Yas Island: UFC’s Fight Island and its Troubling Past

UFC octagon Yas Island
UFC's octagon. Fighters will look to create legacies as they fight in it on Yas Island. PHOTO CREDIT; Lance Cpl. Kaitlyn M. Scarboro//Wikimedia Commons

Barring a disaster, fans around the world will get to see Khabib Nurmagomedov fight in the octagon for the first time in more than a year. He’s headlining UFC 254 at Yas Island on Saturday, Oct. 24. 

The coming matchup between Nurmagomedov and balls-out striker Justin Gaethje has the narrative keystone of all great fights already laid in place. There’s a lot more than a championship belt riding on the line here. This is Khabib’s first fight since the death of his father Abdulmanap, his lifelong coach and confidant. A win would also propel the Dagestani superstar to a mind-boggling 29-0 professional record; one more notch on the belt of the greatest grappler the sport has ever seen. 

Gaethje will attempt to smash that narrative and look to advance his own legend. After all, he is one of toughest fighters around and this would be the biggest win of his career. No stranger to spoiler role, the Arizona native won the right to try for the unified lightweight title after taking down Tony Ferguson on strikes. It’s an incredible achievement considering Ferguson could probably make it three rounds after his head falls off.

UFC 254 seems set to cap a solid series of UFC events held on Yas Island in Abu Dhabi. Despite the pandemic, promotion’s bouts on the aptly-billed Fight Island have already provided a sports-starved fanbase with plenty of memorable moments. We’ve seen no less than five championship fights and one humping controversy, to say nothing of the meteoric rise of Khamzat Chimaev or the resurrection of Brian Ortega. 

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The UFC’s stints on Yas Island have been successful by every metric the promotion cares to measure. But from a humanitarian perspective, Fight Island is just the latest node in a troubling web that ties the UFC to labor abuse, human rights violations and outright war crimes. 

Yas Island was the natural choice to host UFC events during the pandemic. Travel restrictions made it difficult for international fighters like Nurmagomedov to come stateside.

The UFC held its first event on the island in 2010 to commemorate Flash Entertainment. The company purchased a 10 percent stake in its parent company, Zuffa. The Abu Dhabi government outright owns Flash. It has orchestrated scores of entertainment events that have bolstered the nation’s global prestige. Flash sold off its portion of the company in 2018. But, relations between the UFC and the Emirates have remained amicable in the subsequent years, as Fight Island clearly demonstrates.

Fight Island is just the latest entertainment serving as public relations for Abu Dhabi and the UAE as a whole. Anybody scrolling through UFC social media accounts over the past few months has been almost constantly bombarded with links to Abu Dhabi tourism pages on any content associated with Fight Island. 

That might be excusable were it not for who exactly the UFC has made this bed with.

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Sheik Tahnoon bin Zayed Al Nahyan, responsible, or pushing the Flash deal and the UAE’s partnership with the promotion in general, is the Emirati royal family’s big martial arts fan. The son of the UAE’s founder and half brother of its current president is an avid martial arts fan and practitioner. He also currently serves as the country’s National Security Advisor.

As a martial artist, he’s started up organizations that teach mixed martial arts to people all over the UAE. He’s also befriended legends like Georges St. Pierre in the process. But, Sheikh Tahnoon has also been one of the Emirates’ leaders in their role within the Yemeni Civil War. Numerous international organizations, including the Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, have accused the UAE of committing war crimes. Their proxies in Yemen have documented it detaining, disappearing, raping and torturing civilians. Reports have also surfaced showing Sheikh Tahnoon helped route money to the Assad regime in Syria in an attempt to skirt international sanctions. 

He’s cool with Dana White though, which might be funny if it weren’t so horrifying. It’s far from the only authoritarian regime the UFC has helped to bolster, but that’s for another time.

The UFC’s troubling partnership with the Emirates is also helping the UAE whitewash scores of abuses on its homefront. Hyper development has characterized the country these last couple decades. Yas Island itself might be the best example of what that development looks like in Abu Dhabi. 

The earliest Google Earth images of Yas Island, taken in 2007, show a nearly barren land mass marked only by a few small roads:

Fast forward just three years to Yas Island’s first UFC event in 2010, and that same landmass has already transformed into one of Abu Dhabi’s most celebrated achievements.

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In just that short amount of time, the island gained highways, concert venues, a marina, an amusement park and a golf course:

That sort of rapid construction isn’t possible without blatant disregard for human life. 

In the UAE, that disregard takes the form of the Kafala System. Nationals sponsor visas for migrant laborers, who journey to the UAE to man the country’s myriad building projects. In practice, this leads to scores of poorly-paid, barely-housed laborers who toil in unconscionable conditions. This is for the benefit of Emirati capital barons. They often withhold workers’ passports as collateral to keep them powerless to leave in the face of exploitation. This is the same system ISIS used to corral foreign laborers when it held territory. In the UAE, and Yas Island itself, the system has led to horrifying labor abuses that human rights advocates routinely condemn

If that isn’t slavery, it’s squeezing by on a technicality. 

In this bleak environment, every Fight Island matchup, every Twitter post or warm comment from Jon Anik about how welcoming Abu Dhabi has been to the promotion serves only to obscure and excuse the evil that has gone into building Yas Island and the UAE into what they are today. Make no mistake, the UFC has been made aware of what they’re helping to normalize time and time again. They do not care. And they get away with it. After all, most of what passes for journalism in the mixed martial arts world is just marketing. 

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With UFC ownership so obviously callous to the suffering their business helps perpetuate, it’s difficult to know what, if any, course of action can be taken to divest elite combat sports from human rights abuses. Asking most of the promotion’s fighters who straddle the line between survival and ruin every time they step into the octagon for pittances of what most other top-tier athletes make to speak out is unrealistic on a few levels. A powerful union of UFC fighters that includes championship-caliber talent might be able to scare the promotion into backing off these kinds of deals. But so many fighters, Nurmagomedov included, have their own troubling ties to authoritarian regimes. 

All that really leaves is sponsors and fans. The former have already chosen to sign that faustian bargain. But enough noise and shame from the sport’s fandom is probably the only thing that could make a multinational corporation think twice about whether tying their vessel to the UFC is actually a good idea. The nice thing about this strategy is that you don’t even need to stop watching the fights. You can just find yourself a nice bootleg stream and bear through some buffering. At the end of the day, it hits Dana White right in the money.  

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