Sports

World Cup fans chose party city Dubai over buttoned-down Qatar

Football fan Chris Lake was born in 1958, the last time Wales qualified for the FIFA World Cup. He said of the emirate’s participation in this year’s tournament in Qatar: “All I wanted was to see Wales in the World Cup – now I can be happy for the rest of my life.”

Leek plays saxophone with The Barry Horns, a brass band of 11 Welsh football fans. Seven of them traveled to the Gulf to play Welsh matches in Qatar, not only trying to motivate the crowd with their music but also promoting Welsh identity and independence from the UK.

But like thousands of other supporters, they settled in nearby Dubai, the UAE’s regional trading hub, from where they made the grueling day-long trek to Qatar’s capital Doha via hour-long shuttles connecting cities during the tournament.

Fans from participating countries chose Dubai’s vibrant nightlife scene over Doha’s lively atmosphere. Qatar’s last-minute decision to ban the sale of alcohol around stadiums only served to underscore the country’s more conservative culture.

The party atmosphere begins at Dubai airports, where outlets have been so busy this week that some have run out of McDonald’s and Heineken beers.

Football fans watch a match between Argentina and Saudi Arabia on a big screen, in the Fan Zone in Dubai, United Arab Emirates. © Hussein Malla / AP

Across the city, fan zones were teeming with supporters from every country, reflecting the diverse nature of Dubai’s expat population, who make up 90 percent of Dubai’s 3.5 million population.

In the downtown financial hub, bankers swap suits for football jerseys to watch games in the fan park, where businesses rent halls at $5,500 for 20 people, including food and drink.

With 60 daily shuttle trips between Dubai and Doha, up to 350,000 people can be transported from the region’s tourism hub throughout the tournament, which is expected to host around 1.5 million visitors.

The flood of fans comes in the middle of Dubai’s tourism season, as visitors flock there in search of the winter sun. The government-owned airport operator says passenger traffic has surpassed pre-pandemic figures, with traffic passing 6 million per month during the third quarter. Emirates Airlines in Dubai recorded a 228 per cent increase in the number of passengers in the first half results.

“Dubai has very strong demand at this time of the year and I am sure there will be people traveling through Dubai for the World Cup,” said Issam Kazim, CEO of Dubai Tourism. “This tournament will be a boost for the entire region.”

But officials say the number of fans visiting the emirate for the sole purpose of watching matches in Qatar is likely to be in the tens of thousands, or the equivalent of a three percentage point increase in hotel occupancy. Many tickets for the matches were sold to expatriates in the Gulf, including some of the 100,000-plus Brits living in the UAE.

Many hotels are now running almost at full capacity anyway as the demand for travel is high. In September, the latest statistics available, the average occupancy of around 140,000 available rooms across the emirate was 71 per cent with the average daily rate higher by about a quarter than in 2019.

Dubai-based Expat Sport has attracted around 2,000 fans with its hotel and flight packages for fans with tickets to matches in Qatar. Fans from South America, India and the UK are based in Dubai’s popular Palm Island district, flying to and from Qatar on flights booked by the company, which also sells World Cup hospitality packages to UAE-based entrants.

“There is a general excitement, and suddenly here,” said Sue Holt, executive director of the Sports Tourism Group. “People who haven’t thought about it say ‘why don’t we just go.'”

Gareth Bale of Wales cheers for the crowd after the match between the United States and Wales at Ahmed Bin Ali Stadium in Doha, Qatar.

Gareth Bale of Wales cheers for the fans after a match between the United States and Wales at Ahmed Bin Ali Stadium in Doha, Qatar © Rolex dela Pena / EPA-EFE / Shutterstock

For visitors like Fez Watkins, founder of The Barry Horns, Dubai also offered the chance to visit “amazing” clubs where the mix of South Asian and Arabic influenced beats was “extremely good”.

Local well-wishers lent band sound equipment and drums for matches in Doha as well as gigs for expatriate fans at hotels and events at British Embassies in Qatar and Dubai.

The group, which formed in 2011 when the national team’s fortunes were at their lowest, play tunes such as the military march “Men of Harlech” and Depeche Mode’s “Just Can’t Get Enough”, to lift the spirits of the “red wall” of Wales fans decked out in colours. Patriotic bucket hats.

“There were some hassles, but overall it was great – getting to the airport with fans from the likes of Mexico and Argentina was such a fun World Cup experience,” said Watkins.

“The World Cup has always been like a party to which we were never invited. And now we are finally a part of it.”

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