Shortly after defeating Jose Aldo to claim the UFC bantamweight title, Petr Yan walked into the UFC ‘Fight Island’ media room — a bespoke facility on Yas Island, Abu Dhabi, built specifically for the promotion’s four-event showcase — clutching his belt and ready to take part in the traditional post-fight press conference.
The Russian native fielded questions from the socially distanced journalists, conveying his answers through a translator seated besides him. After nearly 15 minutes of discussing his title win and his future plans, Yan received a strange question from an unknown figure in the back of the room:
“What are your impressions of Abu Dhabi so far? It is obviously quite different from where you’re usually used to fighting. How have you enjoyed it? How has the hospitality been? Would you be keen to come back here on holiday with your family?”
“I am here for the first time. Everything was top class and professional,” Yan said through his translator. “Of course I want to come back on holiday with my family.”
The question appeared out-of-place, especially for a fighter who had just defeated one of the most celebrated featherweight fighters of all time to win his first UFC championship. Instead of addressing those emotions, Yan was instead made to answer a question about Abu Dhabi as a tourist destination.
Similar questions were later relayed to the other champions that followed after Yan, including Volkanovski, who was asked if he had any plans to “have some fun” on Yas Island and the Formula One track before returning to New Zealand. Volkanovski responded by revealing that he had taken an Aston Martin onto the Formula One track and thought it was “pretty cool.”
Usman was also asked a question by the same unknown person, this time focusing on Abu Dhabi’s ‘hospitality and culture,’ which yielded quotes such as “I love Abu Dhabi, I love the UAE” from the defending welterweight champion.
The three questions, each more awkward than the last, bore little significance other than their ability to draw out complimentary responses about the UFC’s host city. They were thinly-veiled attempts to further capitalize on the UFC’s presence in Abu Dhabi by amplifying the champions’ voices as part of a sales pitch for Abu Dhabi.
In short: it appeared to be a promotional stunt orchestrated by the Abu Dhabi government in an attempt to help promote the city as a tourist hotspot.
According to sources present on Yas Island, who spoke to BloodyElbow on condition of anonymity, the person who asked the Abu Dhabi related questions was a “PR guy” who was sitting at the far back corner of the media room. He was not a part of the UFC 251 media day event and was not recorded on the document handed out to reporters that listed the media present on Fight Island.
Beyond planting PR representatives in press conferences, the Abu Dhabi government used other tactics to promote tourism in the city, including littering the international broadcast with advertisements from VisitAbuDhabi, a travel agency that is a subsidiary of the Abu Dhabi culture and tourism department. Even official UFC-related accounts pushed out content relating to VisitAbuDhabi, including UFC President Dana White.
These aforementioned promotional tools further cement the idea that the UFC”s Fight Island venture was inevitably a sales pitch for Abu Dhabi tourism.
Last week, reports emerged that the Abu Dhabi government was covering service fees and costs associated with the Fight Island showcase, including accommodations, catering and infrastructure. The significant investment in the UFC’s product is a mutually beneficial commitment, as it 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, potential agreements with other sports entities, and a chance to distract from the country’s poor human rights record.
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.
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.
“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.”
While Abu Dhabi has incurred significant costs to host these events, the long-term benefits are priceless. Fight Island has proven to be a case study in sportswashing — a term coined by Amnesty International in 2018 to describe authoritarian regimes using sports to manipulate their international image and wash away their human rights record — and a strategic way to inspire tourism and new business ventures during the age of COVID-19.
Abu Dhabi — and the UAE more broadly — is not the only example of sportswashing in the region. Saudi Arabia has proven to be the gold standard in authoritarian regimes using sports as a soft power strategy to further their domestic and foreign policy goals.
In 2018, the kingdom launched a lobbying campaign headed by Saudi Princess Reema bint Bandar Al Saud, the daughter of former US ambassador Prince Bandar and the first female president of the Saudi Federation for Community Sports, that led to meetings and business calls with the commissioners for Major League Soccer (MLS), Major League Baseball (MLB), as well as officials from the National Basketball Association (NBA), World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) and the Los Angeles Olympic Committee.
Shortly thereafter, Saudi began a 10-year partnership with WWE, which has resulted in five Pay-per-view events between April 2018 - February 2020. The second PPV, aptly dubbed “Crown Jewel” took place less than a month after the brutal assassination and dismemberment of dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi. Despite criticism from U.S. politicians, media, and fans, WWE continues to promote events in Saudi Arabia, which in turn, helps whitewash the kingdom’s abysmal human rights record.
While the UFC’s relationship with Abu Dhabi may not be as insidious as the WWE’s long-term agreement with Saudi Arabia, it remains a key example of how an international sports platform can be manipulated to serve the needs of an authoritarian regime.
The UFC has not responded to a request for comment.