Sailing has long been enshrined in the heritage of Gulf countries, from the pearl divers of Dubai to the fishermen of Muscat. Over the past decade, Oman in particular has been focused on building on that rich history and creating a new seafaring legacy, with Oman Sail taking the lead.
Tasked with inspiring a new generation of enthusiasts, Oman Sail has encouraged Catamarans, Lasers and Finns to join the Sultanate’s iconic dhows; participation has grown and sailing is now even part of the curriculum in Omani schools.
It is a source of pride for Oman Sail, whose remit has evolved dramatically since its inception. Beginning with the goal of increasing awareness of sailing, the organisation now also works in tandem with the Ministry of Tourism and the Ministry of Sport Affairs to promote the Sultanate around the world, while continuing to provide long-term learning opportunities for the youth of Oman.
It has even stepped beyond sailing, helping to organise and market other sporting events in Oman – including high-profile cycling and running races.
David Graham, CEO of Oman Sail since 2009, has worked hard with his team to develop Oman’s approach to sports tourism – bringing prestigious events to the Sultanate and growing the association of the country globally with sailing and other sports.
“What I’ve seen over the last 10 years is that sport is becoming more of a day to day part of life for Omanis,” Graham tells Sport Industry Insider. “We have played a role, but that’s not just due to our efforts. Our approach has been like that of any professional athlete; to improve you must be patient and dedicated – there are no quick fixes. The people who put in the long hours get the success and that is what we are seeing now.
“We took that attitude early on and, from a sporting point of view, we are making great progress and are on track. That all started with a focus on youth. The athletes that started in our youth programme are now developing into the senior programme. These efforts are beginning to bear fruit.”
Maritime pursuits remain at the heart of Oman Sail’s approach, with the Muscat-based company working tirelessly to encourage young people to take up sailing and hone their skills. It has become more accessible, with children as young as six able to learn sailing in school and achieve points as part of the national curriculum.
“Our youth sailors are the best in the region, and in Asia, we are medalling at the events,” Graham explains. “Globally, we are getting remarkable results, in particular the Optimist World Championship in Antigua. The bottom of the triangle is filling up. We are putting all the building blocks in place to make it possible and making all our sports stars better.”
Young Omanis now don’t have to look too far from their own towns and villages to be inspired. In 2009, Muscat native Mohsin Al Busaidi shot to fame when he became the first ever Arab to sail non-stop around the world, while The Wave, Muscat – the Extreme Sailing team – made history, winning two successive Extreme Sailing Series championships in 2012 and 2013.
Two years later, Musandam-Oman Sail broke a 20-year record by completing the Round Ireland speed challenge in a time of in 40 hours and 51 minutes – shaving almost four hours off the previous best. Success is coming thick and fast, with Oman Sail also claiming an impressive recent victory in the third round of the 2019 GC32 Racing Tour in Spain.
“The first thing we did when we came back from Spain was to show our appreciation that it’s not just us, it’s a joint effort with the Ministry of Sport Affairs,” Graham insists. “We went to give the trophy and have a photograph with the Undersecretary of the Ministry of Sports Affairs, His Excellency Rashad bin Ahmed Al Hinai. We have a solid relationship together. We work with the Ministry directly and then with the other associations in other sports.”
The ideal sailing conditions in Oman have attracted a number of high-profile events over the past 10 years, including the America’s Cup in 2016 and the Extreme Sailing Series in 2017.
Exposure to elite events, coupled with the significant work being carried out at youth level, means Oman Sail has its sights set on bringing an Olympic medal back to the Sultanate. But even if a medal is not achieved at Tokyo 2020, Graham believes their crowning moment is closer than ever before.
“We said at the beginning of the Oman Sail journey that we will get to the Olympics on our own merit in 2020. We have two classes that are possible for Tokyo 2020: the 49er and the Laser. In the 49er, Musab al Hadi and Waleed al Kindi are competing, and in the Laser we have Hussain al Awasi.
“They have between now and March to make sure they are ready for the last qualifier in Abu Dhabi. There are two more slots up for grabs in the Olympics for the Laser category and one more slot to clinch in the 49er.
“If it doesn’t happen for Tokyo, it won’t knock us off track. We’ll lick our wounds and get ready for Paris 2024. We started from zero ten years ago and we are constantly getting better.”
Away from the ocean, Oman’s soaring mountains and varied terrain have made the Sultanate an increasingly popular destination for adventure travellers. And Oman Sail has played a major role in launching some exciting new sports categories to take competitors deeper inland.
Three years ago, Oman Sail helped organise the Al Mouj Muscat Marathon, growing it from a club event with Muscat Road Runners to a leading marathon in the Middle East with over 8,000 runners competing in 2019. And, in January 2020, it is set to become an official qualifying event for the London Marathon, establishing itself on the global marathon calendar.
“That marathon wouldn’t be where it is without His Excellency Yoonis Yaqoob Issa Al Siyabi, President of the Oman Athletic Association. They’ve given their utmost support and do excellent work to keep the interest high,” said Graham. “Now the commercial side is also going very well. The event has reached sustainability so it doesn’t need the ministry to put any more money into it. From a financial stand point, it’s sustainable.
“One of the big successes that we see is that the number of the Omanis competing. Fifty per cent of the field was run by Omani nationals which is a great achievement and hopefully that can continue and grow in future years.
“Principally, the objective is all about sports tourism and participation of international athletes coming over and using running as an excuse to visit Oman. It doesn’t cost us any extra to push the local element so we’ve pushed that very hard.”
To further underline their success, Oman Sail acquired the exclusive Middle East license to launch the first ever Oman by UTMB trail running event in November 2018. The race saw over 300 athletes tackle a gruelling 130km course through the heart of the stunning Al Hajar mountain range.
The inaugural edition was even hailed by National Geographic as the ‘world’s toughest adventure race’.
It is set for a comeback on November 29 of this year with an even more challenging 170km course for the elite runners, plus the original 130km and a 50km adaptation. The UTMB Chamonix event – which starts on Monday – is widely regarded as one of the most difficult foot races in the world, and Graham admits Oman looks to learn from its sister race.
“The Chamonix event is our big inspiration. It is a famous mountain and the one event everyone is going to, but let’s try and get our trail run in the top five in the world first. According to the president of the International Trail Running Association Nadeem Khan, our event has got everything it needs to be there,” said Graham.
“The three things we put it down to is the mountains and scenery. The second thing is when people come to Oman is they want to come, because the local people make them feel welcome. The third things is to make sure it’s a well run event. The controllables for us is making sure athlete experience is good and accommodates what the athletes want.”
The dramatic heights of Jebel Shams and Jebel Akhdar are also an attractive prospect for ambitious cyclists, with Oman Sail expanding its event hosting capabilities to include the Middle East’s first ever installment of Haute Route Oman in March.
For all these burgeoning events, sponsorship is a must to help strengthen the brand as well as to attract more participants. And despite the difficulty of the current market, Graham has already secured long-term deals for the Haute Route Oman and the Oman by UTMB.
“Sponsorship is one of the easiest sources of income if you’re not in sponsorship. It’s one of those things that someone will say ‘just go and get a sponsor’ but the sponsorship world right now is tough and times are hard,” Graham explains.
“That said, we’ve secured multi-year deals for the Al Mouj Muscat Marathon and secured pretty significant franchise rights for Haute Route Oman and the Oman by UTMB. We are having very interesting conversations about the title position of the UTMB but we are yet to secure a headline sponsor. It is difficult but we will get there.”
Looking to the future, and alongside the many sailing goals, the Al Mouj Muscat Marathon is on track to become the top road marathon in the MENA region. Combined with exciting futures for Oman by UTMB and Haute Route Oman, there is great promise for further growth.
“The sports we are using are sports that will enable us to showcase the country, with events such as the marathon, sailing and trail running,” said Graham.
“Ideally, looking ahead, we would like to have an Omani national winning some of these events as well. That’s one of our big aims. We don’t want to go with hundreds of events. We want to work some sports and make these events world class.
“We have many sailing goals from women’s to senior events or even the Olympics. We want to win the GC32 class later this year. We have our eyes set on the offshore event as well, now that it is becoming an Olympic discipline.
“The Asian Championships for the Optimisms are on at the end of September in Oman. And we have World Championships, Olympic qualifiers and other high level events.”
All these key ambitions require plenty of hard work and patience but all are very much achievable as Oman Sail continues to dedicate itself to unlocking the Sultanate’s potential for sports tourism and sporting success.