Why Paul Pogba, Cristiano Ronaldo and Mo Salah have all trained in Dubai

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After the disappointment of Egypt’s early elimination from the Africa Cup of Nations this summer, Mohamed Salah took a break in Dubai to recuperate.

The reigning African footballer of the year sampled gourmet cuisine in five-star restaurants, relaxed on beaches, and kept himself in shape with some light training at the Nad al Sheba (NAS) sports complex.

This was not Salah’s first trip to the complex, nor even his first this year. His Liverpool team booked in for a training camp in January, as did Premier League rivals Manchester United - who also visited the previous year.

Arsenal were guests in March, adding their names to an illustrious list that includes Real Madrid, Borussia Dortmund, and AC Milan. Juventus star Cristiano Ronaldo dropped in over his winter holidays.

The appeal is not limited to footballers.

World number one tennis player Novak Djokovic posed for a selfie with the Crown Prince of Dubai at NAS in 2016.

From the Australian cricket team to UFC champion Khabib Nurmagomedov, the cream of international sporting royalty are flocking to the site.

But why?

‘Aiming to be the best’

The NAS complex, situated close by the world’s most expensive horse racecourse, was designed with the aspiration to become one of the world’s best.

“We aim to be recognised as an elite destination,” says NAS director of sport Robert Wadsworth.

Feedback from star clients - he prefers not to name names - suggests the service is “comparable and in some cases significantly better than the facilities they are used to.”

Some clients have been happy to volunteer glowing reviews, such as Djokovic, who wrote a thank you note on Instagram “for allowing me to train in the best sports facility in the world.”

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The sprawling site comprises a wide range of indoor and outdoor features. There are two FIFA-standard football pitches and an athletics track, as well as indoor arenas for badminton, volleyball, futsal (similar to five-a-side football) and martial arts.

Mamadou Sakho, a defender for Premier League Crystal Palace, makes use of an anti-gravity treadmill.

The complex also includes facilities for simulating different altitudes, cryotherapy chambers that aid recovery after exercise, swimming and hydrotherapy resources, as well as a sports science lab and medical support teams.

“The Nad Al Sheba Sports Complex is an evolving project, growing by the week, month and year,” says Nasser Aman Al Rahma, assistant secretary general of Dubai Sports Council (DSC).

Tailored usage

Different clients find different uses for the complex.

“In the main it is for training camps either pre-season or mid-season, and injury rehabilitation and recovery,” says Wadsworth.

“We have a host of soccer teams from the European leagues who will train with us from January to March when (many) leagues have winter breaks. We host teams from Asia from November to February when they are doing pre-season work.”

The site also hosts athletes and teams as they prepare for specific tournaments, Wadsworth adds. “Cricket Australia completed their pre-tour testing at NAS before flying to the UK for the World Cup and The Ashes.”

Beyond the function, Wadsworth believes privacy is a major part of the appeal for high-profile visitors. NAS is a private facility that takes pride in safeguarding against interruptions from the media or public.

That Dubai is used to catering for the rich and famous also allows a degree of anonymity for clients on their downtime, who can enjoy a quiet meal or visit local landmarks without being swarmed by sports fans.

Commercial value

The regular presence of star athletes at the NAS complex may bring benefits for both hosts and visitors.

“Several countries in the Gulf region are using warm weather training camps as part of their sports development strategies,” says Professor Simon Chadwick, a sports business expert at the University of Salford, in the UK.

“They have positioned themselves as health and training destinations with the intention of drawing in athletes and teams, raising awareness of their facilities and, hence, driving long-term business.”

The Australian cricket team at the NAS Sports Complex in Dubai ahead of this year's World Cup

A 2015 Deloitte report also noted the potential benefits for boosting awareness and tourism.

“The use of Dubai as a location for warm weather training in the winter months is proving increasingly popular for football teams,” the report states. “If marketed correctly Dubai could in time become the ‘go-to’ venue for a significant number of clubs, with resulting opportunities for training (and) exhibition matches.”

“Mass participation events also have considerable potential in attracting additional sports tourists.”

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Chadwick believes there are also benefits for visiting sportspeople beyond their physical fitness.

“By training in the Gulf athletes and teams can raise their profiles across the region, build fan engagement, and establish potentially lucrative relations with commercial partners,” he says.

The presence of commercial considerations in trips to Dubai has been highlighted by visitors such as Bernd Wehmeyer, manager of German football team Hamburg SV, who said the club’s sponsorship by Emirates Airline was a factor in the choice of destination.

Wider ambitions

The development of relationships with international sports stars is taking place alongside a wider drive to develop sporting participation and infrastructure in Dubai.

The Emirate recently opened the 17,000-seat Coca-Cola Arena which will host football, basketball and ice hockey. Dubai also upgraded facilities such as the Al Maktoum Stadium for the 2019 Asian Cup, held in the UAE.

“There are many other sports projects under discussion,” says Aman Al Rahma, listing plans for new bicycle tracks and golf courses in the desert.

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The DSC is also aiming to boost participation across all demographics, says Aman Al Rahma, with the aim of making Dubai “one of the most physically active places on the planet.”

“That is why, if you look at Dubai’s annual sports calendar, you will find a number of community sports events alongside the star-studded elite sporting extravaganzas,” he says.

Having secured an influx of international talent, Dubai is also seeking to cultivate its own.