Oman’s profile on sports has lagged behind that of some of its GCC peers. But as business and government see the benefits of bigger venues and better facilities, Team Y reports on how the Sultanate is making its presence felt both on and off the pitch.
We all saw it: the final moments of the Gulf Cup 2018 when Omani midfielder Mohsin al Khaldi took the winning penalty, banging it in the top corner of the net.
Backed by nearly 4.4 million television viewers, many of whom were from the Sultanate, it’s no secret that the nation shares a common passion for sports – even if the action is taking place thousands of miles away.
Perhaps it’s this level of enthusiasm that makes this country a prime candidate for international sporting events and elevating sports tourism in the Middle East – both expanding sectors that revolve around sports in and around the country.
Sure, Qatar can boast the 2022 FIFA World Cup and the UAE can grapple on about the 2019 Abu Dhabi Grand Prix, but Oman – a nation relatively new to the field – is catching up.
It’s a lucrative one too – and one that’s reportedly worth more than US$800 billion worldwide, according to Sheikh Khalid al Zubair, the head of the Oman Olympic Committee.
It’s little wonder, then, that Oman is lobbying hard and fast to tap into the rewards that it can bring. Be it in the field of endurance, horse and camel racing; football; karting and Formula Three; falconry; cricket; tennis, and the like; there’s a growing support from the government to assist such activities so that 1) Oman can excel at international sporting events and 2) we can bring international-level sporting events to the country.
Two very different goals but one specific target, and above all, one path to attain this dream – that’s what sets the tone for sports in the country.
Moreover, it’s also worth considering how Oman is increasingly snagging exclusive international events even as we’re only developing the infrastructure.
It’s a matter shared with us by Abid (name changed to protect identity), an official with the Ministry of Sports Affairs. He tells us: “Setting aside Qatar and the FIFA World Cup that they will be hosting in 2022, Oman lies as one of the few Mid-Eastern countries that is raking in international sports events even as our facilities are only developing to its full-fledged capacities.
“We can put it all down to the efforts of the Ministry of Sports Affairs and a joint friendship between the various sporting associations. It’s not easy to sell or market a country for sports without the infrastructure but Oman has been forging on without too many issues on that front.
“It’s all about making use of our existing knowledge of running sports events and then putting it to practical use.”
Abid’s words come as a stark conundrum: attaining world-class events without facilities.
But, he elaborates with an example: “Oman began its annual marathon on an international level back in 2009. It was organised by the Oman Athletic Association and in conjunction with the Muscat Municipality.
“It used to happen adjacent to the Oman International Exhibition Centre – not very suitable grounds for a marathon. Still, we clocked numbers as high as 1,500 or more that year.
“Following that, we realised that work must be done to work with private bodies to formulate a more successful marathon for the following years. And that’s what has changed the face of the Muscat Marathon today.”
Abid’s right: the current edition of the marathon has changed hands and is organised by the Muscat Road Runners and Al Mouj, and is supported by several top dog sponsors including Oman Sail and several others.
In fact, the numbers at the annual event that starts at the iconic Al Mouj strip has seen a sharp rise in the number of participants. In 2018, a surprising 6,094 runners of all ages from more than 87 nationalities took part, thereby turning it into the country’s largest sporting event.
“We make the best use of our existing resources,” says Abid. “That’s what has allowed us to grow from strength to strength.
“This means we’re not expending too many resources on events that won’t bring much attention. And that’s also led to a sustainable growth in the sporting sector and almost a 100 per cent usage of our resources.”
It’s a point that Ali al Mamri, a former football coach, believes in too.
He says: “The sports sector in Oman is untested waters for many investors, setting aside entities like Sabco Sports, the builders of the Al Amerat Cricket Stadium and other small-scale international event organisers coming in to set up events annually.
“That means it’s up to the government to spend a chunk of the money on facilities. Despite that, there’s no classification of sports tourism by the government as a money-making sector.
“But, even so, a real belief that Oman can host such high-profile events came after we pulled off hosting the 2010 Asian Beach Games – our greatest achievement in history.
“That’s when the Al-Mussanah Sports City came in to being – and it has changed the face of water sports here in the Sultanate.”
With a capacity of 5,000 participants and the availability of a 4-star hotel and other accommodation facilities, the Al-Mussanah Sports City still stands as a gem in the GCC for watersports.
Today, however, the property has been given some flak by the Ministry of Sports Affairs for sitting rather desolate, only coming alive on weekends to the sound of kids trying their hand at sailing, or during the sailing season that starts in February.
“But the facility is there and it’s ready for taking on an international event,” argues Ali, but not before accepting how a dearth of follow-up events has cost the nation millions of Riyals in losses.
Intrigued about how these facilities are being used in off-peak months, we visit prime spots such as the Sultan Qaboos Sports Complex (in Baushar), the Al Amerat Cricket Ground on weekends, the Al-Seeb Stadium, and the Al-Mussanah Sports City, over the first weekend in January.
Much to our surprise, we find that all the facilities are working to full capacity. In fact, we even have to resort to parking outside the premises at the Sultan Qaboos Sports Complex. With activities such as table tennis, tennis, football, and even volleyball taking place at full blast, there’s barely space for us to take part in any games – even as registered members.
This is also the case at the Al Amerat Cricket Ground, with a local match between two local teams – Passage to India and Al Turki – taking place during the morning hours. While the match isn’t jam-packed with spectators, the groundsman tells us how the pitches are booked for friendly matches on weekends.
Meanwhile, the Al-Mussanah sports complex is also teeming with folk looking to go sailing. More importantly, the grounds are also being prepared for the Mussanah Race Week 2019, which will start on February 20.
Add to the mix a new sports complex that’s expected to open doors soon to the public in Ibra, and we now have 10 such facilities for residents to participate in sports.
Furthermore, Oman’s premier sporting agency, SABCO Sports, is also taking a leap into the industry with its own set of events such as the Tough Mudder and the National Obstacle Series (NOS).
In an interview with Y, Nic Cartwright, the Managing Director of the company reveals: “SABCO Sports is making huge leaps when it comes to harbouring a wave of the youth sportsmen and women in the country.
“For this, we’ve signed up with the Ministry of Education (MoE) to provide sufficient training to students in football, an Olympic-style sporting event (which is yet to be underway), and the National Obstacle Series (NOS) that we host here.
“We’re also continuing on the Oman International Youth Cup for the second season, where we aim to find the best of the football stars on the field.
“Coming up with events of such nature – those that help get the people involved – is very important for the Sultanate.
“Not only does that give more opportunities to the people here for more fun events but it also improves the standing of the country, as it marks it as a sports destination. There’s still a long way to go but we’re slowly making progress,” he adds.
All of this, coupled with the Al Mouj Muscat Marathon (January 18-19), the EFG Sailing the Arabia Tour (February 2 onwards), Tour of Oman (February 16-21), and the famous Haute Route Oman – an international cycling event (March 1-3), means the first quarter of the year is booked to sports events. Another astounding feat is that Oman will play host to three International Table Tennis Federation (ITTF) tournaments this year.
Tim Burton, a British-born Emirati cyclist, says that he will probably take part in the Haute Route Oman in the mountains of Jebel Akhdar. He says: “It’s amazing to see how much Oman has come to terms with sports activities – especially cycling.
“I particularly love the terrain in Oman and I took part in the Tour of Oman a few years back. It’s well-suited for bicycle races and such events. Maybe that’s why the country gets two such events in one calendar year.
“Oman is playing to its strengths; not going down UAE or Bahrain’s route of spending billions of dollars on a racetrack for Formula One or flashy football stadiums to attract international games.
“The country knows what it’s lined up against and it makes sure to tap into territories that are unexplored. It’s a very, very clever tactic and I’d award full marks to the Omanis for that,” he adds.
As much as the praise goes, however, we’re forced to ask whether the Sultanate is still doing enough to attract enough international competitions.
“Yes and no,” says Abdul Sattar, a former football player for Oman and a sports analyst for 15 years in Oman. “Oman’s doing much better than it ever did in the past.
“So, some of the greatest achievements we can look back and pat ourselves in the back for in 2018 is hosting the ITTF World Junior Circuit (table tennis), the Al Mouj Muscat Marathon, and the Oman Sail events.
“And those were conducted to the utmost levels of determination. However, the question you ask – if there’s enough being done on our lands, is a good one. And the answer to that is difficult to put in one word.
“There are challenges, yes. But, Oman has done so well in eliminating some of those – such as foreseeing the economic challenges and making judicious steps in setting up new facilities, training new players for the country, keeping existing events going and upping their standards, and trying to bring new events with minimum overhead expenses.
“This is why we’re quite packed during our first season. We have several events that we’ve adopted over the last decade or so, and still continue to organise it year after year.
“But, there’s a big constraint when Oman is looked upon as a location for other events to come by. For instance, there’s no proper rally or race course in Oman so we cannot organise racing events. This also extends to sports such as cricket, which is huge in Asia.
“Oman has barely two stadiums to play cricket in, and it’s not enough to host larger tournaments like the UAE does. In fact, if you think about it, the greatest form of income from sports and sports tourism in the country would be from cricket.
“Just imagine how many people would turn up for an India vs. Pakistan match. We’d be looking at full houses like we see in the UAE or at the Indian Premier League (IPL) matches in India – and that’s what makes Oman’s prospects a bit weaker in the long run.
“All this talk of slow development and sustainability should have been done two decades ago. I’m not blaming any entity for incompetence. Oman is a relatively young country and its sporting history only dates back to 1982 when we headed to the Asian Games.
“Prior to that, we were more focused on local sports, such as camel and horse races, animal fighting (which doesn’t exist as much now), and falconry.
That’s why we have more horse race tracks than actual sports complexes.
“It’s obvious that we’ll need another five to 10 years before we can clock our maximum potential. This is also why Oman doesn’t define sports tourism in its annual economy report or in its GDP.”
“So, yes – we can safely say that we’re on the track to development but we’re not there yet.”
1) Al Mouj Muscat Marathon
The nation’s largest sporting event just got bigger for 2019. After an illustrious 2018 – with more than 6,094 runners taking part – this year’s event is pegged to be the biggest of its kind. The flag will be raised this weekend with eight different events to its name. It will include:
1) Marathon Relay
3) Half Marathon
4) 10K Run
5) Kids’ Run 3km
6) Kids’ Run 2km
7) Kids’ Run 1km
8) Charity Fun Run 5km
The event, which is in its eighth year, is being organised by Al Mouj, Muscat Road Runners, and in conjunction with Oman Sail and several other sponsors.
When: January 18-19, 2019
Where: Al Mouj Muscat
2) EFG Sailing Arabia The Tour
Essentially an Oman Sail initiative, the event will commence in Muscat and take a route that “showcases the beauty of the Sultanate”. This means enthusiasts will be sailing across seven venues, with three inport races, three coastal raids, and four offshore legs.
At RO9,710, the entry fee is not cheap – but we wouldn’t put a price on challenging rival teams in search of a gold medal.
When: February 2-16, 2019
Where: Across Oman
3) Tour of Oman
The Tour of Oman competition is one of the nation’s longest-running sporting events. Essentially a bicycle race that takes contestants through the troughs and crests of Oman’s mountains and wadis, there are huge stakes to be won at the annual competition. The event will take place over six stages and cover more than 914.5kms. Around 174 participants are slated to take part in the event this year.
When: February 16-21, 2019
Where: Across Oman
4) Haute Route Oman
Perhaps building on the fact that Oman’s terrain is built for bicycle races; Haute Route Oman gives you the chance to experience the pressures and struggles of a Tour of Oman contestant. Not only is the event open to the public but it also pits you against the steep 30-degree slopes of Jebel Akhdar and the underlying valleys.
Whether you can shun the pain and complete the race is up to you. But, this marks the start of a new era in the Sultanate, in which residents can take part in a bicycle race.
4) Oman Quadrangular Series
Bringing international T20 cricket into the Sultanate for the first time ever is Oman Cricket. The sport may still only be gaining traction in the country but with Oman’s now-mature team getting the ball rolling with a home advantage, and with Ireland, the Netherlands, and Scotland entering with little to no knowledge of the pitch conditions, there’s a chance for Oman to shine.
The fight will be tough but not impossible. Expect the stadiums to be packed with local spectators at the Al Amerat Cricket Ground.
Where: Al Amerat