By Ryan Ballengee
The presence of professional golf in the United Arab Emirates' most chic metropolis, Dubai, began in 1989 when the European Tour planted a flag in the middle of the desert. Mark James won that year with a score of 277 and pocketed some €270,000 for the win.
While James was doing that, Dubai was really just beginning its two decade explosion onto the global scene —both as a beacon of tepid acceptance of western culture in the Middle East, but also as a cultural center for the Middle East's wealthy.
The massive real estate development that has transformed Dubai's image, for better and worse, coincided with the presence of professional golf in the region. That's not to say that it was the likes of the Dubai Desert Classic's early champions - Ernie Els in the same year as his first US Open, Fred Couples one year later - shaped the city's transformation, but the growth of the tournament has certainly run parallel to that of its host city.
Aerial photograph of Dubai's desert footprint (Click to enlarge)
Emirates Golf Club, host to the DDC, was constructed one year prior and labeled the "Miracle in the Desert" as it became the first course completely covered with grass in the Middle East. The Majlis course was a clear signal to the globe that the Emirates had serious intentions in transforming Dubai from a sparsely populated, nice trade city into a global secular mecca that could boast the most "mosts" and "biggests" in the world. One need not look further for proof than the skyline view of downtown Dubai from the Majlis course to see how drastically the city changed drastically in the twenty years since the course's construction.
Today, Dubai is home to the world's only supposed 7 star hotel. It will be home to the world's tallest building and tallest hotel. An underwater hotel is near completion. It has an indoor ski park in a city where daytime temperatures average 120 degress. Manmade islands, dredged using the latest technology, have been constructed. All serve as a monument to what enormous sums of money and hubris can achieve.
The same street in Dubai circa 1989 and in 2003
The next indicator of Dubai's aggressive quest to become a global city was intended to be the Race to Dubai and Dubai-owned Lesiurecorp's five year, nearly $200 million investment in the European Tour. Leisurecorp was intending to cultivate so much influence that it could even buy the rights to host the 2018 Ryder Cup despite not having a single participant in the historic matches.
But, then the steady stream of accessible, low rate debt and financing dried up as quickly as a plant in the desert sun. The billions—maybe trillions—in debt that propped up Dubai's infrastructure, global profile, and social profile was gone. With it, the real estate and debt collapse took a large chunk of the reputation and standing that had been created in the last two decades.
On the golf front, Leisurecorp was merged into Nakheel, another Dubai-owned organization. David Spencer, the man who architected the Race to Dubai deal, was shed from the company. All of this has happened while Dubai has negotiated with Abu Dhabi—the Emirate much more solidly built on the world's unquenched thirst for oil - a plan to dig the Arabic Las Vegas out of its deep hole.
Though there are still tons of cranes in Dubai, many have come to a standstill. Many of the immigrants that came from all corners of the Middle East and the Indian subcontinent to help in the construction of the city have since left. A good number of the real estate investors that staked their futures on the growth of paper wealth have abandoned their properties and luxury vehicles. The Dubai airport has become not just a monument to Dubai's massive growth by being the world's largest airport, but its parking lot is simultaneously a memento of this dark time for the city.
Golf in Dubai also has eye-opening indicators of Dubai's drastic fall. The 2009 Dubai Desert Classic was won by Rory McIlroy. For the win, he earned €325,000 Euros for the title - just €55,000 more than what Mark James earned two decades ago. But, an even more shocking footnote is that Tiger Woods, the 2008 champion, earned five times as much for the win.
Both the city and its golf presence, though, soldier on through the trouble. Dubai refuses to withdraw its investment in the European Tour. Though it has scaled back its $20 million commitment to the upcoming Dubai World Championship down to $15 million, it did not remove itself entirely as a show of wounded strength. Jumeriah Estates, a development for the uber-wealthy, has announced that it will only continue with construction of two of its four originally intended courses. But, development has not ceased altogether.
Dubai is aggressively trying to work with Abu Dhabi and private creditors to resolve its quasi-public debt structure. Many of the cranes may have come to a stop, but some progresses along with the aggressive planning for the future of Dubai.
Not coincidentally, the future of Dubai's growth on the global stage and in the golfing world are pegged to its ability to find a way to sustain itself—much less grow—amidst the new world flow of debt and capital.
Dubai's growth has certainly been both staggering and impressive, but it has been equally rivaled by its implosion. The question remains if its future is one of stagnation or decline, or steady growth. Provided the link between the city and its love for golf, perhaps the best indicator of its future can come from the health of the game in the Emirate.