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The sporting season is about to come alive following the long hot summer and it could spark an historic 12 months for sailing in the Middle East.

For a country that has its roots set in an historic past on the high seas, it is somewhat surprising to learn that the United Arab Emirates’ competitive sailing scene was virtually non-existent at the turn of the Millennium.

But three years on the country is about to set sail on an action packed season that could culminate with one young Dubai man becoming the first Middle East sailor to compete in the Olympic Games.

Yousef Bin Lahej headed out to the ISAF World Championships in Spain last month to launch his year-long preparations for Athens next August. It is a year that will see him compete at the highest level in the Laser Standard Class in Malta, Kuwait, Italy, France and Holland to name just a few.

“I’m really looking forward to the challenge,” said the 23 year-old. “It is important for me to qualify for the Olympics to show that sailing here is moving forward. I am confident that I can do it. I have trained hard and can only thank those who are behind me for the support I have received.”

Lahej is one of a growing number of sailors making waves in the UAE, which has some of the best facilities in the world for its budding youngsters to take advantage of.

At the forefront of developing the sport here is the Dubai International Marine Club, and none more so than its Sailing Manager Sid-Ahmed Bensalah. The Frenchman was signed up by the DIMC four years ago to develop the sport and the results from his hard work are starting to provide dividends.

“My job is two fold now,” said the 31 year-old. “As well as promoting the sport, my job is also to raise the standards of the UAE National Team.

“We have just returned from an extremely successful training camp in Northern Italy and the sailors we have here are improving by the week. We now have some gifted sailors who will go on to enjoy success in the sport I am sure.”

Bensalah made the decision in mid 2002 to withdraw his team from international competitions to concentrate on fine-tuning the skills that his young sailors were learning from the best in the world.

The Italian job he took his team on in August lasted for 10 days which involved intensive training for his young hopefuls. The team was hosted by the Troble Sailing Club on Lake Garda and coincided with similar training camps being held there by Italy, Germany and Holland.

“We held a series of races between all the nations present and the best five sailors from the UAE impressed so much that they were invited back at the end of September to take part in an official race on Lake Garda.”

Prior to that, a training camp was held in Perth, Western Australia hosted by the Royal Perth Freshwater Bay Yacht Club. In a race against the local club members, UAE sailors finished 1-2-3.

Bensalah is now satisfied that his teams are ready to return to international competition later this year with encouraging results predicted. In the pipeline are a number of international meetings, the biggest being the European Championships in August and the Arab Games in Algeria, which were cancelled earlier this year due to the earthquake that wreaked havoc on the country.

He also admits that Lahej’s Olympic dream will provide a massive boost for the sport across this region.

“The youngsters can see the achievements of Yousef and give themselves something to aim for,” he said. “Yousef has been training consistently for two years now. He has excelled over that time and has improved very fast. He is motivated by the fact that he will become the first sailor from this part of the world to compete at the Olympics. I don’t expect him to win a medal next year but just by competing at the very highest level will show the world that Dubai isn’t just a city for hosting events, we can also provide sportsmen to compete with the best.”

Bensalah was born in France but his father is Algerian and it was with that nation’s sailing team he made his mark in the sport as a coach. He was at the helm of the Algerian team that competed in the ISAF World Championships in Dubai in 1998 and he fell in love with the country immediately. He has also previously worked for the French Olympic team, specializing in reading the weather conditions and forecasting the strategy for sailors based on what weather was approaching.

“I could not believe how much development had gone into this brilliant city,” he recalled. “I could tell immediately it was a forward thinking city and my first impressions were like so many other people that come to visit here. I had to be a part of what was happening here.

“The vision of people like Colonel Saeed Hareb (Managing Director of DIMC) is incredible. They have amazing foresight and I am just proud to play a role in making the vision for Dubai happen. It’s been a big challenge because we have started from scratch and have started a long way behind other countries but we receive strong support from the Club, the UAE Olympic Association and not to mention the Government who are very supportive.”

Bensalah says almost 400 new sailors have taken up the sport during his time at the club and believes the annual Dubai International Sailing Week Regatta, first held in 2000, has the potential to become one of the biggest in the world with over 160 international sailors competing in this season’s event in January. He feels that the UAE has progressed more in three years than many European countries have done in 30, and few would argue with him.

He points to a thriving domestic series of competitions held at sailing clubs across the UAE as key to the future growth of the sport.

“The UAE National Sailing events are very important to promoting the sport in this country and improving standards,” he added. “There are a large number of expatriate sailors competing on a regular basis and this series allows everyone to take part. The championships commence in October and will feature five rounds until mid-June in 2004.”

Bensalah is confident that sailing will continue to thrive in Dubai and highlights the introduction of sailing onto the curriculum at Rashid School for Boys as the way forward.

He knows that Lehaj’s introduction to the Olympics next year could be just the start and hopes that the youngsters learning the ropes today could well be serious medal contenders of the future.

“We have so many gifted sailors here now that it’s difficult to pick out individuals,” he said: “Yousef Khalid, Adel Khalid and Ahmed Shaheen are all excellent sailors in the Laser category. We must not forget Shamsa Bin Dasmal who is only 14 and has proved to be just as capable as the men. She has a big future in the sport.

“In the Optimist section, Omar Shaheen, Hakeem Bin Dasmal, Jassim Ehab, Saood Mohammed and Hamed Khalid are among the best. We also have some gifted expatriate youngsters like Frederick Jakob of Belgium who are very good.”

Regionally, sailing is picking up gradually like it has done in Dubai but with one of our own competing on the biggest stage of them all next year in Athens, the sport will soon be riding the crest of a wave.

Yousef’s road to Athens

September 16-25 Laser World Championships Cadiz, Spain

December 1-5 Al Kharafi International Regatta Kuwait

December 17-21 Euromed Regatta 2003 Malta

February 20-28, 2004 Sail the Gulf 2004 Doha, Qatar

March 21-27, 2004 Olympic Garda Riva, Italy

April 23-30, 2004 Semaine Olympique de Francaise Hyeres, France

May 26-30, 2004 SPA Regatta Holland

June 2004 Al Bareh Bahrain

August 2004 Olympics 2004 Athens, Greece

TBA Pan Arab Games 2004 Algeria


National Sailing Team’s calendar 2003-04

Optimist Class

December 17-21 Euromed Regatta 2003 Malta

January 23-30 DIMC Regatta Dubai

February 20-28 Sail the Gulf 2004 Doha, Qatar

June 2004 Al Bareh Bahrain

August 2004 IODA European Champs Sweden

TBA Pan Arab Games 2004 Algeria

Laser 4.7 Class

December 1-5 Al Kharafi International Regatta Kuwait

December 17-21 Euromed Regatta 2003 Malta

January 23-30 DIMC Regatta Dubai

February 20-28 Sail the Gulf 2004 Doha, Qatar

June 2004 Al Bareh Bahrain

TBA Pan Arab Games 2004 Algeria



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