The Power of Asia: UNITED ARAB EMIRATES (DUBAI)
The Power of Asia: UNITED ARAB EMIRATES (DUBAI)
To watch a video of the interview, click here.
In this week’s ‘The Power of Asia’ series, Badminton Asia is focusing on badminton in Dubai. We had the chance to interview 3 members; Ghazi Al-Madani, Chairman and President of the UAE Badminton Committee, Mahmod Taefour, National Team Coach of UAE Badminton and Jaffer Ebrahim, the BWF Dubai Badminton Development Manager. We discussed the current state of the sport due to the COVID-19 pandemic, badminton’s immense progress in Dubai, and Dubai Badminton’s challenges in the future ahead.
The COVID-19 pandemic has affected most countries in the world, with many countries enforcing strict social distancing rules as the number of cases continues to rise, and Dubai was no exception. The government has implemented social distancing rules and a lockdown in order to help contain the spread of the virus to ensure the health and safety of the people. Mr. Ghazi Almadani, shares with us how Dubai and the Badminton Committee has been handling the last few months in the period of quarantine. Excerpts from an interview:
What are your current thoughts on the situation now on the Corona Virus and how has it impacted the badminton community in Dubai?
‘February was the hardest time in the world, and March was the time when the government entities started to tell us to stop for a while. We were with them. So in March, when the government guided us to stop everything, we were one of the first to do so. They said let’s stop and we did stop. Let’s commit and we did commit. And in May, when we thought of bringing back the sport, best believe that badminton was one of the five sporting committees, who’s protocols were approved to start going back (to training). Badminton was one of the sports that was highlighted to come back.’
And they did. According to Mr. Ghazi, the badminton players have been back since May of this year. In May, academies were opened and created, including summer camps, and protocols have been introduced as Dubai started opening up its doors again, with strict rules on distancing and sanitization still in place.
Events have also started, and according to Mr. Ghazi, ‘As of tomorrow (end of July) we are hosting the first Air Badminton beach tournament. This is a pilot project for coming back to competition in Dubai and of course, badminton was one of them. Badminton has proved itself that it’s for everybody and anybody can join.’
Despite being in quarantine for a few months before opening up in May again, this did not mean that the badminton players and coaches were not doing anything. In fact, while social distancing rules emplaced, the badminton committee were still fully active in many different ways.
Coach Mahmod Taefour tells us in the interview that despite it being a difficult period for them, they were still very active. Coach Taefour has been involved with badminton Dubai for a while now. Originally, he is an international player from Syria, and played for the national team. He then moved to Dubai 20 years ago and joined the development team in 2015 when he initially joined the team that was organizing the Dubai World Super Series Finals. He was one of the volunteers that helped organize the Dubai World Super Series Finals. In addition to that, there was an initiative called ‘Shuttle Time Dubai’, which is the BWF and Badminton Asia school initiative. He took the Shuttle Time teaching courses, Level 1 and Level 2 in the development programs, and then continued helping to develop the sport in Dubai, by doing activities in school, delivering courses, training kids in the school centers. We asked him how the players and coaches have been doing during this time period.
Coach Taefour, how has training been for the players since the CoronaVirus pandemic? What has Badminton Dubai been doing?
‘The CoronaVirus has been difficult for us, as it has been difficult for the whole world. All the activities have been stopped, and there were no physical activities. But we started to do some
online session for teachers, and online training for students as well to keep active, and we recently started a program with Special Olympics UAE that we broadcasted the players doing their training sessions at home, in a safe way. We also collaborated with West Asia Para Federation to provide some education for para coaches. We didn’t sit idly, we acted professionally and continued our job to develop the sport and keep people active. In the near future we are trying to do an online program for the Emirates kids, who are involved with the Shuttle Time Program in their schools. At this stage, everything will be held at a distance. The younger children are not allowed to play, but the adults are able to. We are taking extra precaution in gradually returning to a safe environment.’
Not only that, but badminton has also been growing in Dubai Sports World, an initiative by Dubai sports council and the world trade center, and it is the biggest indoor arena in the Middle East. In the arena, they have 9 badminton courts opened to the public, along with football, basketball, cricket, all under one roof. Coach Taefour has been active there, going to the arena and hosting online sessions, like Shuttle Time Dubai which was like on Facebook. These online sessions have been a great success, as highlighted by Mr. Ghazi: ‘In the lockdown in March, badminton Dubai was one of the few sporting entities to show videos of players and kids doing badminton at home. It was shown in the networks, on social media. The collection of these videos reached 1 million viewers in 1 month.’
The road to ‘normalcy’ is looking good for Dubai. During quarantine, they have been doing online activities and collaborated with other federations to keep everyone active. Now, many things are open, players are playing, academies are starting again, all while abiding to the governmental rules of social distancing. We asked Mr. Ghazi his plans for the future as the pandemic still has an impact in all the communities.
Mr Ghazi, what do you hope for for the rest of the year? Many countries are still closed, so what is the plan moving forward for Badminton Dubai?
‘First of all, Dubai is open, tourism is open now since the 7th of July. But social distancing is a rule now and it will be there for a while and we must respect that. The athletes are playing in their academies, in their summer camps. We’re having a tournament tomorrow showing that events are coming back in Dubai. There are other federations coming back with their respective sports too, which means it’s not me trying to come back, it’s the nation. Respecting the rules, and making sense and working together for the return of the sport. We are blessed with the reduction of the number of cases over the last few days, hopefully it will continue to go down, and now it’s just a matter of time. Dubai is open therefore sports are coming back.’
He continues by emphasizing that it’s all about respecting the rules and the people around you. ‘If you are healthy, go out, if not, stay home.’ he states ‘It’s the best time to spend some quality time with the family. If you are missing them, it’s a good time to teach your father or mother, or aunt or cousin badminton! If we can’t play professionally, it’s still a good time to spread the knowledge and the love of badminton between families. One person can make a change, and that’s what we’re doing.’
Mr. Ghazi has been at the forefront of the development of badminton’s rise in Dubai. He has been working in Dubai’s sports council since 2013, as Dubai had the opportunity to host the Super Series Finals for the first time in 2014. He was one of the original team members to visit the Super Series in Denmark, and after the visit he and his team prepared Dubai to host the event the year after. He was a part of the original team to help organize and host the Super Series in 2014. As a member he became the director of the Super Series event in Dubai for the year after, then the year after. After the success of the Super Series Finals, there was an opportunity to establish a community under the federation, which he became the chairman.
‘We were blessed to receive our membership.’ he states, ‘Everything went smoothly because of the joint act between the government of Dubai, the BWF, and mostly everybody that was in the meeting. We started as a small family and have been growing ever since. Now, we want to be a fully fledged federation, and a member that has not only shown the capability of hosting a super series, but we continuously add new features, new events and we are one of the few countries that have hosted the AIR BADMINTON as well.
So, initially just hosting the Super Series, we then became a federation, a community, a member, and me personally, I have been growing in Badminton Asia as the vice chairman of the financial committee, vice chairman of rules and regulation, meaning that Badminton Asia has opened their arms for us to join, and for as long as we are committed, Badminton Asia has been treating us very well.’
The growth of badminton in Dubai since 2014 is astonishing, to say the least. What started as a sport where there was little to no presence became one with immense popularity. This is all thanks to those who have been involved in the long and continuous development process of growing the sport to become what it is today. Mr. Ghazi shares this sentiment when asked about just how big badminton’s presence in Dubai really is.
‘Let’s talk with numbers.’ he says ‘We started with a few people, then doubled into thousands, then doubled into ten thousands, so now the number of athletes is increasing. The UAE national team or the UAE local grassroots, have increased from zero UAE nationals to a very high number. Not only that, but we also have a few of our young grassroot athletes go to summer camp for the Olympics. This shows that the sport is only increasing. Badminton has been implemented in events, implemented in schools and more. So this is how big it is. It’s been growing from nothing, that’s something. There wasn’t any trace of it at first, no numbers, now there are numbers and it’s increasing.’
Furthermore, the development of the sport wouldn’t be where it is today if it weren’t for Jaffer Ebrahim, who is the current BWF representative for the development program in Dubai and has been at the forefront of badminton’s progress in UAE, specifically in Dubai.
Mr. Jaffer is from Bahrain and has played in the Bahrain international team for many years. He’s won the Arab Championship and a few national titles as well before moving to Dubai in 2014. Similar to Mr. Ghazi and Coach Taefour, his story started in Dubai when they signed a 4 year contract with BWF to host the Super Series Finals. It was a huge project, because back in 2014 there was no badminton federation committee yet. His main role was in development, which was about leaving a legacy after the Super Series Finals. We asked him about badminton’s impact and growth so far in the region.
How has the progress been so far?
Firstly, if we look at the growth in Dubai, I think it’s phenomenal, in comparison to what it was in 2014. One indicator of growth is in the spectators. In 2014, the total spectators at the World Super Series Finals was around 4,000. In 2017, there were in total more than 12,000 spectators in the event. It shows the growth of the fanbase.
The second part to look at is the formation of the UAE badminton committee and having Mr. Ghazi lead the committee to ensure that we have a legacy in badminton, an administrative body that can plan and grow the sport, all long-term plans. If we talk about development, we trained 700 teachers, 150 coaches, 4,000 Emirates joining the programs within the school activities, playing at least 3x a week. If we talk about Dubai as a whole, Dubai is a global city. You can find all nationalities in Dubai, a very unique city, with a unique leadership as well. There are now more than 10,000 people playing badminton on a regular basis, more than 60 social clubs, more than 30 badminton academies. We have more than 40 full-time coaches in Dubai. Apart from the Super Series Finals, we successfully hosted 2 International challenges, 2 Junior International, 2 International Para tournaments, and we were also the first in the world to host an AIR BADMINTON event last October. There were a lot of successes in terms of hosting a World class event, which is not strange for Dubai because we are a global city, that many federations would love to be in because of the quality of venues and everything else.
If we talk about successes, we have so many stories. But my main goal for success is to have a national body which can push badminton to new heights in the future.
It’s interesting that despite not being in the advanced level yet, you have so many coaches and facilities. Why is that?
As I mentioned before, Dubai is a global city. If you look at the population, 80% are expat and 20% are locals. If we look at the expat level, there are 3 junior players from Dubai who are representing the Indian junior team at the moment. And one of them is #1 in the Indian doubles now. She’s born in Dubai, and for her whole life she’s practiced here. If you talk about the number of academies and clubs, perhaps in different countries where the population are mostly locals, but here, it’s a little bit different, because of the mixture of cultures in the countries. But, in terms of producing good players, the academies in Dubai are of a high level.
But in terms of the Emirate population, we haven’t arrived at a high level yet. Previously, Emirates were not involved at all in badminton in 2014, many of them did not play. We have a huge competition with other sports, for example football is number one. It is like a religion in the country.
So now the challenge is to encourage more people to be interested in badminton?
The challenge now is to build on the good base we built in in schools. There’s no lack of talent when it comes to Emirate players, we have thousands of them playing in school, especially the female players. The last activity we did before COVID-19 was a school tournament and many girls played in the school tournament. We had about 180 girls playing in the school tournament, and a week after was supposed to be the boys but it wasn’t played because everything had to be stopped (because of COVID-19), but if you look at the numbers, we had 180 girls in week 1 but only around 100 boys in week 2. So the girls participation is around 70-30, which isn’t the case in all countries.
Mr. Jaffer clearly states that now the challenge moving forward is establishing a pathway for these kids from the foundations that they’ve already built. They have the talent, badminton is known now in schools, but the missing part is taking them into a high performance system. He believes that they need to continue with providing good coaches, facilities, more money for them to participate internationally, camps and more. This is all required to move them from a participation level into a high performance.
Coach Taefour also has similar notions about the current and future challenges of badminton in Dubai. When asked if he is training his top players more closely for the next Olympics, he give us this answer:
In the UAE and in Dubai, we are still in the participation level. We’re still not focusing on the high performances yet, we are still young. The target is not even 2024, it’s longer than that, maybe 2028 because badminton is relatively new in the UAE. We don’t have high performance players yet that can achieve well in the international stage, so mostly and mainly our focus is to grow the sport and increase the participation level. From that we build on producing high performance players.
Furthermore, he has more ambitions moving forward, all of them are long-term plans up to 2024. He believes that now, the main objective is to prepare them well so they can compete in the Arab and international level. ‘This is our main objective,’ he states ‘to establish our national teams. The second objective is that I would like to see bigger events come back after COVD-19, and to host the World Championship and Para Badminton. We would also like for Dubai to attract more people in the Dubai World Super Series Finals.’
The road to success is a difficult one, and they know that. But they are already on the right track. Activities have returned, academies are practicing, courts are opened, everyone is enjoying badminton again, while maintaining the highest level of health and safety amongst the players. Sanitization is happening regularly, there are temperatures taken, and cases are going down despite Dubai opening for tourism already. They already hosted an Air Badminton competition, one of the first competitions to return and one of the 1st cities in the world to host a competition again. Their online programs are still happening, the weekly training for players, so things are happening now. So they will continue to work hard to maintain their level. Despite this crisis, Mr. Jaffar, Mr. Ghazi and Coach Taufer strongly believe that they will become stronger from it.
The future of badminton is a bright one in the UAE, and in Dubai. To conclude the interview we asked them what they hoped for in the future, and they gave us a perfect answer: In Dubai we hope and work, not just hope and dream. This sentiment is clearly seen in the growth of the sport in Dubai. They hoped, dreamed, and worked for the development of badminton. And although they still have a long way to go, the foundations are clearly laid out and built, for greater progress in the future.