By Alexander Cornwell and Jacob Greaves
ABU DHABI (Reuters) - Ultimate Fighting Championship returns to the United Arab Emirates capital this week under a new multi-year deal with the Abu Dhabi government that it hopes will draw new fans from the Middle East to the sport.
Saturday's UFC 242, headlined by Khabib Nurmagomedov and Dustin Poirier in a lightweight title unification match, will be just the third time UFC has come to the emirate -- and the region.
UFC will now stage one event a year in Abu Dhabi, which holds most of the UAE's oil wealth, over the next five years. It has granted a state media channel exclusive broadcasting rights for the Middle East and North Africa over the period.
"They (Abu Dhabi) are making a huge commitment to grow the sport..., " UFC Chief Operating Officer Lawrence Epstein told Reuters on Thursday.
He declined to disclose financial details of the deal signed earlier this year.
Epstein said the UFC would stage all its Middle East events in the emirate, the only place it has so far held events in the region, but that they could jointly hold events in other cities.
Many Gulf Arab states are investing heavily to expand their sports and entertainment industries. Saudi Arabia has a multi-year deal with World Wrestling Entertainment to stage events in the country under Riyadh's push to open up the conservative kingdom, improve quality of life and lure foreign visitors.
UFC hopes that its partnership with Abu Dhabi will help grow its brand in the Middle East, where mixed martial arts and other combat sports are already popular.
"It's a big population. It's a young population. It's a population with discretionary income and what's key to us is it's a population that's got an affinity for the sport," Epstein said.
Saturday's event show will be the first time female fighters compete on a UFC card in the Middle East.
Asked how UFC would deal with potentially sensitive issues such as an openly gay fighter competing in the region, Epstein said while UFC does not take "political positions", it respects the rights of its athletes.
Current bantamweight and featherweight champion Amanda Nunes is an openly gay fighter and the UFC has come out in support of the LGBTQ community.
(Reporting by Alexander Cornwell; Editing by Christian Radnedge)