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Sun 5 Mar 2006 04:00 AM

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Arsenal's own goal

The excitement has been building for several months about the opening of the fabulous new Emirates Stadium in London, which from August this year will be the home of Arsenal Football Club.

|~||~||~|The excitement has been building for several months about the opening of the fabulous new Emirates Stadium in London, which from August this year will be the home of Arsenal Football Club.

But with just under six months to go before the first ball is kicked, I fear relations between Arsenal and Emirates Airline – which is sponsoring the stadium – are fast deteriorating. In November 2004, Emirates signed a US$180 million deal with the club, to sponsor the team’s shirts for eight years and for the stadium to be named ‘Emirates Stadium’ for the next 15. At the time, given Arsenal’s incredible form on the pitch, it seemed a dream deal.

However, this season the Gunners' dreadful league form leaves them in danger of missing out on next season’s lucrative Champion's League competition — which would have given unprecedented television exposure to the Emirates brand.

Worse happened last week, when Arsenal entered into a deal with the government of Israel to promote the country as a tourist destination. Advertisements promoting travel to Israel will be broadcast at Emirates Stadium.

Not surprisingly, Mike Simon, Emirates’ senior vice-president, was quoted in newspapers as saying: “This is unfortunate and we are obviously not happy.”

A spokeswoman for Emirates later told me: “We’ve said all we’re going to say. Although we stand by what we said yesterday, we will not be adding any more.”

My own sources at the airline suggest she is being very polite, with some Emirates Airline officials now re-considering whether they should even attend the stadium’s grand opening ceremony in August.

James Hogan (pictured above) is a very busy man. The chief executive of Gulf Air is overseeing a US$900 million fleet renovation programme, and has just signed a three year syndicated loan facility for US$75 million. He is also considering plans to float the airline once it hits financial stability.

In theory, that shouldn’t be too far away — after years of losses, in 2004 it turned its first ever profit. The Bahrain and Oman governments have much to be pleased about.

For how much longer is another matter. As I have previously mentioned in this column, Virgin Atlantic is launching flights between London and Dubai on March 28.

But Virgin boss Sir Richard Branson is concerned that his aeroplanes will be parked at Dubai International Airport for the best part of a day, doing nothing. And so he has asked his advisors to examine whether Virgin Atlantic could continue its journey from Dubai, into places likes Bahrain, before making the return trek to London. If successful, this would provide serious competition to Gulf Air on its Bahrain to London route.

As you will have read elsewhere in this issue, the UAE has launched the world’s first Shari’a compliant national savings bond scheme.

I’m a big fan of the scheme, which has been launched by a private shareholding company, National Bonds Corporation, with shareholders including Dubai Bank, Dubai Holding and Emaar Properties.

One of the most impressive aspects of the savings bond scheme is that funds raised will be invested in projects that help promote Dubai. Quite what these projects are, however, is less clear.

I asked Ziad Makkawi, CEO of Dubai Bank, whether the new bond scheme might favour investments that put the community before the shareholders.

“That’s a novel concept,” he replied. ||**||

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