“It’s a five-star resort out here,” says Aitken, who moved to the United Arab Emirates three years ago to become David O’Leary’s assistant with Al Ahli, Dubai’s most prominent football club.
“It’s a strange place. There’s everything you could ever want right in the middle of the desert. Top hotels, top shopping malls, top restaurants and the weather’s lovely. It’s not a bad place to live.”
But Aitken isn’t interested in what the city can offer tourists, more what it can provide football fans.
Following stints working under Alex McLeish at Birmingham City and Scotland, as well as a short spell as caretaker manager of Aston Villa in 2006, Aitken is now sporting director at Al Ahli, overseeing everything from the scouting of players and appointment of coaches to the sponsorship deals signed with brands such as Nike and BMW.
“I knew the club and the president from when I’d been out here before,” he explains of his decision to move to the UAE, where he directed youth development at another club, Al-Shabab for a year in 1998 between departing Aberdeen as manager and joining Leeds United as a coach with O’Leary. “When Dave [O’Leary] left the club the president asked me to stay on as his right-hand man. It’s a different kind of job to the one I’ve been used to in the past, where I was mainly a coach on the training pitch. There are umpteen different aspects to my role here. I’m generally involved with everything that happens at the club, whether it’s on the pitch or in the marketing department. But it’s something I’ve enjoyed.”
While Aitken’s Al Ahli are Dubai’s most successful and popular club, Al Ain are the team to beat, having won the country’s league championships for two successive years. Yet Aitken managed to poach their rivals’ head coach, Cosmin Olaroiu, ahead of the new season.
Olaroiu’s switch across the UAE’s biggest footballing divide gives the new Arabian Gulf League season a compelling narrative, particularly considering the players Aitken has lured to Al Ahli. Grafite (formerly of Wolfsburg), Luis Jimenez and Ricardo Quaresma are all on the club’s books, with Fabio Cannavaro assisting the new manager in the dugout. The smart money is on Al Ahli claiming their first league title since 2009 (that’s if gambling was permitted in Dubai). Today, they have a League Cup fixture against Ras al-Khaymah-based club Emirates.
“We had a good season last year,” said Aitken, who is back in Scotland for the off-season. “We finished second and won the Emirates Cup, which takes us into the Asian Champions League. So, from February, we’ll be playing teams from all over the continent, with the big boys being in places like Japan, South Korea and Australia. But our main aim is now to overtake Al Ain.”
The impression that Arabian nations, like the UAE and Qatar, have used their billions of petro-dollars to artificially boost their sporting prominence is false, says Aitken. When he explains why, he has a point.
“We’re actually only allowed four international players in the entire squad. The league enforces that. The rest of the team is made up with local players. The league is very much based on what the academies can produce.
“Having coached at Premier League level for ten years I obviously can’t really compare the quality out here to that. I knew when I moved that it would be a different standard, but I must say I’ve been a little surprised by the quality. It’s very good.”
While the sport has undoubtedly come to prominence in the country, the UAE government still largely funds the top flight. Attendances are still modest and foreign “infiltration” is a challenge. “Almost every game from across Europe is televised here,” says Aitken.
“I mean, I think there are probably more Scottish games shown in the UAE than there are in Scotland. With the number of things to do in Dubai and the number of games on TV, it’s difficult to get expats to come to the games.”
Yet the country’s development at international level continues to accelerate. The UAE’s appearance at last summer’s Olympics was the first in their short 42-year history and commendable performances against Team GB, Uruguay and Senegal demonstrated just how far they’ve come. “All of this, the league, the clubs, the entire set-up, is angled towards making the national team better,” says the 54-year-old. “This country has achieved a lot in a very short space of time and they want to translate that into sport. The pool of talent here is completely disproportionate to the population.
“They’re punching above their weight, there’s no doubt about that. There’s a real sporting culture here so, if kids don’t go on to play football, they’ll play basketball or handball or tennis. They don’t have football clubs, they have sports clubs. They’ve got a lot to be very proud of.
“Over here they have the best golf competition in the world, the biggest horse race, a great tennis competition and one of the best Formula 1 tracks in Abu Dhabi. Sport is seen as something that can give the UAE a bigger profile and there’s no bigger sport than football.”
Dubai is predicted to be the world’s most-visited tourist destination by 2020 and, while Scottish expats have a telling presence in the city, Aitken is short of compatriots in his field of work.
“I’m the only Scot working out here in the league,” he reflects when asked about the level of Scottish influence in UAE football. “In fact, I don’t even think there’s another Brit. There’s Derek Whyte, who’s now working at one of the big hotels in Dubai, running a coaching clinic but, other than him and the small contingent of British video analysts, there’s nobody.
“That’s not because people don’t want to come out here though. People phone me all the time asking if I can find them work out here. There are ten flights a day coming out to Dubai from Britain now so people are starting to discover just how lovely the place is. I won’t embarrass anyone by naming them, but believe me loads of people in the game want to come out here. I just hope they don’t think I’m out here for a holiday.”