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Sporting the Law | The UAE Perspective

By Kushagra Ashok Arora, Partner, MHLF

Developing transparent and sustainable regulatory structures that conform to global measures: International sporting events have undergone tremendous metamorphosis over the past few decades, and today they generate large amounts of revenue throughout the world. Europe, Africa and Middle East account for the second largest sports market in the world whilst sponsorship being one of the fastest growing segments. With advocacy of the assiduous sovereign counsel and an exemplary think tank, the UAE, in particular, has earned prominence as a hosting destination for world sporting events.

The United Arab Emirates (UAE) is where the world is converging today, where cultures blend and businesses converse. With perfectly sound economic fundamentals, for a progressive nation like the UAE, international sporting events have become an extension of the Emirates’ popularity as a tourist destination enhancing the repute and panache of the country.

To conclude, the hope to reprise the role as a premier entrepôt and go global with its brand of economic liberalization, the enactment of the sports’ law therefore, provides an opportunity to gain a fresh perspective on developments in the Emirates. Keeping in mind the structure and dynamism of sports organizations, UAE’s legislative framework has encouraged substantial reforms, and thereby boosts a rapidly developing sports industry in the country. Impartial rules of eligibility and due process, a contrivance that has positioned UAE squarely in-line with a transnational trend of bringing about greater international prestige from the continuous success.

With a successful strive to diversify the autonomous economy, backed by superior administrative acumen, the UAE has gainfully built world-class infrastructure amenities for all industries. This has allured tourists, businesses, and world sporting federations alike. Extensive land resources, financial viability of hosting, open resources, and planning prowess have made the UAE a lucrative hosting choice for various international sporting events.

The global sports industry, with an estimated market value of more than $500 Billion[i] has grown at a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 4.3% since 2014.[ii] And in tandem with these worldwide trends, the UAE government, in April 2018, approved a federal law which, regardless of nationality, allows all residents to participate in national sport competitions held in the country. In accordance to Federal Decree-Law No. 7 of 2008, the federal authority, General Authority for Sports is responsible for the expansion of the sports sector in the UAE.

One of the most vibrant economies, in unification with Vision 2021, UAE’s political leadership has ensured that all international sports have a considerable level of participation or association with and within the country. Unswerving endeavours, to reinvent and position UAE to be at par with international sporting standards have been made. Taking on ambitious sports projects backed by operational excellence like “The Land of Dubai,” they’ve created cities and complexes that offer exemplary provisions for living, working, and enjoying sports. The Dubai Sports City is the perfect example of one such project for it offers sporting arenas of over three thousand square meters and three football stadiums among other infrastructure facilities to support international sporting events. Other commendable free zone cities and complexes include The Zayed Sports City, Hamdan Sports Complex and Dubai Motor City.

The country has been a preferred hosting nation for the Asian Games, FIFA Federations Cup, Abu Dhabi Grand Prix, the Olympics & Paralympics Championship, and various events for other sports like ice hockey, rugby, cricket, badminton, and power-lifting. Leading international sports regulatory bodies like the International Cricket Association have also established a home base in the UAE.

In addition to Dubai, UAE’s capital, Abu Dhabi frequently play host to some of the sporting world’s most prestigious events like the Dubai World Cup, the world’s richest horse racing tournament, ATP Tennis Tournaments, Indian Premier League cricket tournament, PGA ranked golf tournaments. In fact, the UAE Derby offers prize money of $2.5mn., considered a preparatory race for the Kentucky Derby. Not to forget, sailing and water sports are one of the leading and exceptionally popular international sports in the UAE. Every year, Dubai and Abu Dhabi host numerous sailing competitions, domestic and international, making them extremely popular and sort after.

A salubriously deliberated, crafted and actualized social policy has enabled the UAE to mobilize the development of sports in the country. Intended to improve athlete performance, encouraging young athletes through training and facilities, and supporting them through employment and social assistance, has enabled the UAE sports industry to undergo a vitalizing emboldened transformation in the past years.

Several sporting events have graduated to professional levels owing to the extended energies of the UAE commissions and boards. Football is a prime example that demonstrates the growth of interest in and popularity of sports in the UAE. Since its inception in 1971, the UAE Football Association has put in coherent labour to promote the game through youth initiatives and improving abilities of players, coaches, and officials involved with regional teams. Football’s status in the UAE as the favourite sport is largely owed to the UAE Football Association, which adheres to the rules of international sports governing bodies. The UAE Football Association hosts several competitions and the leagues’ value increases every year, highlighting the importance of the sport in the UAE. Owing to the resounding popularity, the UAE has also been honoured to host FIFA World Cup 2022.

Other sports like Jiu-Jitsu have also become extraordinarily popular in the UAE. The sport which diminishes the boundaries of physical strength through technique and discipline is today practiced in UAE public schools by boys, girls, and people of determination. Growth of the sport in UAE has been emphatic and UAE has many world-class Jiu-Jitsu athletes. With the UAE Jiu-Jitsu Federation now overlooking the sport, frequent domestic and international competitions are hosted in the UAE. The Abu Dhabi World Professional Jiu-Jitsu Championship hosted annually draw in hundreds of high-calibre athletes from around the globe.

As with any emerging and expanding industry, a corresponding need for a niche, yet vigorous legal practice area also emerges. The expansive potential of the region presents enormous sports opportunities, which also bring forth the accompanying requisite to safeguard investor confidence.

The pie is getting bigger, sports is one of the fastest growing industries and given the increasing sophistication and the money involved, it is paramount to abet with safely transacting deals and protecting interests of all. To leverage this augmented growth, several UAE based businesses and individuals have been making substantial investments in global sports ventures including investing in sporting infrastructure and sponsorships of key players, teams, and tournaments.

International Sports, as an industry has come a long way, and the structure around it ought to be legally robust for all stakeholders involved, including health & safety of participants, the rights’ owners, clubs & leagues, athletes, federations, investors, broadcasters, sponsors, sports agencies and alike. Additionally, needless to say, given the encompassing nature of the industry, the prestige and euphoria of any sport is not restricted to only domestic, but a fervent fan base across geographies.

The practice of a specialized segment of sports law is important to sustain and strengthen UAE’s status as a prime sporting venue. UAE is a diverse multi-sector autonomous economy, and though a young jurisdiction, is dependably maturing in the field of sports law and dispute resolution with rational and unprejudiced policies.

Tracing origins, defining objects and purposes, and summarizing the most important provisions; Sports law is primed for continued growth in the UAE owing to the intricacies of hosting international sporting events and investments involved. The legal side of the sports industry is broadly divided into transactional and litigious.

Sports related transactional practice include all corporate-commercial work involving negotiating, vetting sponsorship agreements (both for athletes and clubs), financing or credit arrangements, drafting of club tours contracts, infrastructure construction contracts, and any corporate-commercial transactions which involve supply of services and materials.

The litigation part of sports predominantly deals with instituting or resolving conflicts that may arise between different clubs, players or organizations. Additionally, it covers filing regulatory appeals or appeals against suspensions, de-affiliations, anti-doping and other substance use appeals; challenges relating to the interpretation of rules and regulations of the governing bodies of certain sports etc.

With an emerging sports market, sponsorship related opportunities and the associated challenges are inevitable. Rampant in the international scenario, sponsoring the best sportsmen, sporting teams and sporting events, the reputation of the UAE is suitably enhanced on the world stage.

It’s noteworthy that the UAE laws do not distinguish between sponsorship and advertising. Sponsorship is considered as a form of advertising, and hence, all sponsorships must comply with Emirati advertising laws, which are regulated by the National Media Council’s Advertising Regulations. These regulations reinforce a number of fundamental ethical principles, mainly respect for religious, cultural, and social values and norms in society. Some prominent principles:

  • Respect for all religions and public policy: Advertising content must be respectful of all divine religions and not offend Islamic or any other religious sentiments. It shall not disrespect the honorable government of the UAE, its symbols or political institutions. Further, no content broadcast or published by a media corporation or outlet may disrespect the domestic and international policies or the cultural heritage of the UAE.
  • Prohibited products/services:  Advertising smoking, tobacco, alcoholic beverages, and all banned products or services (including banned narcotics) is prohibited.
  • Prohibited content: Content needs to be relevant, varied, safe and relevant for all users. The publication of words and pictures that breach public morals is prohibited, as is the spread and dissemination of information that may prejudice children, women or any other members of society.
  • Consumer Protection: Compliance with the laws governing consumer protection and commercial activities is mandatory particularly in relation to anti-competitive practices and illegal monopolies.
  • Health regulations: Advertising content relating to medicines or pharmaceutical products must comply with the rules set out by Cabinet Resolution No. 7 of 2007 Regarding Health Advertisements Regulation.

Furthermore, broadcasting licenses in UAE are governed by the National Media Council and TRA. Broadcasting is largely governed by the UAE Federal Law Number (7) of 2002, which is concerning Copyrights and Neighbouring Rights. Further, Article19(1) grants broadcasting organizations the right to grant licenses for the exploitation of their recordings and broadcasting programmes, and Article 19(2) empowers broadcasters with the right to prohibit unauthorized communication of their programmes or recordings to the public. Additionally, the UAE Penal Code governs the Digital Content Broadcasting and Regulations in the country, while the Federal Law Number 15 of 1980 Concerning Printing and Publishing, in its broad applicability, covers television broadcasting, and Federal Law Number 5 of 2012 on Combating Cyber Crimes (Cyber-Crimes Law) specifically addresses content distribution via the internet.

In a multi-screen world, digital channels take precedence over all other channels of marketing amplifying the monies, return on investment, brand awareness, loyalty and stickiness that is required. Digitization accompanied by dynamic technological advancements, has brought forward a plethora of alternatives to the amalgamated gamut of online marketing and traditional media tools available. And thus, sports sponsorships have caught on quickly as a marketing tool among both, domestic and foreign business conglomerates. To evade any impede, an investor’s ability or decision to extend sponsorship to a global sporting event, such as FIFA or the Cricket World Cup, necessitates adhering to the Emirati laws for a prolific and rewarding venture.

An international quasi-judicial body, the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS), was established to settle disputes related to sport via arbitration in 1984, as part of the IOC. The body originally conceived by the 7th president of International Olympic Committee, Juan Antonio Samaranch, under who’s leadership and tenure, the IOC achieved a financial turn-around for the Olympic Games and.

The CAS time and again, has proven to be particularly popular as a dispute resolution mechanism for resolving disputes involving global sports.[i] Headquartered in Lausanne, Switzerland, CAS has its courts located in New York City, and Sydney as well while temporary courts are established in current Olympic host cities. And on the national level, a chamber for the Court of Arbitration for Sports (CAS) has been established in Abu Dhabi. The presence of CAS in the UAE positions the country as one with high regards for professional and legal standards in the sporting arena.

As we discuss this, there is also a draft law in the works that proposes the establishment of an Emirates Sports Arbitration Centre with the aim to create a national model of CAS for all the sports disputes in the UAE. The new CAS Centre and the establishment of other sports dispute resolution bodies are significant because of the prevalence of arbitration clauses in the rules and regulations of sports governing bodies.

With consolidated efforts to grow the UAE as a preferred sports destination, the country has embraced and implemented courses of action to ensure that dispute resolution in the sports industry is in line with international standards.

For instance, the UAE Football Association has established a number of sports dispute resolution bodies. The UAE Football Association was influenced by the FIFA dispute resolution model because it is the global governing body of international football.

With an increasing demand for advice on transactional, regulatory, and litigious practices surrounding sponsorship issues, infrastructure matters, regulatory and compliance issues, complaints filing, anti-doping appeals and other sports related litigious matters, the sporting laws in the UAE also warrant parallel improvement and development in line with globalised standards. The dominant theme of UAE’s sports law is an establishment of a dynamic organization as an important social and economic activity under governmental policy and supervision. Given the interest, investment, and involvement of UAE in the global sports arena, the nation has mushroomed to be in the spotlight and magnetize more sporting events in the future and most certainly act as a catalyst for astounding sustainable development.

Author: Dermot Flanagan S.C & Arran Dowling-Hussey

[i] https://medium.com/sportyfi/how-big-is-the-sports-industry-630fba219331

[ii] https://www.thebusinessresearchcompany.com/report/sports-market

[iii] Aashima Sawhney, The Laws of Sports - A Global Overview (Part 1), 5 Ct. Uncourt 12 (2018)