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Sunset against Dubai’s skyline. The Emirate is looking to cash in on the 2022 World Cup. Photo: AP

Dubai counts down to the football World Cup in Qatar with an eye to cashing in – could the nearby emirate be the biggest winner from tournament?

  • Qatar expects over a million visitors during the World Cup, but a lack of lodgings means Dubai can court fans with its hotels, malls and lenient alcohol rules
  • FlyDubai’s plans for 30 daily round trips to Doha will help attract fans and recoup Covid-19 losses, despite a strong dirham making Dubai pricey for visitors
Asia travel

The World Cup may be bringing as many as 1.2 million fans to Qatar, but the nearby flashy emirate of Dubai is also looking to cash in on the major sports tournament taking place just a short flight away.

As the November 20 kick-off nears, some football fan clubs have already said they’ll be commuting to Qatar during the cup on 45-minute flights from Dubai, the skyscraper-studded, beachfront city state in the United Arab Emirates.

Other fans plan to sleep on cruise ships or camp out in the desert amid a feverish rush for rooms in Doha, the Qatari capital.

Dubai’s airlines, bars, restaurants, shopping malls and other attractions now hope to benefit, and deliver a further boost to its rebounding tourism industry in the crucial autumn and winter months after the blows delivered by the coronavirus pandemic.

“If you can’t stay in Qatar, Dubai is the place you’d most like to go as a foreign tourist,” said James Swanston, a Middle East and North Africa expert at London-based economics research company Capital Economics. “It’s somewhere safe, somewhere more liberal in terms of Western norms. It’s the most attractive destination.”
Guests on a boat with Dubai’s Marina Waterfront in the background. Photo: AP

Home to the world’s tallest building, the Burj Khalifa, cavernous malls – including one with an indoor ski slope – and a thriving nightclub scene, Dubai has seen explosive growth fuelled by a boom-and-bust real estate market that’s transformed the one-time fishing village over the past 20 years.

Its long-haul airline, Emirates, helped make Dubai International Airport the busiest in the world for foreign travel, and provides a steady stream of visitors who stay for layovers or longer. And while still an autocratic sheikhdom like its Gulf Arab neighbours, Dubai has a more liberal view on drinking alcohol and nightlife.

Passengers arrive at Dubai International Airport in the United Arab Emirates. Photo: AP

In the lead-up to the tournament, concerns about the number of hotel rooms and high prices for those available have trailed Qatar, which lacks capacity for all teams, workers, volunteers and fans at the World Cup.

So Doha has created camping and cabin sites and hired cruise ships, and encourages fans to stay in neighbouring countries and fly in for games.

Qatar has estimated it will have 45,000 hotel rooms for the tournament. Surrounding nations such as Bahrain, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia also suggest they could see a spike in visitors – even though Bahrain is the only one among them that allows alcohol.

Even Iran suggested developing plans for World Cup tourists to stay on its Kish Island, located in the Persian Gulf a similar distance from the Qatari capital as Dubai. Apparently, nothing came of the idea, and now the Islamic republic is gripped by nationwide protests.

Long-haul airline Emirates helped make Dubai International Airport the busiest in the world for foreign travel. Photo: AP

Meanwhile, Dubai has more than 140,000 hotel rooms, putting it easily in the top 10 destinations worldwide as far as available lodgings go, says Philip Wooller, a senior director at STR, a company that monitors the hotel industry. Dubai also offers a wider price range than Qatar can at the moment, given the demand, he says.

“I think Dubai is an incredibly eclectic city. You can buy a room for US$100 [HK$780] or you can buy a room for US$5,000,” Wooller says.

Still, he adds: “Qatar will be able to accommodate most of the fans coming to the World Cup, [but] there will be a knock-on in Dubai.”

A monorail on Dubai’s Palm Jumeirah passes with a portion of the city’s skyline in the background. Photo: AP

Dubai appears fully poised to take advantage. Its low-cost airline, FlyDubai, plans as many as 30 round-trip flights a day during the World Cup, shuttling fans between Dubai’s second airport, Al Maktoum International (DWC), and Doha International Airport, Qatar’s old main airport.

Other airlines that may use Al Maktoum airport include Dutch carrier KLM, Qatar Airways and Hungary’s Wizz Air, while private jets will fly from there as well to the tournament, said Paul Griffiths, CEO of Dubai Airports.

That could help boost the profile of an airfield that Dubai hopes will expand in the future as Dubai International Airport nears its capacity.

“It’s a great experience for us to see DWC suddenly so busy for the World Cup,” says Wooller. “It will give exposure to the convenience of the airport for so many people that [airlines may] actually favour operating from there.”

‘Dubai for fans who want to live on the edge’: UAE milks World Cup in Qatar

The expected economic boost from the World Cup for Dubai comes after its turnaround since suffering through the pandemic. It spent billions for its delayed Expo 2020 world’s fair – which largely attracted visitors already in the UAE.

Dubai, like much of the world, had a lockdown early in 2020. However, by July that year, it announced it was reopening for tourists.

Though Dubai faced a surge of international criticism when cases spread from the emirate months later, Dubai and the rest of the UAE rolled out vaccines widely. The UAE dropped its mandatory mask policy about a month ago.

“Dubai is on a lot of people’s radars as one of the most phenomenal places to come and visit,” says Dennis McGettigan, CEO of an eponymous chain of Irish bars in Dubai and elsewhere. He also thinks the World Cup has added a layer of desire to visit the city state.

Dennis McGettigan, CEO of Irish bar chain McGettigan’s. Photo: AP

McGettigan says his bar business’ sales are already up as much as 40 per cent compared with 2019, something he links to pent-up demand for socialising after the worst days of the virus. He says he’s overstaffed his locations and expects strong business during the tournament.

But McGettigan and others acknowledge the strong US dollar may affect Dubai’s ability to attract World Cup tourists. The Emirati dirham has long been pegged to the dollar, making a Dubai trip now more expensive for those paying in British pounds, euros and other currencies.