The Timberwolves played Game 1 of their two-game preseason trip to Abu Dhabi on Thursday, with the second coming Saturday. The Wolves are a part of the second annual trip the league has made to the United Arab Emirates as part of its Global Games series.

The trip is more than just a place to play exhibition games for the league and the team. The Wolves are helping the NBA in its efforts to grow the game and reach new audiences in the region.

The NBA says, citing market research company YouGov, there are three million NBA fans in the UAE, and the league has attempted to expand its reach there by starting Jr. NBA Leagues and NBA schools in the region to get kids playing the game. The league says it has reached over 10,000 boys and girls through these programs, and this week while the Wolves and Mavericks are there, the league has hosted all sorts of events, including "Jr. NBA Week," which features camps and clinics that involved about 3,000 youth players.

The league's expansion there has also drawn criticism for engaging in "sportswashing" — using sporting events to move attention away from societal or political concerns — with a country whose human rights record has come under criticism for its policies toward women, political prisoners and the LGBTQ community. NBA Deputy Commissioner Mark Tatum spoke with the Star Tribune from Abu Dhabi to discuss these issues. This conversation has been edited for clarity and brevity.

Q: Your efforts seem to focus on young fans and players. How much are you targeting the youth of this region to grow the game?

Mark Tatum: Oh, it's a big part of our strategy. We have a three-pronged strategy to growing the game of basketball internationally and the first prong is to grow that grassroots basketball and get more youth playing the game. To the extent that we can get more kids bouncing basketball instead of kicking balls, as an example, we know that's going to benefit us in the long run.

Q: How did the Wolves get involved with this?

Tatum: We talk to all 30 of our teams about their interest in traveling internationally, where they have fan interest, potential corporate partner interest. For Minnesota, they absolutely viewed this market as an emerging, expanding market. For them, they have international players like Rudy Gobert, who is from France and there will be a ton of French fans that are here ... and also Ant Edwards played for the U.S. team this summer, who played in Abu Dhabi on the way to the World Cup.

Q: How does the cost work with this? Do the Wolves foot most of it?

Tatum: Part of our global games, what they're doing is giving up a preseason game either in their local market or another U.S. market, and so there will be a partnership with them where we'll pick up all the costs of them coming over here and whatever gate they may have had around the preseason game. So the team is compensated for all of that. That we pick up all the costs on the ground to bring those teams over here and travel here.

Q: The UAE has come under criticism from human rights organizations. What do you say to critics who are concerned the NBA is helping regimes engage in a form of sportswashing?

Tatum: The values of the NBA go with us wherever we go. We ensure that wherever we go around the world, it doesn't mean that we agree with all the laws and policies in the more than 200 countries and territories where we do business. We don't. But what we make sure is whenever we do an event in a particular market, that the values of the NBA, that those travel with us: the values of diversity, inclusion and of equity. We demonstrate that through our actions. We have a female referee [Ashley Moyer-Gleich] on the court [Thursday]. I think that will send a message here to have a female referee on the court refereeing an NBA game here in the Middle East and Abu Dhabi. The way that we operate, we bring our values with us. The teams who travel here, the staff that travel here, our fans, guests, they understand that and I really do believe that showing up in places allows for a greater cultural bridging, if you will. So you can bridge cultural divides.

Q: Is that a dialogue with local officials when you have a female referee on the court, where you say, 'We're going to do things our way'?

Tatum: We ensure we can operate with our values. There aren't specific conversations, and it's not asking for permission as an example, but the people we're talking to understand who we are, and they understand what our values are and they understand we're not going to compromise those values. That's implied in these conversations that if we're going to come to a particular market, we need to be able to operate in the way we operate and these are the values that we live by and are part of our DNA. There's a quick understanding of what that is and whether or not we can operate in that manner.

Q: Over the summer, Qatar's sovereign wealth fund purchased a part of the company that owns the Wizards. Do you anticipate more of that kind of investment coming from the Middle East in the NBA?

Tatum: That's a new policy that we put in place, and that policy allows for institutional investors to invest a minority, passive, non-controlling stakes in an NBA franchise. That provides another source of liquidity to NBA franchises, which gives them some flexibility. I will say that there are those institutional investors out there that very much view the NBA and NBA franchises as an attractive, valuable investment asset. I know that there are several conversations taking place out there with our NBA owners, with different institutional investors about investing in NBA franchises.