Pedal power in the Middle East

Why brands in the Gulf are beginning to take to two wheels?

By Ben Faber, Regional Director, Middle East


Some sports engrain themselves in a national consciousness over decades of participation so that they eventually become an essential and ever-present element of culture. Others simmer under the surface as so called ‘minor sports’ with seemingly eternal niche interest, only to explode in popularity off-the-back of a series of unexpected events or cultural shifts.

When the Tour de France circus descended on Yorkshire to universal acclaim in 2016 it felt like the apex of a staggering period of transformation and growth for cycling in the UK. A revolution not only for cycling as a sport, but also as a leisure pursuit, a form of transport and a social activity.

From Beijing to London and onto Rio, the emergence and subsequent sustained success of a golden generation of British cyclists, first on the track and then on the road, had helped catapult professional cycling to the top of the performance ratings, and firmly into the British sporting consciousness. This competitive success helped contribute to a fundamental behavioral change in the UK which, according to British Cycling, by 2016 had resulted in more than two million people across the UK cycling at least once a week, an all-time high. Added to this a new and ambitious title sponsor in our long-time client HSBC, and the sport is in magnificent health on British shores.

So what has all this got to do with the Arabian Gulf? A region, more than 5,000 kilometers away, with little by way of comparative heritage of sports participation, elite competition, even less of cycling for recreation or as a mode of transport?

Although at first glance neither sporting nor cultural comparisons may seem apparent, in fact there may be good reason for Gulf nations to look to the transformation of cycling in the UK for an indication of how things could develop across the region over coming years.

In December last year UAE Team Emirates became the first Emirati team to be granted a license to compete in professional road cycling’s top tier, the UCI WorldTour. One month earlier, its GCC neighbours in Bahrain had announced the region’s first ever WorldTour team, Bahrain Merida. Suddenly within the space of two months, the Middle East had become a major player in the sport.

Last month UAE colours and the logo of Emirates, the Middle East’s most prominent brand in world sports, adornied the shirts of nine riders at the world’s most iconic and historic cycling race, the Tour de France, for the first time in its 104-year history.


Yet the emergence of two professional Middle Eastern teams was not the starting point for the ascension of cycling in the Gulf. Middle East races have been present on UCI calendars since the formation of the Tour of Qatar in 2002. The Tour of Oman followed in 2010, Dubai Tour in 2014, and the Abu Dhabi Tour in 2015, which this year became the first race in the region to be included on the UCI WorldTour, one of the most prestigious races in the world.

But while professional competitions have been taking place in the Gulf for 15-years, cycling infrastructure, developmental pathways, and the emergence of talented local riders is at a much earlier stage of development.

Back in the UK and the aforementioned two-wheel boom has changed the British landscape. Cycle lanes are now commonplace throughout UK cities. ‘Boris Bikes’ have transformed London with similar schemes across other metropolises, while the government's Cycle To Work scheme (introduced back in 1999 and which allows people to buy a bike tax-free through their company), the simultaneous health and fitness trend, and concerns about congestion, have all combined to make cycling the commuter transportation of choice for millions. A cultural and sporting revolution if ever there was one.

The parallels with the Gulf are evident to anyone who has lived in the region for more than five years. Alongside the new professional teams and the elite showpiece races, fundamental attitudinal shifts are taking place and socio-economic conditions make a rich landscape for the growth of the sport. Obesity and diabetes rates are among the highest in the world, public and private sectors are investing heavily in health and wellbeing initiatives, sporting and community infrastructure is improving, traffic congestion is commonplace.

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In parallel, and partly as a consequence, in recent years the opportunities to take to two-wheels have multiplied. Dedicated cycle tracks like Al Wathba Cycle Park in Abu Dhabi have been established, while community cycling happens every week at multi-purpose venues like Abu Dhabi’s Yas Marina Circuit. Throughout the winter the Abu Dhabi Corniche, the Green Route in Abu Dhabi, Jebel Hafeet mountain, and Hatta Mountain Bike Trail all welcome large numbers of cyclists, of all shapes and sizes.

In Dubai, so often a pioneer in metropolitan development, a combination of amateur endeavors and state planning has transformed the city’s cycling scene over the past few years. In 2012, a defunct camel racetrack was transformed into loops of up to 8km next to Dubai’s racecourse at Nad al-Sheba. Around 130km of track have been added at Al Qudra in the desert outskirts of the city. Bike tracks are also being built along the man-made Dubai canal, which has extended a natural creek through the city to the open sea. A cycle and pedestrian bridge will link them to the Nad al-Sheba track and, eventually, to the desert loops. The city’s master plan, already encompassing about 200km of cycle lanes, envisions more routes by the end of the decade.

Even in a region with the somewhat harder barrier of the summer heat to overcome, cyclists are not being put off. In 2013 and 2014 Dubai and Abu Dhabi respectively rolled out their own versions of London’s ‘Boris Bikes’. Established amateur cycling events like the Spinneys Dubai 92 Cycle Challenge, Ride Ajman and the Liwa Challenge see thousands of participants, while a growing number of amateur riding clubs such as Dubai Roadsters, Revolution Nights at Al Qudra, Emirates Road Cycling Club, YAS Cycles and RAHA Cycling group are bringing people together from across the region’s widely diverse communities.

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Motivate Publishing’s announcement in September 2015 that it would be launching Cyclist Middle East magazine, under license from Dennis Publishing, was further evidence of the growing interest, with Ian Fairservice, Motivate’s Managing Partner and Group Editor-in-Chief, saying at the time: “Cycling is becoming a hugely popular pastime in the Middle East, with more races being added to the calendar here each year. Launching the title now will allow us to grow the global audience of the brand.”

As the UK can attest, thanks to the superhuman feats of Wiggins, Hoy, Cavendish, Kenny, Pendleton, Trott et al, creating a generation of cycling heroes is critical to sustaining a long-term interest in the sport. In the Gulf, where role-models often come in different forms to the West, this need is just the same.
Crucially, Dubai’s Crown Prince, Sheikh Hamdan bin Mohammed al-Maktoum, is a keen cyclist and Abu Dhabi’s Crown Prince, Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan, has also taken an interest in the sport as part of a campaign to encourage healthy living.

Furthermore, the region’s new professional teams are offering opportunities for talented local riders to train with and compete against the best in the world. UAE Team Emirates’ Emirati rider Yousif Mirza is one of his country’s cycling pioneers. The 27-year-old had to beg his parents to allow him to ride when he was young because they thought the roads were too dangerous. Now he has a spot in a UCI WorldTour squad and made history by becoming the first person from the UAE to compete in the Olympics. “It was a big experience to ride at that level, it’s really a high level with many Champions,” he explained.

And so it is against this burgeoning backdrop of elite, grassroots and community cycling, that commercial interest is also growing. In the UK cycling boom, the commercial market was one of the greatest beneficiaries.  Brands like HSBC, Sky, Santander and Prudential have invested at all levels of the sport. Businesses in the cycling industry have enjoyed booming sales - sales of UK manufactured bikes rose by 69% in 2014, according to the Office for National Statistics. At Halfords, which is responsible for one in three bikes sold in the UK, sales of its bicycles were up 11% in 2015, led by the retailer's most expensive "premium bikes", which boasted a remarkable 24.9% expansion in sales.

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Just as in the West, cycling in the Gulf is growing in popularity among older professionals with high disposable incomes, and naturally brands are sitting up and taking an interest. Emirates, Main Sponsor of UAE Team Emirates, has become arguably the biggest sponsor to join the commercial ranks of professional road cycling in 15 years, and the Dubai carrier has also started its own cycling club. Elsewhere First Abu Dhabi Bank, ADS Securities, health insurance provider Daman, Abu Dhabi Commercial Bank, Spinneys and IGG are all major regional businesses now invested in the sport. While Mubadala, the influential Abu Dhabi investment company, recently signed an MOU with the Abu Dhabi Sports Council for a partnership that includes the addition of two new community cycling competitions in Abu Dhabi and Al Ain.

While at very different stages in their journeys, the tracks taken by the UK and Arabian Gulf nations are familiar, and offer a positive roadmap for the sporting, social and health and wellbeing development for the Gulf and its people. The two-wheeled revolution is well and truly underway.
 

Ben Faber, Regional Director, Middle East
ben.faber@csm.com