Abu Dhabi was confirmed as host for next month's UFC Fight Island on Tuesday night, the first such event in the promotion's history.
Featuring four fight nights across a two-week period, and beginning with UFC 251 on July 11, it marks another major milestone in the partnership between the emirate and UFC.
The National spoke to Ali Al Shaiba, the executive director of tourism and marketing at the Department of Culture and Tourism, about Fight Island and the strengthening of that five-year agreement signed with UFC last year.
This is a momentous announcement for Abu Dhabi. Just take us back - how did Abu Dhabi come to secure hosting rights for Fight Island?
“You know our relationship and partnership with the UFC. The guys approached us to host this fight due to the high level of safety of Abu Dhabi and also the high capabilities we demonstrate here in hosting international events.
"We have also been approached by other international entities to host other sports events, such as tennis and golf, which we are currently undergoing comprehensive studies and assessments for.
"Today we’re honoured that the UFC saw Abu Dhabi as one of the safest and most ideal destinations for such a massive event. The decision to host came after careful assessment, both from the UFC’s end and Abu Dhabi’s end.
"We are here to ensure we meet all the standards on safety and security, and we have worked closely with all the government entities in the UAE to make sure we are able to deliver this event in the safest and most efficient way possible.
"We’re adhering to the government’s safety measures, to the new protocols that we will have on the island. We showed a capability and we are confident that we can host any international events during this Covid-19 situation.”
When did DCT-Abu Dhabi start talking to the UFC about hosting Fight Island?
“Fight Island is an expansion of our existing deal with the UFC. The idea came from [UFC president] Dana White in April and since then he started to talk to us as a partner in hosting this event in Abu Dhabi.
"As you know, Abu Dhabi has shown a great effort in how to contain the Covid-19 situation within the community and also showing a great demonstration of how to manage the crisis internally and externally.
"I think that made it easy for Dana White to pick Abu Dhabi. We definitely said Abu Dhabi can welcome anyone, and that you can come and check the protocols – we’re confident we can make it.
"It started this way, with the partnership that we have and it moved forward until we reached this exciting moment to host it here and see it in real life here.”
Where exactly will Fight Island take place?
“The event will be hosted in a safe zone on Yas Island. The fights will take place at one of the island’s existing arenas, which will be confirmed very soon.
"We have created a safe zone to first ensure the safety and well being of all the fighters, coaches, UFC staff and all the other 2,500 personnel working on this project.
"The zone will be open only to the UFC fighters, coaches and staff, in addition to local staff who are essential to the operation.
"We want to guarantee the highest level of safety possible for everyone involved. All staff and teams on the ground will be tested before the event to further enhance the level of safety and comfort surrounding the event.
"It’s also worth mentioning the more than 2,500 personnel - all the government entities, the maintenance team, cleaning staff, everyone else - will be living in this safe zone for around a month."
Abu Dhabi has an agreement with UFC to bring title fights to the emirate every year. Does that extend to Fight Island?
“The fight cards are still in the building process with the UFC team and as soon as we get them we’ll announce them.
"We would like to ensure UFC fans that we are committed to delivering the best, which means that we will have top 10-ranked fighters fighting here on Fight Island.
"Within the relationship and the partnership with UFC, we have always committed to bringing the top fighters here. This will not be different.”
The UFC has since announced UFC 251 will feature three title bouts.
How will Fight Island impact Abu Dhabi’s plans to host another major UFC event later this year, if at all?
“As I said, Fight Island is just an expansion of the existing deal, so we will still have the other deal in place - we will still have a fight happening every year in Abu Dhabi.
"That’s scheduled this year, most probably in October. We have a five-year deal with the UFC, so this continues regardless of Fight Island.”
What challenges are there in staging an event of this type and of this magnitude?
“For us, it was crucial to be mindful of the current circumstances in our planning for this event, to make sure everyone involved is as safe and comfortable as possible.
"We had to conduct careful assessments and studies to make sure we could take on this responsibility and deliver a great event for everyone involved.
"And of course, the support we got from our partners and stakeholders across the public and private sector was great - this wouldn’t have been possible without them. So it’s a collective effort here, and I’m proud to see everyone here is working day and night to make this happen.”
The fighters, those associated and UFC staff will be arriving from around the world. Will there be a period of quarantine because of the pandemic?
“The protocol has not been confirmed yet. The safe zone will have all the facilities that will make everyone feel comfortable: the dining places - the restaurants - will be open for them, also the public beaches, golf courses and other areas besides the hotels they’re living in.
"So they can easily move around the safe zone and enjoy every single space in that zone. It’s just a normal life, but within that UFC bubble. That’s what we can call it.”
Khabib Nurmagomedov has a huge fan base in the country and the region. Will he compete in Abu Dhabi this year at Fight Island or in October?
"Khabib is one of the heroes of the sport and we would be delighted to have him back in Abu Dhabi once again.
"However, we defer to the UFC and the selection of fighters, as they are the experts in this area and we trust their ability to put on a great show for the fans.”
How has the feedback been from Dana White and the UFC about the work done thus far for Fight Island?
“Our relationship and partnership with UFC is more than what people can see in a fight, or two fights.
"We have a great synergy between the team in the US and here in Abu Dhabi. I’m sure a lot of people have seen the octagon on the beach, and everyone is saying it will be a fight on the open beach and that’s what they’re expecting.
"However, a fight is a fight wherever it is, and we want to make sure the environment is safe and comfortable for the fighters.
"So I think the guys there are more than satisfied with what they have seen from us. The experience last year was great. The buzz was high and the UFC were very happy with the results. I think that’s why they picked Abu Dhabi for the first Fight Island in UFC history.”
This marks another landmark moment in Abu Dhabi’s history of hosting elite-level sport. How proud are you to be able to again showcase the capital?
“Our hosting of Fight Island at this time demonstrates Abu Dhabi’s tremendous capabilities to host world-class events; unrivalled standards, even when faced with challenges such as the current circumstances.
"It’s a good promotion for Abu Dhabi, at a time when the crisis is happening everywhere, people are seeing events are not coming back very soon.
"We have seen a couple of sports return around the world, but not a major international event that takes place in any of the destinations.
"We are really happy to see this happening here and we are proud that Abu Dhabi today is capable to handle such an event during this whole situation, with all the travel restrictions that come with that, across the world.
"I think Abu Dhabi will change perceptions and will put the new standards of travelling again.”
Given the current restrictions, there won’t be any spectators in attendance at the events. What can those fans watching on television expect, in terms of production?
“The event plays a key part within our tourism strategy and we believe it will benefit the Abu Dhabi brand worldwide in a great way.
"So for fans, the way they will see the fights through the screens will be as usual: the same fight, the same courage, the same excitement will remain, even without fans.
"In terms of the production and the quality, as you know we are always known as a world-class destination. Whatever we do in Abu Dhabi is always considered as that and we maintain these standards with all these events we do.”