FACT chats to Saeed Al Saeed, Destination Marketing Director at DCT Abu Dhabi about the Return to Fight Island and what we can expect from the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix this year.

As destination marketing director at DCT Abu Dhabi, please could you tell us a little bit about your role and exactly what it entails?

DCT Abu Dhabi drives the marketing strategy for the emirate’s tourism sector and works to position Abu Dhabi as a leading global destination. Our goal is to showcase everything that makes Abu Dhabi such an extraordinary place, a vibrant destination with something to offer everyone. During an exceptional time like this, our immediate objective is letting the world know that Abu Dhabi is preparing to welcome international visitors once again, while reassuring potential travellers of our world-class health and safety measures. 

The Return to Fight Island is an exciting event for the city and particularly Yas Island. Can you describe the event for us and how this partnership with the UFC came about?

Return to Fight Island is the second event in the UFC Fight Island™ series. It comes less than three months after the undisputed success of the July event, which saw the state-of-the-art UFC Fight Island™ safe zone implemented across all event-related areas of Yas Island. Return to Fight Island events are taking place between September 27 and October 25 and include UFC® 253, UFC® 254, and three UFC Fight Nights held over consecutive weekends.

The five-event mega schedule, which will be held behind closed doors, ensures some historic firsts for Abu Dhabi and the sport. Return to Fight Island™ marks the first time that two consecutive UFC® numbered pay-per-view events have been held in the same city outside of Las Vegas, while the UFC Fight Night event on October 4 will mark the first time that a female bout has headlined a UFC event card in Abu Dhabi.

Abu Dhabi’s relationship with the UFC dates back more than a decade. The first-ever UFC event in the Middle East was held in the emirate in 2010 and the sport returned in 2014. Our current partnership with UFC, now in its second year, has proved to be one of our most successful ventures in recent years. Thanks to our collective commitment and cooperation, the inaugural UFC Fight Island™ series was an undisputed success. 

Our goal for the Return to Fight Island is to deliver a world-class experience for our UFC guests, athletes, everybody involved, and to show Abu Dhabi’s readiness to receive global tourism and events with the highest safety standards.

With all eyes on safety measures and social distancing in light of the COVID-19 pandemic, can you talk us through the logistics of holding such a large-scale event at a time like this?

As part of stringent public health and safety protocols, a 6km² UFC Fight Island™ safe zone has been created on Yas Island, which incorporates the arena, hotels, training facilities, Yas Beach, as well as dining establishments. 

More than 2,500 personnel from government entities, maintenance teams, operations and event staff, Yas Island employees and UFC delegates will be housed inside the UFC Fight Island™ safe zone for the duration of the event. A precautionary quarantine period and negative COVID-19 tests are required to gain entry. Everyone within the UFC Fight Island™ safe zone is tested every six days. All personnel are required to wear face masks at all times except for fighters in the Octagon during bouts. Social distancing is enforced at all times with indicative posters for a distance of two metres within all UFC Fight Island safe zone venues and facilities.

What lessons did you learn from the Fight Island events in July and will these be implemented for the Return of Fight Island?

The inaugural UFC Fight Island in July was an overwhelming success. At the time, the ‘bubble’ concept of tightly-controlled sports events was new to the global sporting landscape, and the successful implementation of the state-of-the-art UFC Fight Island™ safe zone across all event-related areas of Yas Island was a real feather in the cap for Abu Dhabi. The event went from concept creation to delivery in less than two months, with success hugely exceeding our expectations.

The return of UFC Fight Island™ just three months later is a clear sign of Abu Dhabi’s ability to host major international events with the highest standards and the safe zone once again incorporates an arena, hotels, dining and entertainment venues. Indeed, the UFC Fight Island™ safe zone has become a true global benchmark for major international event ‘bubbles’ as we continue to welcome UFC fighters from around the world.

Typically, when you host a major event you learn from it to avoid repeating any mistakes. However, UFC Fight Island™ was a resounding success from start to finish. We had zero COVID-19 cases, and everybody adhered to the safety protocols to ensure delivery of a world-class event.

When it came to Return to Fight Island, our aim was not to simply repeat the process, but to amplify our offering and make it even better. Starting with the safety measures, by the end of the event we will have conducted more than 20,000 COVID-19 tests. We also added to the event schedule and Return to Fight Island marks a historic first for Abu Dhabi – it is the first time two consecutive UFC® numbered events (UFC® 253 and UFC® 254) have been held in the same city outside of Las Vegas.

To made it even bigger, UFC® 254 will see the return to the octagon of Khabib Nurmagomedov for the first time since his victory at UFC® 242 here in Abu Dhabi, last September.

There has been a lot of discussion regarding the safe zone and how it has become a global benchmark for major international events. Please can you explain precisely how this works and how the safety of those involved in maintained?

To ensure the health and safety of all parties in this exciting event, all UAE-based event personnel have undertaken a precautionary quarantine for 14 days on Yas Island prior to Return to Fight Island™ events. All individuals were tested in their hotels upon check-in, before adhering to a second and third round of COVID-19 testing during quarantine. Only after receiving negative results from those tests were individuals allowed to leave their rooms and move around the UFC Fight IslandTM safe zone, while wearing a mask at all times and adhering to social distancing rules. 

UFC athletes, coaches, personnel and international media are flown into Abu Dhabi on a restricted number of chartered and commercial flights from international destinations. Before leaving their destination, every individual is required to return a negative COVID-19 test result before they can board the aircraft. Upon landing at Abu Dhabi International Airport, all passengers will be escorted to pre-allocated hotels on Yas Island where they will be tested again. All luggage is sanitised and UFC athletes, coaches, personnel and media are required to undertake a 48-hour quarantine in their rooms. All individuals then undergo a third test during quarantine. Following a negative result, all international visitors will be permitted entry into UFC Fight IslandTM safe zone, its venues and facilities. 

Anyone with positive test results will be isolated until double negative results are recorded. Anyone that develops symptoms after a positive test will be immediately taken to hospital and provided with world-class care and treatment.

As we focus on delivering exhilarating events, all event personnel inside the UFC Fight Island™ safe zone will be tested every six days throughout the duration of the Return to Fight Island™ to ensure the health and safety of all parties.

Is the ‘safe zone’ model likely to remain the same for this year’s Abu Dhabi Grand Prix and what can we expect from Formula 1 weekend this year?

The current pandemic has challenged everyone to innovate and the result was our hugely successful pioneering ‘bubble’ concept at the inaugural UFC Fight Island™. The Formula 1 team and organizers are better positioned to discuss their plans, and I’m sure the exact format and technicalities of the Formula 1 ‘safe zone’ will be announced closer to the time.

We remain committed to sharing our expertise and maintaining the high standards of safety and hygiene perfected with the successful staging of UFC Fight IslandTM and Return to Fight Island with other global sporting properties.

Abu Dhabi has recently announced the issuance of tourist visas again. How has the city prepared for reopening to international visitors?

Abu Dhabi is open to domestic and international visitors and our top priority is the health and safety of everyone living in and visiting the emirate. To enter Abu Dhabi, visitors must present a negative COVID-19 test. Upon arrival, passengers must adhere to Government of Abu Dhabi health and safety measures, which include a mandatory 14-day quarantine.

In terms of preparation, Abu Dhabi’s collaborative Government-led response including widespread testing, state-of-the-art medical facilities and city-wide sanitation programmes have enabled the emirate to track and limit the spread of COVID-19 within our communities. This has been a key enabler in reviving international tourism to the emirate. To further support this response, DCT Abu Dhabi launched ‘Go Safe’, a comprehensive certification programme that aims to standardise the health and safety practices across all hotels and tourism destinations in the capital.

Promoting Abu Dhabi to the global community is a huge responsibility. Where are your favourite places to visit in the capital and why?

My top three would be Sir Bani Yas, the breath-taking island destination the is home to some of the most incredible wildlife and natural scenery in the UAE; Louvre Abu Dhabi, a beacon of Abu Dhabi’s principles of tolerance and cultural diversity; and the world-class theme parks on Yas Island, including Ferrari World Abu Dhabi, Yas Waterworld, and Warner Bros. World Abu Dhabi.