Tides of change - championing surfing in the UAE
What’s On and Hype get behind the campaign to raise awareness for surfing in Dubai and the UAE, and where to surf in Dubai. Hype interview Mohammed Rahma.
Mohammed Rahma is captured on camera surfing in Dubai. He is the first Emirati surfer to compete internationally representing the UAE. With the days to train potential surfing champions on Dubai’s natural waves numbered, Mo has, in an interview with Hype, vowed to do all he can to raise awareness for the sport he loves…
A twist of fate produced Dubai’s first international competitive surfer. Mo Rahma played in the Rugby World Cup for the Arabian Gulf in 2008 and represented the UAE national team at the Dubai Rugby 7s international in 2010 and 2011. But he was badly injured during a match against New Zealand. After surgery, he was advised to run in the sea as part of his rehab. It was during this time that he spotted surfers on the water and, intrigued, decided to give it a go. Next month, Mo will represent the UAE in the ISA World Surfing Games in Peru.
Fiercely proud of his home country, Mo tells Hype: “I’m competing to spread the aloha spirit and to show that this sport exists in the UAE by raising the UAE flag in an international event and putting Dubai on the surfing map.”
In an online video, Mo recalls: “I remember my first wave. It might not have been a big wave but that wave made me fall in love with the sport.
“I’m the first [Emirati surfer] out of the UAE and the first one to compete internationally. I think that’s really good for all of the Middle East; for all the UAE nationals – it will hopefully encourage other people to try it. It’s a beautiful sport.”
But future generations might not be able to take to the sea on their doorstep. Umm Suqeim Open Beach – known as Sunset Beach to many residents – is the only location in Dubai with waves decent enough to surf. A planned expansion to the marina at Jumeirah Beach Hotel will block all incoming waves and put an end to Dubai’s last remaining surfable beach.
Speaking from LA, Mo said he was “upset” when he heard the news. “Sunset is my home break,” he says. “As a surfer, I’d love to teach my kids and young Emiratis but without a surfing beach that would be impossible. I enjoy surfing and all I want is to share my joy with others, I want to grow the sport in the UAE and make others enjoy it as much as I do.”
Mo pointed out that surfing in a wave pool at Wadi Adventure, in Al Ain, for example, was different to surfing on the ocean. “If you just surf the wave pool you lose how to read the sea and the knowledge of how it works. Reading where the waves are coming and how they will break is a one of the hardest things in surfing,” he explains.
He hopes that by competing internationally he can draw a spotlight on the sport and raise awareness amongst local residents throughout the region. “Everything I’m doing now is to help surfing in the UAE to develop, increase Emirati surfers and hopefully educate about this exciting sport.”
Back in Dubai, news of the development has worried the city’s rapidly growing surfing community. “Sunset Beach is a natural resource, it’s part of the community, part of the lifestyle and, for many, a big part of the experience of living here,” says Ian Kingon, who is pictured on our front cover this issue and who surfs almost every day and often with his wife and two children. “Sunset is a go-to area when you finish work. This is a frenetic city and surfing and the seawater is great for stress reduction.
“I’ve lived here since 1999. At one point it was possible to surf almost anywhere along Dubai’s coastline,” remembers Ian. “I’ve seen every single one of the surfing beaches slowly close down. But while the number of surfable beaches has gone down, the number of surfers has gone up. Sunset Beach is the last naturally occurring facility that is enjoyed by people of all ages and all nationalities.”
While the city was once home to just a handful of surfers, it’s now estimated that numbers have swelled to a community of over 2,000 people. Sunset Open surfing competitions have been held on the beach each year since 2010. This year’s event was organised by the relatively new body ESSA, or Emirates Sup And Surf Committee – the UAE’s first surfing committee – and attracted 5,000 eager visitors and 120 competitors over its weekend duration.
The Jumeirah expansion plan, which has been endorsed by Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice President and Prime Minister of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai, includes over 350 new hotel rooms, a new private beach and a sports complex. The existing yacht marina at the hotel will double in size. The extended breakwater will prevent the northwesterly waves from reaching Sunset Beach. The project is due for completion in 2018 although it’s believed work on the breakwater could start within a year.
Ian’s surfing buddies – Dean Stellfox, Rory McCarthy, Garret Herrity (pictured left) and Dan Van Dooren – also worry about the impact on the surfing community at large.“It’s an incredibly active community with social significance as well,” says Rory. “Losing the surf at Sunset will affect people of all ages. We’re in our 30s and 40s; there are a lot of kids getting into it; it’s a family thing too.”
“The desert and the ocean are Dubai’s two naturally occurring beautiful assets,” he adds. “It’s the ocean swell that brings us all together on the beach; it’s the glue that holds us together as a community. The swells also actually filter pollution.”
“For a new person moving to the city, it’s a great way to meet like-minded people,” reasons Garret. “Surfing and the ocean is a really important part of my life. I was surfing back in Ireland and it was one of the first things I researched when I got here. Getting to know the surfing community helped me settle in Dubai quickly.”
“Most of your life is spent indoors,” says Dean. “Surfing is a healthy recreational pursuit and not just for us but for younger generations too. It’s much healthier to have kids out in the water surfing than sitting at home playing with a games console. The UAE has a problem with diabetes and obesity; surfing is a way to get youngsters interested in a sport because it’s cool.”
Dan reveals that over 100 pupils from eight schools currently take part in supervised surfing lessons each week as part of their after-school activities. “In the past five years I’ve seen a significant rise in the number of Emiratis surfing too,” he says. “I gave Mo Rahma his first surfing lesson. We have enough interest to breed future champions but if we lose Sunset there’s a worry that the surfing community will drift apart.”
Surfers throughout the UAE and beyond have been signing an online petition requesting a “compromised solution”. As Hype went to press, the petition – “a gracious request to re-consider the Jumeirah Beach Hotel marina expansion along Sunset Beach” – had attracted almost 3,000 signatures. “As a community, we’re looking to present it to His Highness Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid,” says Dan. “We would like him to see that surfing is an important part of so many people’s lives.”
Hype asked Jumeirah Group if it was aware of the petition and had any plans to meet with representatives of the surfing community. A Jumeirah spokesperson said: “Further to the announcement of the resort development adjacent to Jumeirah Beach Hotel, we can confirm that the beach area will remain accessible for the public in the future.” Pressed for more, an insider said: “That’s all we are sharing at this stage.”
Reflecting on the situation, Carl de Villiers, owner of Surf Shop Arabia and Ignite Surf School UAE, muses: “It’s great to see unity amongst us but there unfortunately are not hundreds of thousands of surfers in the UAE, so we’re a small voice, which we hope doesn’t go unnoticed.”
While Mo Rahma has signed the petition, he is realistic about its impact. “For us to save our beach we have to look at this from a different angle,” he says. “Educating at all levels and attracting young Emiratis is crucial. Me competing, representing the UAE at an international level and spreading awareness will hopefully trigger change. This is not an impossible task, I think we are moving in the right direction.”