By Steve Elling
Ernie Els pushed the cap back on his head, blinked, did a double-take and grinned.
As he mashed balls into the gloaming in Dubai a couple of years back, Els noticed a familiar face on the practice tee, one he hadn’t expected in such a far-flung locale.
That made it unanimous.
“What the hell are you doing here?” Els asked.
“To put it in terms that you, more than any other player, can understand,” I told the four-time major winner, summarizing the vanishing golf-related journalism in the U.S., “I’m here for the appearance fee.”
After covering the PGA Tour as a traveling beat writer for 12 years, I had taken a newspaper gig for a lucrative two years in Abu Dhabi, the capital of the United Arab Emirates, the nation in which sister city Dubai is located.
Westerners, especially European Tour golfers, still beat a steady trail over the winter months to the UAE, which hosts three of the tour’s elite events each year, including the big-money DP World Tour Championship in November.
This week, Dubai Desert Classic officials threw a few million dirhams in appearance money at former World No. 1 Tiger Woods, a two-time champion who – like many specialized tradesmen before him – frequently has exited the country with a bulging billfold. On Tuesday, Woods was required to partake in the annual pre-tourney publicity stunt, posing for shots at the landmark Burj Al Arab hotel, where he pounded balls into the Persian Gulf.
Three years earlier, in Abu Dhabi, organizers required Woods, Justin Rose and Rory McIlroy to pose for publicity shots alongside a camel, while drinking cups of traditional Arab coffee, which Woods slyly dumped behind his back when he thought nobody was watching.
The UAE, with one of the highest per capita incomes in the world, is a nuanced nation. For instance, Dubai’s metro rail has a stop at the gates of the Emirates Golf Club, which means thousands of expats will stream into the grounds over the first three days. Not so much on Sunday, however. In the Arab world, the workweek runs Sunday through Thursday. Crowds shrink for the final round, on a workday.
Few natives in the traditional dishdasha line the gallery, which is mostly composed of Brits, continental Europeans, Scandinavians, Indians and a smattering of Yanks. That’s hardly a surprise. Of the country’s 9.3 million residents, only 1.4 million are native-born Emiratis.
Expats dominate the professional jobs, and those working in the UAE frequently are asked the same two questions from acquaintances who have not been to the region:
1. What’s it like over there?
2. Weren’t you afraid you’d get blown to bits?
As to the second part, there’s no safer place on the planet, really. Nobody is allowed permanent residence in the UAE without first securing a job, so there’s no unemployment, and everybody receives free medical coverage. Guns and ammo are banned. Drug sentences are lengthy. The numerous and well-funded police patrol in Lamborghinis, McLarens, Bentleys and Maseratis to catch wealthy speeders. Nobody pays taxes. Woods, McIlroy and their brethren surely like that part best.
Stereotypical assumptions about Middle East terrorism do not apply. With Dubai trying mightily to diversify its oil-based economy and position itself as a world vacation spot, violence isn’t an issue. The native Emiratis have become the most contented residents in the Arab world, drawing huge salaries as their share of the billions in oil revenues. Emirati-born schoolteachers make more than $100,000 annually.
Sharp eyes will notice some differences on this week’s telecast from Western tour sites: portable mosques set up for fans, with the recorded call to prayer broadcast five times per day via loudspeaker, wafting over the desert during tournament rounds.
Players staying at five-star Western hotels overlooking the Persian Gulf will be relatively insulated from the culture, though some local conventions merit observing. Six years ago, Woods generated headlines in Dubai when, after a poor putt, he spat contemptuously, a no-no in the Arab world. He drew a fine and rebuke from the European Tour.
The UAE tournaments surely lose money, but officials are all about putting global eyes on the product as an inducement to attract well-heeled travelers. Thus, Woods’ appearance fee this week represents a mere drop in the oil barrel.
Money doesn’t grow on trees in the UAE, but it might gush out of the ground with a deep-enough divot. That largesse results in three of the European circuit’s best events.
Steve Elling has written about golf for the Orlando Sentinel, CBSSports.com, The National in Abu Dhabi and several other U.S. newspapers, websites and magazines. He lives in Orlando, Fla.