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The UAE is investing heavily in cycling — but can we trust that its intentions are genuine?

While on the ground in Abu Dhabi, Chris Schwenker saw first-hand the commitment to health, fitness, and accessibility to cycling. But is it enough?

Before the first Abu Dhabi Tour, won by Orica-GreenEDGE's Esteban Chaves in 2015, the United Arab Emirates and cycling didn't occupy a place together on the World stage of consciousness of even the most informed bike racing fan.

Upon the announcement of UAE's initial foray into professional cycling, the man charged with organising the effort, Emirati Matar Suhail Al Yabhouni Al Dhaheri, foreshadowed the early position of the ruling family in a 2017 Cyclist interview.

A glimpse into the future

"Our leadership is encouraging us to try this sport," he said to Andy Sherwood. "They are opening eyes to something healthy, cheap, and easy to do."

The region is known for many things that the sport's traditionalists brustle to consider when mentioned alongside the cobbled paths of Europe or the storied climbs of the Tour de France. 

The flat expanses of open roads radiating with desert heat are an unlikely setting for a narrative woven into the fabric of cycling history. The absence of a rich cycling heritage presents less of a barrier to acceptance than the perceived motives for hosting professional and international events in the eyes of many.

Fast forward to the January 25th press conference in Abu Dhabi to announce the nation's growing partnership with the UCI and virtual cycling platform MyWhoosh, when UAE Team Emirates principal Mauro Gianetti remarked, "What they are doing here is remarkable, and our goal is to not only win races, but show the world how the UAE promotes the sport of cycling, and to find the first Emirati Tour de France rider."

The Abu Dhabi and Dubai Tours merged in 2019 to become the UAE Tour, which departed on its sixth edition on February 19, shortly after the second UAE Women's Tour concluded. The results are slowly gaining significance, moving beyond being a mere footnote in the afterglow of the Tour Down Under, albeit somewhat overshadowed by the excitement surrounding the upcoming Spring Classics.

Before my visit in late January 2024 as a guest of MyWhoosh, the UCI's chosen host for the Cycling Esports World Championships for the next three years, I had limited knowledge of the emirate. However, as I prepared for the trip, I realised that my simplistic and provincial view was evolving, revealing the potential for alternative perspectives and opening my eyes to inequities I couldn't overlook.

The UAE prioritises a healthy lifestyle and accessibility

The UAE prioritises the health and wellness of its citizens, particularly in Dubai, which aims to be one of the world's fittest cities. With numerous gyms, training facilities, and community sporting events, like cycling tours, triathlons and fun runs, the government promotes an active lifestyle for all its residents. 

Founded in 1971, the UAE is progressing on a path to becoming one of the most liberal and progressive nations in the Gulf region, distinguishing itself from other Middle Eastern countries in various aspects. In 2020, the UAE normalised relations with Israel, facilitating business ties, direct flights, scientific collaboration, and eventual full diplomatic relations at the ambassadorial level. 

The first Indian diaspora inauguration in Abu Dhabi on February 13, 2024, underscored the robust relationship between the countries, culminating in an almost decade-long process embraced by both nations as a sign of the growing relationship. 

In February 2021, the UAE achieved a significant milestone by becoming the fifth country to reach Mars and the second to enter its orbit on the first attempt successfully. 

A progressive culture vs. fundamental freedom concerns

However, reports of kidnapping, spousal abuse, homophobia and intolerance indicate a record of human rights violations, casting doubt on the notion of progressiveness.

According to the U.S. Department of State, there are significant human rights concerns, including reports of arbitrary arrests, political prisoners, and unlawful government intrusion on privacy. Restrictions on free expression, media, and internet freedom are notable, along with limitations on peaceful assembly and association. 

Citizens face challenges in changing their government through fair elections, and there are restrictions on political participation and harassment of human rights organisations. Laws against consensual same-sex relations and limitations on workers' freedom of association further compound these issues.

The international spread of sports like the Olympics, football, Formula One, boxing, and cycling into repressive regimes across West Asia, China, Russia, and the Middle East raises questions about the responsibility of governing bodies and the potential for deflecting from poor human rights records. 

The sportswashing dichotomy

In recent years, "sportswashing" has emerged as a prominent trending term in cycling commentary, particularly concerning oil-rich Persian Gulf states' substantial investments in teams, events, and athletes. Critics argue that these investments serve to improve their reputations and divert attention from human rights issues. 

> Is cycling's 'sportswashing' debate too big to ignore?

However, a closer look reveals more nuanced and strategic motivations behind these investments. The UAE, for instance, aims to diversify its economy away from oil dependence, drive societal change, and bolster its global influence and political standing through sports investments and hosting international events.

The country is dedicated to bolstering its technological focus and fostering new sectors to reduce reliance on a declining oil economy. The UAE’s non-oil trade approached $1 trillion in 2023, with a rise in non-oil trade of 12.6% in 2022. The nation’s 2021 Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreements (CEPAs) include a multi-faceted approach to economic diversification.

The endemic influence of state-funded enterprise

First Abu Dhabi Bank stands as the largest lender in the UAE. The bank's significant stakes held by the government and ruling family create a blurred line between state and private enterprise. 

Investors in the virtual cycling platform MyWhoosh include the asset-holding company IHC Group. Chimera Investments LLC acquired the Italian bike manufacturer Colnago in 2020. IHC Group and Chimera Investments LLC are subsidiaries of Royal Group, a conglomerate with connections to the UAE royal family.

The group has funded the men’s and women’s WorldTour Team Emirates since 2017. In addition to the UCI Cycling Esports World Championships, the UAE will also host the 2024 UCI Urban Cycling World Championships, the 2028 UCI Road World Championships, the 2028 UCI Gran Fondo World Championships, and the 2029 UCI Track World Championships. 

The ubiquitous influence of Emirati money in pro cycling is controversial, but the significant investment in community-based cycling programs and infrastructure is largely unknown or overlooked. 

Leading the fitness revolution is Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed, widely regarded as one of the most influential leaders in the Arab world, who also reportedly happens to be an avid cyclist, and members of his close inner circle are competitors on MyWhoosh. The ruling family shares a deep love for the sport and makes strategic financial decisions aimed at generating tangible impact and returns. Moreover, they are dedicated to promoting health, wellness, and fitness within their community, reflecting their passion for fostering a healthier lifestyle. 

Diversity, authoritarianism, progress and challenges

The region's wealth has attracted a unique population, nearly 90% comprising noncitizens. Among them are hundreds of thousands of expatriates from Western countries, whose influence permeates various aspects of daily life, from English street signs to live American music in local restaurants.

However, most are migrant workers from countries such as India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and other parts of the Middle East and Africa. They predominantly occupy low-skilled positions but play a vital role in sustaining the country's infrastructure behind its polished exterior. 

Roughly 90 percent of the UAE's population comprises noncitizens who do not possess political rights or electoral opportunities, including thousands of stateless residents. Yet, the remarkably low rates of homelessness, unemployment and crime were unlike anything I had seen in other cities I've visited.

Ultimately, the UAE remains an authoritarian state where the emir of Abu Dhabi assumes the country's presidency by default. This centralised structure facilitates significant investments, including professional cycling and infrastructure, but constrains democratic processes.

Investment in community cycling infrastructure is undeniable 

Stepping off the plane and into a cab bound for the hotel, what I saw was surprising, further reinforcing why the UCI chose Abu Dhabi as the first city in the Middle East to receive the prestigious "Bike City" designation in 2021. Abu Dhabi joined established cycling destinations steeped in the tradition that the emirate covets, including Bergen in Norway, Copenhagen, Glasgow in Scotland, Paris, Vancouver in Canada, and Yorkshire in England.

At first glance, the influence of oil wealth is evident, with fuel prices cheap, roads wide, and urban sprawl seemingly creeping outward from the city limits while you watched. As we drove, I noticed miles of dedicated bike paths lined the highways, making me smile, tending to subjectively judge the sensibilities of a municipality by how well it cares for its cyclists. Runners, cyclists, and leisurely strollers were enjoying the network of protected bikeways. 

Many had rented bikes to explore the Corniche bike track that runs along the waterfront stretching from the harbour to the Presidential Palace. There are plans for a 109km Abu Dhabi loop connecting the main attractions and cultural landmarks and another linking Abu Dhabi with Dubai. 

The UAE has poured a reported $460 million into cycling infrastructure, with almost 300 miles of dedicated-use tracks and bikeways in place or under construction.

As we sat for lunch the following day, preparing for the 45-minute bus trip out of the city to take a ride on one of them, the Al Wathba cycle track, I overheard one of our hosts from MyWhoosh remark, "There's some great racing there."

A thriving grassroots amateur UAE racing scene

It wasn't hard to pick him out as the flahute in the group. The accent betrayed his decade in the Belgian Continental pro peloton and experience as a team manager. The sharpened pitch of his voice made it clear that his excitement matched my eagerness to learn about an amateur racing scene that I didn't know existed.

The top-down development of competitive cycling in the UAE is under significant scrutiny from observers who see it as more of an investment in public image. A thriving grassroots amateur cycling calendar supported by the Abu Dhabi Sports Council contradicts this view, particularly if you subscribe to the notion that you should take the pulse and temperature of a country's cycling program at the ground level.  

He described it as a good mix of Emiratis and expats growing in numbers and expertise each year and very competitive on certain levels. The season runs from September to April, with around two to three monthly early morning (6-7am start time) races attracting about 150 riders throughout the categories and age groups. 

In addition, there's a full calendar of non-competitive group rides, triathlons, and running events organised by promotors like PremierOnline, Hopasports, and SuperSportsUAE.

Purpose-built cycling tracks and amenities 

Most races are on cycling tracks purpose-built in Abu Dhabi and Dubai, like Al Wahtba, Hudayritya Island, and Al Qudra. The highways and roads are closed for bigger events like the Abu Dhabi Gran Fondo, Ride Ajman, and Spinneys92, a UCI Gran Fondo Qualifier.

Some races incorporate the main climbs of Jebel Hafeet in Al Ain, featuring a 12km ascent with 8-9% average gradients, and Jebel Jais in Ras Al Khaimah, offering a 20km climb with an average gradient of 5%. The Liwa (Moreeb Dune) and Hatta areas also offer unique desert scenery, with numerous challenging dunes to climb.

The 30km of Al Wahtba's illuminated track and well-equipped changing facility with showers, free to use 24-7, was an avid cyclist's oasis in the middle of miles of desert. However, the novelty of the unchanging and understimulating vista was less appealing than imagining the potential of a safe and accessible place to train when visiting Abu Dhabi. 

The unbroken crosswinds dissecting the winding track could indeed make for tough and tactical racing. The team dynamic, race promotion, organisation, and licence and fee structure were consistent with my experience as an amateur racer in the States. What our hosts had in store for us the next day was not.

Unique cycling opportunities are commonplace in Abu Dhabi

The thrill of riding a bike on a famous Formula 1 track is a once-in-a-lifetime cycling experience like no other. In Abu Dhabi, residents and tourists can ride the Yas Marina Circuit on borrowed bikes for free several mornings and evenings a week. 

UAE cycling on track - Christopher Schwenker
Felix Lowe

While our amped-up group of cycling journalists tried to poach Philippe Gilbert's hot lap KOM from Stage 4 of the 2015 Abu Dhabi Tour, an estimated 1,000 riders, runners, and walkers, ranging from families to the performance-focused, enjoyed the thrill of the undulating 7km loop through the cavernous grandstands as music played in the background. It was a singular scene that was foreign to a New England native.

The significance of our final destination, Al Hudayriyat Island, is its distinctive impact on the future of cycling in the UAE. A 10-km cycling track stretches over the water alongside views of the city's skyscraper skyline, and onshore winds add a challenging element to the flat terrain. The island is designed for sports and beach activities and boasts the world's longest ride at Kelly Slater's new wave pool. 

It is the site of the Velodrome construction scheduled for completion in 2025, a bike shop, a Colnago store with high-end equipment for sale and vintage Tour de France bikes on display, and the home of the Abu Dhabi Cycling Club. 

Abu Dhabi Cycling Club Is key to UAE’s acceptance in the cycling world

The free club coordinates public and sports cycling events in the emirate in collaboration with the government to develop cycling activities, encourage participation, and direct investment, and it might hold the key to UAE's future acceptance as a cycling nation—finding the first Emirati Tour de France rider. 

As a government-supported club, it is responsible for representing the community's voice. It collaborates with government entities such as municipalities and urban planning to address public needs and improve existing infrastructure, making it safer and more accessible to boost participation.

The Abu Dhabi Cycling Club organises 22 events per season to encourage cyclists of all levels to participate in the community. Participation numbers are steadily increasing with a focus on infrastructure investment and sports leadership. Emphasizing youth engagement, the club creates teams that compete locally, with 70% of its 90 riders between 11 and 18. The primary goal is to inspire and motivate the younger generation to develop a passion for cycling and enjoy the sport.

Youth development brings international cycling success

They are beginning to see success, with several talented U23 riders joining the UAE Team Emirates Generation Z Continental Team and two female riders a part of the UAE Team Emirates ADQ Development Team.

22-year-old Safiya Al Sayegh is the first Emirati woman and only the second rider from the country to qualify for the road race at the Olympic Games, and she will represent the UAE in Paris. Visa and Emirates NBD partnered to sponsor Safiya Al Sayegh for the games and initiatives to foster health and fitness.

Professional contracts, Olympics, Tour de France selections, and massive infrastructure investments may not be enough to convince the world that the Emiratis' intentions are pure.

The nuance of sportswashing, sanctimony and over-simplification

It's crucial not to overlook the sportswashing aspect when acknowledging these initiatives, particularly considering the region's concerning human rights record. Whether the critics see the UAE's investment in professional cycling as a part of the country's economic diversification plan or an ill-conceived attempt to gloss over the reported human abuses and gender inequality, the tangible attempts to engage all ages and aspects of the community in cycling and fitness adds nuance to the underlying motivations.

While most human rights indices acknowledge slight improvement in recent years, there's no excuse for tolerating unethical behaviour, but we must be careful not to over-simplify the issue or refuse to see what others witness first-hand when exploring the region. 

It causes sanctimonious cycling fans to be skeptical of the UCI's globalisation of cycling and the UAE's involvement. This debate challenges the notion that competitions should only be held in countries with clean records, highlighting that even democracies face human rights issues. For many fans, delving into these complexities may not produce a satisfactory outcome and shine light into their glass houses.

When observing the issue from different political viewpoints, it's debatable that many major cycling nations have questionable human rights records. For example, the United States has faced criticism for its treatment of child migrants at the southern border by The United Nations Office of the High Commissioner. The pendulum swings in both directions.

The globalisation debate and broader impact of cycling investment

Can cycling afford to miss the opportunity to inspire the next generation of youth, who are the lifeblood of the sport's sustainability and who desperately need examples of a healthy lifestyle, while exposing the human beauty of the racers and the spectacle of the events to the next wave of fans in emerging countries?

Most, if not all, sports sponsorship, marketing, and promotion efforts aim to enhance image and appeal. However, when investment is a manipulation of a country's "soft power," utilising culture and social values to influence public opinion, it transitions from marketing to propaganda, blurring the lines between genuine allure and strategic influence. 

> “Our sport will wither and die if we refuse these sponsors”: Sportswashing and pro cycling’s carbon footprint discussed

What drives a state to prioritise heavy investment in an expansive network of dedicated cycling tracks and bike paths, optimise accessibility to health and fitness opportunities, nurture grassroots racing and youth development, and provide funding for a virtual cycling platform, even as high-profile events and pro teams garner more attention, potentially proving greater value when distracting from underlying issues? 

Tadej Pogacar and fan - credit UAE Team Emirates
UAE Team Emirates

Approaching the situation with an open mind and a preclusion for pursuing the dichotomy of the issue, observing Tadej Pogacar that night, tasked with the tremendous burden of showcasing UAE cycling to the world, simply wanting to ride and joke with young members of the Abu Dhabi Cycling Club, underscores the significance of asking the questions.

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A physical therapist with over 25 years of experience, Christopher Schwenker is on a journey to give back to the cycling community for rewarding experiences and fulfilling relationships through the pages of his virtual cycling blog, The He rode his bike across the US in 2022 to raise awareness of his cycling-related non-profit, The DIRT Dad Fund. 

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don simon fbpe | 4 months ago

People would be surprised at how green the Arab states are. They can afford the latest technologies and are aware that oil won't last forever.

Dogless replied to don simon fbpe | 4 months ago

I'm not certain it's the claims of greenness that people find so difficult to swallow. More the treatment of women, immigrants, homosexals etc etc etc.

cyclisto replied to don simon fbpe | 4 months ago
Rendel Harris replied to don simon fbpe | 4 months ago
1 like

don simon fbpe wrote:

People would be surprised at how green the Arab states are. They can afford the latest technologies and are aware that oil won't last forever.

Super, I'm sure the homosexuals being tortured with electrical shocks to their genitals are delighted to know that the electricity is carbon neutral.

ROOTminus1 replied to don simon fbpe | 4 months ago
don simon fbpe wrote:

People would be surprised at how green the Arab states are. They can afford the latest technologies and are aware that oil won't last forever.

A façade of ecological consideration on a fundamentally unsustainable development? That's Greenwashing!

a1white | 4 months ago

"Founded in 1971, the UAE is progressing on a path to becoming one of the most liberal and progressive nations in the Gulf region,"

Also in the UAE:
Homosexuality is illegal and is a crime that is punishable with death, life in prison, floggings, fines, deportation, chemical castration, forced psychological treatments, honor killings, vigilante executions, beatings forced anal examinations, forced hormone injections and torture.

the little onion replied to a1white | 4 months ago

It is "one of the most liberal and progressive nations in the Gulf region" - but the competition isn't particularly strong.

Dogless | 4 months ago

What a well thought out and considered piece. We can tell it's not just promo for the UAE because it spends at least one sentence recognising that maybe the UAE isn't entirely perfect. Lucky that was in there or it would come across as a bit of churnalism for an oppressive regime. 

From Human Rights Watch:

"The United Arab Emirates (UAE) invests in a strategy to paint the country as progressive, tolerant, and rights-respecting while carrying out repression against dissent. Many activists and dissidents remain detained for exercising their rights to free expression and association. Prisons hold detainees in dismal conditions, including overcrowding and lack of adequate medical care. The UAE deploys advanced surveillance technologies to monitor public spaces, internet activity, and individuals’ phones and computers. The government blocks international human rights organizations and UN experts from independently conducting in-country research. The Saudi and UAE-led coalition continue their military campaign against the Houthi armed group in Yemen which has included unlawful airstrikes that have killed and wounded thousands of civilians."

Rendel Harris | 4 months ago

I'm quite surprised that have published this piece, which to my eyes looks more or less like a promo for UAE with a couple of brief and rather equivocal mentions of human rights thrown in to give a spurious impression of balance. It's also extremely badly written: honestly, what does a sentence like "Approaching the situation with an open mind and a preclusion for pursuing the dichotomy of the issue" actually mean? Total word salad.

the little onion replied to Rendel Harris | 4 months ago

"Brutal and repressive autocratic state builds cycle lanes" should be the headline. I wonder if indentured quasi-slave labour was used to build these cycle lanes

jaymack replied to the little onion | 4 months ago

It doesn't take much thought to arrive at the correct answer: yes.

the little onion | 4 months ago

please never use the word "ex-pat". The correct term is "immigrant"

ROOTminus1 replied to the little onion | 4 months ago

Interesting that there isn't a more thorough breakdown of the population by class/caste; 10% citizens, ?% guest immigrants, and ??% worker immigrants.

brooksby replied to the little onion | 4 months ago

Ex-pats are "the right chaps" whereas immigrants are just foreigners coming over here. I think that's right, anyway. "Ex-pat" does rather evoke images involving a panama and a linen suit 

ROOTminus1 replied to brooksby | 4 months ago
brooksby wrote:

"Ex-pat" does rather evoke images involving a panama and a linen suit 

How romantic. It conjures images of beer-guts, borderline skin cancer, Daily Mail, and fish and chips on the Costa del Sol to my mind.
Not sure they're "the right chaps" the UAE want to attract

brooksby replied to ROOTminus1 | 4 months ago

ROOTminus1 wrote:
brooksby wrote:

"Ex-pat" does rather evoke images involving a panama and a linen suit 


How romantic. It conjures images of beer-guts, borderline skin cancer, Daily Mail, and fish and chips on the Costa del Sol to my mind. Not sure they're "the right chaps" the UAE want to attract

Maybe I was being overly romantic - more Graham Greene and less Benidorm...  4

jaymack | 4 months ago

The UAE is investing heavily in cycling — but can we trust that its intentions are genuine? Well the UAE's intention is to sports wash its reputation for repression and enslavement. So, as long as you accept that's their motivation, then answer to the question is 'yes'. The real question is should cycling take the money? I know what Gordon Gekko would say, I just don't agree.

the little onion | 4 months ago

"prioritises the health and wellness of its citizens,"

Whilst large numbers of non-citizens are kept in near-slavery...

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