WHEN DUBAI made Page One news last week as the home base of a company that wants to manage six U.S. ports, the Arab emirate was often referred to as an obscurity to most Americans. But sports fans know it well. Last Saturday, Justine Henin-Hardenne beat Maria Sharapova for the Dubai Duty Free Women's Open title, and this week Andre Agassi and Roger Federer headline the men's tournament. Last month Tiger Woods won the Dubai Desert Classic. And on March 25 the emirate will present the $6 million Dubai World Cup, the world's richest horse race. Jet-setters who attend can also get in some slope time: Dubai boasts a 25-story indoor ski dome that opened in December.
If this all makes Dubai seem Western-friendly, that's the point. The emirate has spent wildly to cast itself as a glamorous international playground and attract tourists. Yet the sheikdom remains as potentially problematic for the U.S. as any of the six other members of the United Arab Emirates, which once supported Afghanistan's Taliban government and which bar Israeli travelers. Not that some sports organizations seem to be bothered. "We believe sport can act as a positive force for social change and equality, particularly in the area of women's rights," says Women's Tennis Association spokesman Andrew Walker. "We're taking that approach instead of delving into the individual policies of each country."