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Fear of terrorism, Iran, pirates at issue over holding the America’s Cup in the United Arab Emirates

RAS AL-KHAIMAH, U.A.E. — The America’s Cup, yachting’s Holy Grail, has traveled a long way from the days when Wall Street millionaires summering in Newport, R.I. regarded the 158-year-old Victorian ewer as part of the family silver.

But the announced plan to hold the next defense of the cup in the Persian Gulf — less than 100 miles from the coast of Iran and the strategically vital Strait of Hormuz — strikes some yachtsmen as venturing too far into troubled waters.

The event, set for February, is to be hosted by Ras al-Khaimah, a scruffy backwater that is part of the United Arab Emirates. The site was picked by the defending champions, the Alinghi team from Switzerland.

The surprise choice did not please the American challengers, BMW Oracle, headed by software tycoon Larry Ellison. The Americans responded with a lawsuit, claiming that holding the race so close to Iran “presents grave safety concerns for the team members of an American challenger named ‘USA’ that flies an American flag on a 200-foot mast.”

Arguments are scheduled to be heard Tuesday in a Manhattan courtroom. The America’s Cup is still governed by a 19th-century document known as the Deed of Gift and any disputes over the rules must be adjudicated by Supreme Court of the State of New York. 

Each side has mustered an impressive roster of experts — retired naval officers, ex-CIA types, Ivy League Middle East scholars, oceanographers and security consultants — to press its case.

The American side portrays the U.A.E. as a place crawling with Iranians, terrorists, suicide bombers and Al Qaeda fanatics. It worries that war might break out at any moment between Iran and Israel, or Iran and the rest of the world.

One expert hired by the American team, former Royal Navy officer Graeme Gibbon Brooks, claims that holding the race so close to Iran “exposes the America’s Cup match to the risk of becoming a proxy for the conflict between Washington and Tehran.”

The Swiss side points out that Tiger Woods plays golf in the U.A.E., Roger Federer plays tennis here and next week a major Formula 1 race will be staged in Abu Dhabi, the U.A.E,’s capital. It notes that U.A.E. is a close ally of the U.S., that thousands of U.S. businesses are located in the country and tens of thousands of Europeans and Americans live and work here. It also notes that Ellison’s company, Oracle, has a large office complex in Dubai, the U.A.E’s other major city.

But even boosters of the U.A.E. are puzzled by the choice of Ras al-Khaimah.

An hour’s drive from Dubai, RAK, as it is known locally, lacks the dazzle and fizz of its neighbor. Instead of the world’s tallest building or the world’s fanciest hotel, this tiny emirate has goats that graze placidly on the dusty median of its main commercial boulevard.

As a venue for yacht racing, the calm waters and light winter breezes off Ras al-Khaimah would appear to favor the Alinghi team’s nimble catamaran over BMW Oracle’s larger trimaran.

This is not the first time the Swiss and American teams have tangled in court. They’ve been at it almost continuously since 2007 when the Americans declared their intention of challenging for the Cup shortly after Alinghi’s successful defense in the last competition.

The America’s Cup, which hasn’t been in American hands since 1995, is the oldest trophy in international sport, and its rules are heavily stacked in favor of the defending team.

Alinghi’s lawyers recently won a change in rule that will allow competitors to use on-board motors to trim their sails — an innovation that has left some purists aghast.

“It’s like giving soccer players scooters. It runs counter to our values,” said Russell Coutts, skipper for BMW Oracle and a three-time America’s Cup winner.

Although most of the legal wrangling has been over the fine points of the arcane rules governing the competition, both sides agree that the real issue is about control.

“That’s what’s at the heart of the matter — control of the America’s Cup. The Americans are trying to get control of the Cup without winning it,” said Grant Simmer, Alinghi’s design coordinator.

The American team and its supporters counter that Alinghi’s boss, Swiss billionaire Ernesto Bertarelli, is trying to use the America’s Cup to gain control of yacht racing much the way motor racing impresario Bernie Ecclestone has used his position as president and CEO of Formula One Management to become the “owner” of Formula 1 racing.

“The America’s Cup is not a sports property. It’s governed by a charitable trust. When you hold the Cup you have responsibilities,” said a BMW Oracle official who asked that his name not be used because he is not authorized to speak for the syndicate.

But Paco Latorre, a spokesman for Alinghi, puts a different spin on Bertarelli’s ambitions.

“Bertarelli is not here to make money. He doesn’t need it” Latorre said.

“He wants to make the sport more open to the general public, more open to spectators, sponsors, the media, more of a global sport. He wants to make it financially viable … something viable beyond the Bertarellis and Ellisons and Turners [Ted, of CNN fame] and Vanderbilts [Cornelius, Harold and William].”

If Ellison can recapture the Cup, said Latorre, then he can “bring it back to Newport and make it a restricted thing for a limited number of people.”

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