Mavs and Timberwolves play in Abu Dhabi as Gulf region’s influence with the NBA grows

LONDON – The NBA returns to Abu Dhabi this week as Arabian Gulf countries increasingly use their wealth to establish a foothold with the league.

The Dallas Mavericks and Minnesota Timberwolves play Thursday in the first of two preseason games in the United Arab Emirates capital, but most of the real action is taking place off the court.

Qatar’s sovereign wealth fund is buying a minority stake in the Washington Wizards with the move coming less than a year after the league’s Board of Governors opened the door to such institutional investors.

LeBron James recently visited Saudi Arabia on a trip that came a couple of months after the Los Angeles Lakers star joked on social media that he’d accept the kind of astronomical figures that the Saudis are paying to lure soccer stars.

The Milwaukee Bucks and Atlanta Hawks played preseason games in Abu Dhabi a year ago after the NBA signed a multiyear partnership with the emirate’s department of culture and tourism. It was the first time the league had staged games in the oil-rich Arabian Gulf — also called the Persian Gulf.

“We felt that bringing the live NBA experience to fans in Abu Dhabi was the next step in our ongoing efforts to grow the game in the region,” said Mark Tatum, NBA deputy commissioner and chief operating officer.

The league’s board of governors decided in November 2022 “to permit passive, non-controlling, minority investments in NBA teams by institutional investors, including university endowments, foreign and domestic pension funds, and sovereign wealth funds, subject to a set of policy guidelines adopted at that time,” the NBA said in a statement.

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Those investors would then be subject to league review and NBA Board approval.

Qatar Sports Investments, which has majority control of French soccer club Paris Saint-Germain, is buying a roughly 5% stake in the parent company of the Wizards, the NHL’s Washington Capitals and the WNBA’s Washington Mystics. The NBA confirmed that the deal has been approved.

Similar agreements in the future seem likely.

“The value of NBA teams continues to grow year to year, helped by the value of live sports and the global reach of our league,” Tatum said. “We anticipate our teams will receive continued interest from institutional investors around the world.”

Countries in the region like Saudi Arabia, which was implicated in the gruesome murder of a U.S.-based columnist, have faced criticism that they are “sportswashing” their human rights records.

“Playing games internationally is a critical part of our year-round efforts to engage our passionate international fans, many of whom may not otherwise experience an NBA game in-person,” Tatum said, noting the league has staged games — mostly not regular-season ones — in more than 20 countries outside the United States and Canada.

“That doesn’t mean we agree with every law or viewpoint where we play games or engage fans, and we condemn human rights violations wherever they occur,” Tatum said. “We make sure that we stay true to our mission and values everywhere we operate and adhere to guidance from the U.S. government.”

Saudi Arabia, through its sovereign wealth fund, muscled its way into professional golf before spending heavily to recruit soccer players, including Cristiano Ronaldo.

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Radio host Dan Patrick asked NBA Commissioner Adam Silver in June if the Saudis have looked to invest in any NBA teams.

“No, not that I’m aware of,” Silver responded. “They certainly haven’t come to the league office.”

The NBA also hasn’t had talks with the Saudis about holding preseason games there, Tatum added.

As part of the Abu Dhabi visit, the NBA will hold youth clinics and host fan events featuring Mavericks and Timberwolves players and NBA greats including Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.

Both preseason games will be at Etihad Arena on Yas Island — where the league opened an NBA Store last year. The second game is Saturday.

The Mavericks then travel to Spain for a preseason game against Real Madrid next Tuesday.

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