In an exclusive column for Sport Industry Insider, SMG Insight managing director and founder Frank Saez runs the rule over the current outlook for sport in the Middle East.

Recognised by his peers as one of the foremost practitioners in global sports business analysis and research, Frank has over 18 years international experience, working with some of the world’s leading sports rights holders and sponsors including Rolex, Visa, Peugeot and Goldman Sachs.

It’s been a great year of sport in the region so far – and as someone based in Dubai but whose company has offices around the world, it’s exciting to see my home patch giving the world’s sport hotspots a run for their money in delivering high profile events.

But the region’s sports strategy doesn’t begin and end with drawing the world’s eyeballs towards the razzmatazz of Grand Prix and FIFA tournaments – it also has local inhabitants at its heart.

At SMG Insight we specialise in sports and sponsorship research – providing everything from media and asset valuations to consumer insight. So one of the things I thought it might be useful to share from the data we collect is the sporting appetites and habits of people who live in the region (in the case of this data, UAE and Saudi Arabia).

A good place to start is physical activity levels across the two countries.

Well over half (59%) of inhabitants exercise at least once a week, with a quarter doing so at least three times a week – and compared to other developed nations across the world, that’s pretty good going.

Men tend to be physically active more often than women (63% of men exercise at least once a week compared to 46% of women) and likewise, those over 45 years old tend to exercise more often than younger people. Of the younger generations (up to 45 years old), it is 18 to 24 year-olds who are most likely to exercise at least once a week.

Now we’ve established how active people in the region are, let’s take a look at what sports they are most interested in.

Football and tennis are the region’s most popular with, respectively, 53% and 44% of people indicating a keen interest. Swimming (39%) and Formula 1 (34%) are also popular sports – see our chart above for a full round-up, broken down by gender.

As you might expect, there are significant differences between the sports which men and women favour. For women, swimming takes pole position (40% indicated they are interested in the activity, compared to 39% for men), whilst for men, it’s soccer which is most popular (61% compared to 31% for women – which also makes football the most polarising sport, having the biggest differential in preference between the sexes).

SMG Insight also monitors how interest in sport translates across to participation in and attendance at sports events.

Whilst we don’t have space to go through this data in detail, a quick look tells us that the activity which men are most likely to have participated in during the past year is cricket, while for women it’s an aerobics or fitness class (see below). In terms of attending sports events, football comes up top for men, whilst cricket is the winner for women.

Over time, of course, we can expect these numbers to change and those changes will provide valuable indicators for rights holders, brands and policy-makers around the success of their sporting strategies. As the Middle East competes more and more for international attention, as well as domestic outcomes from sport, data like this will help us understand just how fast we are progressing and just how soon the region will reach its sporting goals.