Colm McLoughlin is the executive vice chairman and CEO of Dubai Duty Free and has played an integral role in the development of the emirate as a tourist hub over the past 35 years. The Irishman has led the way with sporting sponsorship of events in the UAE and abroad, and here talks exclusively to Sport Industry Insider about the role sport has played in both his business and personal life.

My two brothers both played international rugby for Ireland.
When we were children we all played Gaelic football and hurling, but rugby was probably the most important sport in our lives. We played for our hometown and the college we went to but I gave up when I was 18. My brothers, however, both went on to play for Ireland. Ray captained the team and he also played in three British and Irish Lions tours. I’ve always been very proud of my brothers’ achievements.

I still follow Irish sport from afar, the passion will always be there.
County Galway is my neck of the woods so naturally I like to see the Galway teams doing well. They won the All-Ireland Hurling Championship last year and this year I watched the final in my daughter’s house in Brighton – unfortunately Limerick won this time. However, there was something really good to come out of the final. JP McManus – who most people know for his involvement in horse racing – is a big supporter of Limerick hurling and Gaelic football. JP’s a great man and he showed that again by giving €3.2m to the Gaelic Athletic Association, which will be shared out to support the sporting communities. An incredible gesture.

I played squash regularly until the age of 54.
But then decided to call it a day to focus on my golf. For many years I competed in the squash league in Dubai and I even sat on top of the ladder at one stage! We used to play at Le Meridien hotel back in the 1980s and 1990s – it was a thriving community of players. I also remember further back than that playing in the County Clare squash tournament in 1973. A fellow called Costello thrashed me in the final. These things stay with you. I still have the squash racket outside my front door but it’s now mainly for swatting wasps.

My wife once sang to Danish golfer Soren Kjeldsen.
And unsurprisingly he’s never forgotten it! I played with him in a pro-am many years ago and went through the normal introductions on the tee. But rather than say hello, Breeda decided to sing Soren an Irish folk song that mentions the Danes coming to Ireland. It was very funny to watch and Soren didn’t really know what to say. 10 years later he played in the Dubai Duty Free Irish Open at Royal County Down and I went over to say hello. He hadn’t seen me in a decade but the first thing he said was “where’s that crazy singing lady?” Since then we always try to play with Soren at the pro-am events. He’s a fantastic golfer and person too.

I was there when the president of Pakistan opened Emirates Golf Club.
It’s difficult to imagine now with the Marina skyline that Emirates Golf Club was once literally an oasis in the desert. Before that we played golf on sand and you had to hit off a little patch of astro turf you carried around with you. Rather than ‘please repair the greens’, the signs read ‘please brush the browns’. Golf has grown up so much in the time we’ve been here and now we can see just how important the inauguration of Emirates GC was for the development of Dubai as a sporting and tourist destination. I remember it well – parachutists came out of the sky and presented the Pakistani president [Zia-ul-Haq] with a gold-shafted driver to hit the first drive off a golden tee.

Sport and business go hand in hand for Dubai Duty Free.
We started Dubai Duty Free in 1983 and I remember speaking to His Highness Sheikh Mohammed, who was Minister of Defence at that time. He said he wanted us to be part of the promotion of Dubai and of the airport. Since then we’ve spent 2.5% of our income, of our top line, every year on promoting Dubai. Sheikh Mohammed has always seen sport as an important part of Dubai’s image and we were on board with that very early on – it was clear that sport was both a feel-good sector to be involved in that also had tremendous potential to improve visibility. [Dubai Duty Free chairman] His Highness Sheikh Ahmed has always supported that approach too. We started off with the Dubai Duty Free Snooker Classic and it has grown from there.

We showed our commitment to tennis by building a stadium.
Dubai Duty Free has a lot of sporting sponsorships – the likes of Dubai Duty Free Irish Derby horse racing, the Dubai Duty Free Irish Open golf, the Dubai Duty Free Darts Masters. But the Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championship is really our most exceptional event. We have been doing it for 26 years and now own the week on the men’s ATP and women’s WTA tour. Every year we get a report and last year the media value was $920 million to Dubai. We started sponsoring tennis, so we built a tennis stadium. Because we built a tennis stadium, we built the Irish Village. Because we did all that, we built the Jumeirah Creekside Hotel. Now we can clearly see the benefit, both in social and in sporting terms, to Dubai.

Dubai Duty Free Tennis Stadium

We’ve had 16 world number ones play in our tournament. Roger Federer has won the tournament seven times. Novak Djokovic has won it four times. I remember that our very first winner Karl Novacek was number eight in the world and we thought it was terrific. But since that time, we’ve had number ones, number twos. The Williams sisters have both played and we were the first tournament outside of the Grand Slams to offer equal prize money for men and women. The evolution of the tournament has been incredible.

Sport is at the heart of our company culture.
We have a sports and social club among our staff at Dubai Duty Free and we are very proud of the trophy cabinet we have on display in the office. From netball to basketball and golf, sport is great for bringing staff together and for boosting morale. We even have a choir called The DDF Nightingales and they’ve won the Dubai corporate choir competition for the past three years. We love competition of any sort here!

I love a good comeback story.
It’s been great to see Tiger Woods return to the top of golf and it would be great if he came back to the Dubai Desert Classic at some point – we’d love to see him. It’s extraordinary really, coming back time and again after surgery. I saw him in his first Ryder Cup he played in at Valderrama back in 1997. Constantino Rocca beat him but it didn’t seem to hold him back too much! Justin Rose is another golfer who has shown great resilience. He almost won The Open as an amateur but then at one stage missed dozens of cuts. Now he stands with an Olympic gold medal and a US Open to his name. You’ve got to admire him.

Colm McLoughlin receiving his honorary doctorate from Middlesex University Dubai.

Last year I was awarded an honorary doctorate by Middlesex University Dubai.
I had such a good feeling in my heart on that day because several years ago I was actually a bus conductor with London Transport and worked on bus routes in Middlesex. It is one of those funny coincidences in life. I was absolutely thrilled with the honour and it takes pride of place in my house. However I made it clear then, and I do so now, that it was an award for all of the staff at Dubai Duty Free. Without them we would have been nothing and I thank them for their work.

Hopefully the UAE will host the Olympics one day.
The future of sport here looks very bright. We are seeing some great improvements to the football stadiums and the Dubai Arena project is an exciting one. There are new golf courses too, and generally lots of world-class sporting facilities appearing year after year. Sport has increased tourism but it has also led to some great opportunities for the local community to play sport. This in turn has helped improve quality of life. We have the infrastructure in place and I think it’s only a matter of time before a bid comes in for the Olympics. And if it does happens, there’s no doubt it will be hosted like it’s never been hosted anywhere else.