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Is Middle East becoming the international sailing capital?

By Emily Smith and Shirley Robertson, CNN
February 21, 2012 -- Updated 1521 GMT (2321 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • The Middle East has moved to secure some of the world's major sporting events
  • Volvo Ocean Race stopped in Abu Dhabi for the first time
  • Sailing organizations are seeing the financial benefits of the Middle East

Editor's note: MainSail is CNN's monthly sailing show, exploring the sport of sailing, luxury travel and the latest in design and technology.

(CNN) -- Over the past decade the Middle East has made a massive move to secure some of the world's major sporting events. Abu Dhabi won the right to host a Formula One Grand Prix beginning in 2009, Qatar was successful in its FIFA World Cup bid for 2022 and the world's top tennis players and golfers regularly head to the region for big tour tournaments.

Among the sporting push in the region is sailing; nine teams are currently taking part in the "Sailing Arabia - the Tour" -- the Middle East's version of Europe's Le Tour de France a la Voile. The event sees the fleet sail throughout the region from Bahrain to Oman.

It is the second time it has been held but it is not the only sailing competition to take place in the region this year.

There's no doubt that this region is less affected by the crisis we have in Europe
Knut Frostad, Volvo Ocean Race

"We do always try to approach the prime events," says Faisal Abdulla Al Sheikh from the Abu Dhabi Tourism Authority. "Of course (there is) the Volvo Ocean Race, the first ever Middle East stop over."

The United Arab Emirates was this year included in the Volvo Ocean Race for the first time in its 39-year history. The 39000 nautical mile challenge, that sees six professional crews race across the world over eight months, incorporated a Cape Town to Abu Dhabi leg.

The decision to include the Middle Eastern stopover provided unique challenges. Parts of the leg were shrouded in secrecy because of concerns over piracy. It was split into two sections and the race boats had to be loaded onto a cargo ship and taken to Sharjah in the UAE for the final sprint to Abu Dhabi.

A modern race with a classic design
Omani women prepare for offshore debut

See also: Abu Dhabi: Stepping out of Dubai's shadows

"For us the race is aiming at being a very global competition so we need to expand," says Knut Frostad, CEO of the Volvo Ocean Race. "We need to make sure we cover as many markets as we can and Abu Dhabi and a few other players wanted to be serious about sailing."

"Obviously there is an economic factor," he adds. "There's no doubt that this region is less affected by the crisis we have in Europe."

See also: Volvo Ocean Race: The 'Everest of sailing'

Since its launch in 2008, Oman Sail has taken nearly 6,000 Omani children sailing, over half of which have been females. Since its launch in 2008, Oman Sail has taken nearly 6,000 Omani children sailing, over half of which have been females.
Oman's women take to the water
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Oman\'s women take to the water Oman's women take to the water

Other sailing organizations too are seeing the financial benefits of the Middle East. The independent sailing company Pindar began its push into the region around four years in Bahrain. Pindar set up sailing programs and launched the boat "Kingdom of Bahrain" -- which in 2009 was briefly held by Iranian authorities when the crew was accused of straying into Iranian waters en route to Dubai for a race.

Pindar CEO, Andrew Pindar, sees the Middle East as providing a lot of economic opportunities for organizations like his. "There is a lot of stability in the region and a lot of investment," he says.

Pindar says its warm climate and location are huge draw cards for the sailing world. "For most of the year it has good sailing conditions; warm water, good winds," he says. "It's in the middle for people coming from Europe and Australasia," which Pindar adds is ideal for competitive sailing.

It has very deep and strong roots, what's becoming more of a focus now is the sport of sailing
David Graham, CEO, Oman Sail

But it's not only the competitive sailing world that is being drawn to the Middle East, with the large expat community and corporate world providing a new sailing audience. Pindar says the opportunities are available in the Gulf, as long as organizations are willing to put in the hard work. "If you go there with the right idea or the right approach then people will back you, but they don't do it immediately."

The CEO says there has been a real push for sailing in Abu Dhabi and Dubai, and thinks the Volvo Ocean Race's presence in the Middle East will do a lot to boost the sport's profile.

Unlike that event, participants in "Sailing Arabia - the Tour" compete only for the pride of winning. The fleet is a mixture of professionals and amateurs, with many only having a few months experience on the water.

Oman Sail runs the event and its CEO David Graham says the organization is trying to promote competition amongst the Gulf nations. "Sailing has always been in the Middle East, it has very deep and strong roots," Graham says. "What's becoming more of a focus now is the sport of sailing."

See also: Oman women's Olympic ambitions

Oman Sail aims to promote sailing and has established pioneering initiatives to encourage people across Omani society to take up the sport. In the past three years it has taught thousands of children how to sail and is helping develop a women's squad in an effort to boost Oman's Olympic chances.

"Without doubt sailing is on the upwards spiral in the Middle East," says Graham.

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