation today…,” tweeted Group 42, an Abu Dhabi-based artificial intelligence company founded in 2018 that is also one of the main sponsors of the latest iteration of UFC Fight Island. The tweet was accompanied by a photo of White standing between former UFC champion Conor McGregor and Dustin Poirier with the G42 t-shirt.

While not unusual for White to promote official UFC sponsors, G42 was no ordinary sponsor. The company is the main investor behind ToTok, a UAE-based messaging application that is reportedly being used to spy on Emirati citizens and anyone else who downloads the app to their phone.

This concerning affiliation drew attention from Chris Bing, a Reuters cyber reporter who called the partnership a “mashup between the UFC and a top UAE intelligence firm,” emphasizing the fact that the UFC is playing an active role in promoting a company that is reportedly involved in spyware and mass surveillance technology.

The G42 affiliation marks the latest in a series of concerning ties between the UFC and the UAE—a relationship rooted in the Middle Eastern nation’s underlying goal to manipulate sports for political and socio-economic gain.

Abu Dhabi’s UFC Investment

In 2018, 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.

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.”

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 recently retired 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.

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

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.

In response to the coronavirus pandemic that seized the world in March 2020, the UFC-Abu Dhabi partnership blossomed further as the two reached an agreement to establish a “Fight Island” 10-mile safe zone for the UFC on Abu Dhabi’s Yas Island. Abu Dhabi paid a hosting fee, built the necessary infrastructure, and covered expenses such as COVID-19 testing, air travel, accommodations, and catering among others.

While the partnership with Abu Dhabi appears to be a perfect scenario for the UFC, it continues to raise concerns about a soft power strategy known as sportswashing—a term coined by Amnesty International to describe countries using sports to cleanse their human rights atrocities.

According to Human Rights Watch, UAE citizens and foreign nationals who publicly speak out against the local government are at risk of facing arbitrary detention, forcible disappearances, and torture. The UAE government also limits freedom of expression by using “digital campaigns” such as surveillance technology to monitor dissidents. The UAE also maintains a leading role in the Saudi-led military coalition against Yemen, which has helped bring about the worst humanitarian crisis in the world, according to the United Nations. More than 20 million people across the country are “food insecure”, while tens of millions lack access to safe water, sanitation, and adequate healthcare.

Photo by WIktor Szymanowicz/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Naturally, the UFC’s long-term presence in Abu Dhabi serves as an opportunity to use the promotion’s substantial Western-based platform to rehabilitate the UAE’s image. This strategy is not unique to the UFC, as the UAE has long manipulated sports for political gain. A notable example is Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed Al Nahyan—half-brother of current President of UAE, Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan—who 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.

Abu Dhabi’s UFC-related goals also extend beyond political manipulation. The Emirate is also hoping that the lengthy partnership helps boost the local economy, ignite the tourism sector, and help rebrand Abu Dhabi as an international fight capital to rival Saudi Arabia’s push for boxing events.

In many ways, the Fight Island events can be viewed as sales pitches for Abu Dhabi tourism. This was evident during the initial Fight Island run in 2020, when it appeared that the Abu Dhabi government had planted a “PR guy” in the press room among sports journalists to ask the fighters questions about Abu Dhabi tourism.

Most recently, however, the UFC appears to be promoting a UAE-based AI technology company that was behind the suspected secret spy tool allegedly used to spy on UAE citizens.

Sportswashing Spy Tools

Throughout the UFC 257 Pay-Per-View event, UFC fans were inundated with references to Group 42 (G42), an Abu Dhabi-based artificial intelligence company. The company’s logo first appeared on a t-shirt worn by Dana White during the UFC 257 weigh-in ceremony, as well as emblazoned on the Octagon canvas during the event.

Following UFC 257, the UFC Arabia platform revealed that G42’s technology would be used to bolster fighter statistics and provide a wide-range of data extracted from artificial intelligence features and developments, including decoding facial expressions in order to detect emotions. The program is also reportedly capable of analyzing data from YouTube comments, fan reactions, and other forms of data to develop a more nuanced understanding of the event. In theory, the aim is to mine enough data to be able to enhance UFC fighters’ training regimens, fight analysis, and the overall science around fighting.

White seemed to confirm the AI project in an interview with UFC Arabia, stating that “we’re working with the royal family [in Abu Dhabi] on some real cool AI stuff.”

According to its official website, G42 is a “leading Artificial Intelligence and Cloud Computing company dedicated to the development and implementation of holistic and scalable technology solutions.” The company’s partnerships range from “strategic teaming agreement, joint ventures, to direct investment by G42” while the industries they serve range from government, healthcare, finance, to energy and sports.

Since its inception in 2018, G42 has acquired companies like Bayanat for Mapping and Surveying Services LLC, an end-to-end and custom provider of geospatial data products and services, and has partnered with the likes of Alibaba Cloud in order to host the first internet summit in the Middle East. The company also invested in ToTok, the Emirati messaging application accused of being a spy tool used to track those who install it.

In December 2019, the New York Times published an investigation which, relying on U.S. intelligence sources and forensic analysis, concluded that ToTok was a “cleverly designed tool for mass surveillance” that represented the latest emergence in a “digital arms race among wealthy authoritarian governments.” The report claimed that the app’s main intention was to spy on targets who installed the app on their phones, many unwittingly providing access to their information.

Photo by Esra Hacioglu/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

The application was downloaded millions of times while it was available on the Google Play and Apple stores but has since been removed from both following the NYTimes report, while other mainstream outlets added to the NYTimes’ investigation.

“By using [ToTok], you’re allowing your life to be opened up to the whims of national security as seen by the UAE government,” Bill Marczak, a computer science researcher at the University of California, Berkley, told the Associated Press. “In this case, you’re essentially having people install the spyware themselves as opposed to hacking into the phone.”

After being de-platformed, ToTok defended itself against the accusations by claiming that the reports were “defamatory” and “shameless fabrications” but failed to provide any evidence to back its statements. One of the co-creators of ToTok also defended the app in an interview with The Associated Press and denied any knowledge of the project’s reported ties to the UAE intelligence apparatus.

“I was not aware, and I’m even not aware now of who was who, who was doing what in the past,” co-founder Giacomo Ziani said. “These are not questions you should be (asking) me. You should be eventually asking them.”

ToTok’s apparent, if indirect, ties to the intelligence world seem to run deep.

While on the iOS Apple store, ToTok was listed as developed by the “Breej Holding Ltd,” which the New York Times referred to as a “front company affiliated with DarkMatter, an Abu Dhabi-based cyberintelligence and hacking firm where Emirati intelligence officials, former National Security Agency employees and former Israeli military intelligence operatives work.”

It was later revealed that ToTok’s sole registered shareholder is G42, which also has ties to DarkMatter through the company’s CEO Peng Xiao, who for years ran Pegasus, a subsidiary of DarkMatter.

It is also worth noting that Breej Holding Ltd and G42 can be traced back to Sheikh Tahnoun bin Zayed al-Nahyan, a son of the founder of the UAE and the country’s National Security Advisor. Among combat sports fans, Sheikh Tahnoun is best known as the founder of the Abu Dhabi Combat Club (ADCC) and the person responsible for the dealthat saw UAE subsidiary Flash Entertainment purchase a 10 percent stake in the UFC in 2010.

Photo by KARIM SAHIB/AFP via Getty Images

G42’s sole director listed in the Abu Dhabi Global Market filing is Hamad Khalfan al-Shamsi, Sheikh Tahnoun’s public relations manager, while Breej Holdings Ltd is controlled by Hasan al-Rumaithi, an MMA fighter who is also Sheikh Tahnoun’s adopted son.

G42’s reported investment in tools allegedly used for mass surveillance raises concerns about the UFC’s ongoing partnership with the company. G42 was also responsible for the COVID-19 testing program that UFC athletes underwent during their time on Yas Island, which UFC COO Lawrence Epstein referred to as a “testing regiment that really is second to none anywhere in the world.”

Regardless of Epstein’s confidence in G42’s testing, US diplomats and security officials had previously warnedagainst using coronavirus testing kits made by the company over concerns about patient privacy and Chinese government involvement. Their concern stemmed from G42’s partnership with Chinese company BGI to produce rapid-testing kits, many of which were to be donated to Nevada during the early days of the pandemic.

While G42 has previously sponsored sports organizations and teams such as the UAE Team Emirates professional cycling team, the UFC is easily the most recognizable brand it has been attached to. The affiliation further complicates the UFC’s longstanding relationship with the Abu Dhabi government—a mutually beneficial commitment that allows the UFC to hold international events in a secluded state of pseudo-isolation at minimal costs during a pandemic, while Abu Dhabi reaps the benefits of renewed media attention and distraction away from the country’s poor human rights record.

Now, things have gone a step further. Not only has the UFC allowed its platform to be used as a sportswashing tool for an authoritarian regime, but it is now actively promoting a company credibly suspected of spying on local citizens.

The UFC and G42 did not respond to the author’s request for comment.

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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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