With Dubai regularly attracting top stars to its international sporting events, David Williams took a look at a homegrown traditional sport that is making a comeback on the waters of the UAE
Many things have epitomised the rapid development of Dubai over the past 10 years, but none more so than the growth of international sporting events. Lavish buildings, roads and transport have all blossomed in an incredibly quick space of time to cope with the population volcano that erupted alongside the commercial success of the city.
But, while business and commerce have contributed largely to Dubai's growth, sporting events have helped bring the city to the world's attention just as much as any other factor. Over the past decade, the world has tuned in to Dubai to witness prestigious sporting events that have captured the imagination of millions.
Golf fans regard the Dubai Desert Classic as one of the leading tournaments outside of the majors, while the Dubai Open attracts the best men's tennis players from across the world. The Dubai Rugby Sevens is fondly labelled as the social event of the year in the Middle East, while the recently run World Cup has become a thoroughbred in the world of horse racing thanks largely to its record purse of $4 million.
Other events too, from the ISAF World Sailing Championships to international polo matches have graced the city's shores and playing fields, putting Dubai firmly on the world's sporting map. But of course, such sports don't have a long standing tradition in these sun-drenched sporting arenas, and some critics would even go as far as to say they lack the prestige of events held in more established cities and venues.
It would also be easy for the local people of this booming economy to forget their roots, having enticed the world's greatest sportsmen and women to compete in the United Arab Emirates with great regularity. That is why efforts have been made in recent years, thanks to the vision and backing of the ruling Maktoum family of Dubai, to revive traditional sports that were in danger of being forgotten amidst the hype of the mega-media events.
Before the discovery of oil in the 1950's, many of the Emirates' population took to the seas for a means of survival. Fishing and pearl diving were a way of life for nationals and, while older men of today's families still have sea-air flowing through their lungs, many feel it is important that the youngsters are reminded of their roots.
This is successfully being done through the revival of three traditional sporting events held on the famous Creek and just off the Dubai coastline.
Dhow sailing, rowing and wooden powerboat races are held annually between October to May and have become as important to nationals as the high-profile international events are to the large expatriate population.
The dhow sailing races are without doubt the most spectacular and gracious. An impressed international journalist even recently proclaimed it's astonishing start as "one of the wonders of the sporting world". In keeping with tradition, all dhows - usually some 70 to 80 - gather at the starting line and, on the starter's flare, hoist their sails almost instantaneously to illuminate the Jumeira coastline in a blaze of white.
The dhows are all designed in exactly the same fashion as those used by the pearl sailors of yesteryear with the mraces divided into two classes of 43ft and 60ft. Competitors have to abide by strict rules drawn up by race organisers, the Dubai International Marine Club (DIMC) who are responsible for organising all of the traditional races.
The boat's hull, or "Haikal" must be made of Al Saay wood. Although competitors are allowed to varnish the dhow, painting the interior or exterior is strictly prohibited. It is also strictly against the rules to use fibreglass in the construction of the hull, although it can be used in strengthening the outer part of the mast, or "Al Dukal".
The huge sails are made from silk or nylon fabric and various colours are permitted, few stray away from the traditional white though.
In keeping with tradition, all dhows have to be equipped with four oars, but they must not be used during the race. Mother Nature provides the only assistance to the sailors in the unpredictable form of wind that either fills the sails, or leaves the boats stranded in calm seas.
The events have very much become family affairs. Each boat must have at least 10 crew members and many consist of up to four generations from a single family. All races cover a specified distance in nautical miles on a particular course chosen. These can alter depending on the weather conditions prevailing on the day of the race.
The dhow season culminates with the Sir Bu Naair race which is steeped in tradition and provokes memories of days gone by for older members of the crews.
Held over 54 nautical miles, it can take up to eight hours for the winner to cross the finishing line. The first Sir Bu Naair race was organised in 1991 under the patronage of His Highness Sheikh Hamdan Bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Deputy Ruler of Dubai and Minister of Finance and Industry, whose wish it was to revive the traditions of the obsolete pearl trade. "It is a very important part of our heritage, and one which should not be forgotten," Sheikh Hamdan said after a recent race.
Sir Bu Naair is an island that represented a strategic point for the sailors as it was used as a stopover point for the pearl diving dhows when they were en route back to Dubai from their long trips at sea. Dhows used Sir Bu Naair to rest their crews, and to clean and arrange the display of their pearls ready for trading once they arrived back in Dubai. The race is run on exactly the same route as those sailors travelled home on after weary months at sea.
It has become a lucrative race these days though. This season's event, raced in May, offered an overall purse of Dhs500,000.
It is an expensive sport to compete in with each boat costing up to Dhs300,000 to construct. Specialist parts come from various parts of the world but the bulk of each dhow is constructed by local tradesman. However, it could become a sport that sees tradition meet commercialism as Sheikh Hamdan revealed, and even encouraged, sponsorship of boats recently. "It costs a lot of money for these sailors to compete in these races so if they can get companies to help out in the form of sponsorship then I certainly would not stop it," he said. While not indulging in what sponsors would get in return for a cash injection, it would most likely be their brand name on the huge sails.
At the moment, the sport has been competed solely by UAE nationals but that too could change as Sheikh Hamdan hopes to bring it to a wider audience.
"It is not a closed door," he said. "If teams from Oman, Bahrain or wherever want to compete in the races they they are welcome too, providing their boats meet the conditions to race." The recent Sir Bu Naair race wrapped another exhaustive water sports season in the UAE. It attracted a record number of entries and also saw a fishing tournament held in conjunction with it. Sheikh Hamdan wants to develop the traditional side of the occasion further still and is actively encouraging the introduction of a pearl diving competition for the day before the big race.
The Dubai International Marine Club is probably the best place to view these races as most finish just off its shores at Mina Seyahi. It gives spectators the unique opportunity to see the old meet the new as dhows pull up alongside multi-million dollar speed boats and cruisers, showing just how much the UAE has developed on the seas over the years. The Dubai International Marine Club, which is regarded as the finest venue of its kind in the world, also welcome spectators.
While helicopters and speed boats give local and international journalists the best views of these events, dhows are usually provided for anyone else who wants to follow the action on the seas. There is never a charge to watch, reiterating Sheikh Hamdan's wish to present it to anyone who wants to see it.
While traditional dhow sailing displays the gracious side of sport in the Emirates, traditional rowing is frantic, fast and shows UAE nationals at their athletic best. Competed against the strong current of the Creek, traditional rowing races are gruelling events to take part in, but exciting to watch. It can be best described as the Oxford/Cambridge race of the Middle East, but with 10 times the number of competing boats. Like the dhow sailing, boats - consisting of 10 oarsmen and a skipper - have to be constructed entirely from wood and to a specified length, this time 30ft.
It was only revived as one of the Emirates' national sports recently but has become extremely popular, with large crowds lining the Creek to catch a glimpse of the action.
Rowing itself, at first, may not seem like a very attractive sport to many, but try telling that to around 15 million Britons who watch that traditional university race on the River Thames in London. That event, which started as a student's challenge almost two centuries ago, sees gamblers part with around £20 million annually in trying to predict its outcome. Unfortunately, what many of the disaster-hungry television audience wants to see is one, or both, of the crews submerged in failure... a calamity which has captured the headlines twice in the last 15 years.
The traditional rowing boats used in the UAE races were originally used as fishing vessels until the middle of the century. They transported fishermen, and their belongings, up to two-miles offshore but became redundant with the introduction of motor boats.
The rowing boat then made a brief return as an "Abra" in the Dubai Creek to transport people from one side to the other. But they were again pushed aside as a result of the plush new bridges that revolutionised crossings.
The rowing season is made up of three races, each starting from the shadows of Al Garhoud Bridge. Rowing upstream, the boats finish some three kilometres and about 20 minutes later outside the National Bank of Dubai building. To show how fit these competitors are, most of the boats then row back to the starting line to meet their support crews rather than accept a tow from the organisers. They can reach a top speed of a slick 20km/p/h.
"When we first started these races they finished at Maktoum Bridge, but the competitors asked for them to be run over longer distances," said Sarah Green from Dubai International Marine Club. "The physical strength of these sailors is clear to see and many of them are grandfathers rowing alongside their sons and grandsons."
Competing the trilogy of traditional sports is wooden powerboating.
In a loud fury of screaming engines and spray, boats from across the UAE take to the waters for this popular series of races.
Despite being powered by engines, the crafts are constructed entirely of wood. The races can take up to one hour to finish and returned to the waters this year after a break last season. Technical rules have also been changed to add weight and increase driver safety.
These new restrictions have slowed down the competitors, but the boats are still reaching speeds over 60mph, which represents a 10 per cent decrease on previous years.
This event is particularly popular with UAE nationals as the country is home to the Victory Team which has reached the dizzy heights of the World Championship title for formula one powerboating in recent years.
Overall though, while more and more of the world's top sporting stars continue to be drawn to Dubai to compete in major events, the traditional sports will also blossom in a bid to remember those humble roots that helped make the country tick for so many years.