Two-plus years after they faced the Hornets in Paris for a regular-season tilt, the Bucks will partake in two preseason games in Abu Dhabi, the capital of the United Arab Emirates. Their opponent will be the Atlanta Hawks.
This is the first venture into the Middle East for the NBA, which announced last November that they’d host game action in the UAE. Both matchups will go down at Etihad Arena on Yas Island, a building that’s barely a year old and part of a massive tourism project. UFC held a number of events on the island dating back to 2010, so they have some experience with foreign leagues.
As big of an honor it is to again be tabbed for basketball diplomacy, bringing the league to an autocratic state is a hairy proposition to defend. For those unaware, the UAE is an emirate, like many Middle Eastern nations. Essentially, this is a monarchy. As such, freedoms we largely enjoy in the Western world don’t exist for many citizens there, such as freedom of expression or free and fair elections. It’s worse in the LGBTQ community, as the state criminalized same-sex relations long ago.
In their most recent world report, both Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch condemned the UAE’s record on human rights. The Economist Intelligence Unit—part of the group that publishes the British magazine The Economist—assigned them a 2.9 out of 10 in their annual Democracy Index, placing them firmly in the authoritarian tier and 134th out of the 167 sovereign states they ranked (for reference, the USA ranked 26th with a score of 7.85).
NBA commissioner Adam Silver addressed this dilemma, per Jim Owczarski in the Journal Sentinel:
“It’s a fair question... part of why we choose certain markets is of course economics. There’s no question about that. It’s enormously expensive and resource-driven to bring teams around the world. We also want to try bringing our games to places we haven’t been before, and the Middle East is one of those markets.
We look at many different factors in terms of how we travel, bring our games. But our ultimate goal is to bring our games to everywhere around the world. There are lines we draw, but we’re an American company and usually we allow those lines to be drawn by our government. Whoever happens to be our administration gives us direction on where they think it’s appropriate for us to operate and not operate.”
Still, the UAE is one of the more open Middle Eastern nations to the United States and its allies, notably highlighted by their 2020 normalization of relations with Israel. Of course, Dubai’s opulence is well-known throughout the world as a result of the UAE’s promotive efforts in recent decades, assisted by the UAE’s two state-owned airlines (one of which holds the naming rights to the aforementioned arena). As such, it makes a lot of sense they would seek to host a high-profile international league. Beyond the two preseason contests, the NBA entered into a multi-year partnership with Abu Dhabi that includes e-sports, player appearances, and a youth league.
Bringing players with big international appeal like Giannis Antetokounmpo into arenas outside the Western Hemisphere is undoubtedly good for the game, and the Bucks are naturally pleased to be a part of it. From Bucks president Peter Feigin:
“We are honored to have been selected to participate in the NBA’s first games in the United Arab Emirates. As the NBA continues to expand globally, we look forward to visiting Abu Dhabi and furthering the league’s goals of inspiring people through basketball. We will be proud to represent our city, our state and Bucks fans worldwide this October.”
As a basketball writer and fan of Middle Eastern heritage, I’m mostly glad to see the NBA gaining a foothold in the region. From my perspective, basketball’s popularity is exceeded only by soccer among sports fans of the nations around the Persian Gulf, though players originating from them aren’t well represented in the world’s top leagues. Maybe seeing Giannis annihilate Etihad Arena’s rims will inspire an Emirati or Saudi kid who begged their parents for tickets toward a career in the game.
In the meantime, I’ll leave you with a bygone artifact of my early 90s childhood and still the first thing that comes to mind whenever I see/hear the words Abu Dhabi: