Traditional sports of the UAE reflect the culture and old-school lifestyle of this nation. Having a dry climate, the UAE once consisted mostly of vast stretches of sand or rugged terrain. Life in the desert required its residents to have certain skills in order to be able to thrive in such a harsh environment. Over time, such skills were honed by the people and became an inseparable part of their lives. Nowadays, the UAE has undergone profound development in many aspects and its harsh deserts are tamed to serve as tourist attractions. However, the skills that the desert people needed to master for their survival were rehearsed through time and with some alterations, emerged eventually as traditional sports. In this article, we are going to introduce to you the traditional sports that are still practiced in the UAE. Stay tuned!
Importance of Traditional Sports and Games
From dances to ball games and water sports, traditional sports and games constitute a significant part of a nation’s culture and history and define that nation’s identity. Traditional sports and games span genders, generations, and individualities; telling the story of a nation in a unique and engaging way. Traditional sports are localized and regional and they are as important a part of a nation’s culture as that nation’s music, language, literature, and architecture.
On the contrary to what the name might suggest, traditional sports are not necessarily about competition and physical activity. They are much more and symbolize something more. You do not have to be an expert to take part in traditional sports. Instead, these games provide a great opportunity for everyone to enjoy the fun and engage in beneficial social interaction.
The UAE’s traditional sports have emerged from the nation’s culture and history and tell the story of what has gone before. They are still practiced today by not only the people of the UAE, but also those from other regions of the world who are intrigued by all the recreation these sports and games bear. In the next section of the article, we are going to explore some of the most popular traditional sports in the UAE.
What Are the UAE’s Traditional Sports and Games?
As mentioned above, the traditional sports of the UAE were once part of the desert economy and prerequisites of thriving in desert life. Nowadays, the means of social and economic management are different and require new sets of skills and knowledge. However, the UAE’s traditional sports remained popular among the people and eventually transformed into recreational activities. Here are a number of these famous traditional sports:
- Camel Racing, A Thrilling Sport in the UAE
Camels are desert animals and were among the main means of transportation in the old days. Considering this, no wonder camel riding and camel racing are among the UAE’s top traditional sports. They are so popular that even the sound of roaring car engines in modern races has not been able to drive these traditional sports out of the competition.
Sudan and Oman are major camel breeders of the Arab world and in the race tracks, you’ll only find Omani or Sudania camels. Other breeds are not used in races. Race camels are fed on a special diet of dates, bran and oats. Sometimes, they are even given cow’s milk too. Racing authorities determine a camel’s age by observing its teeth. If they reach a certain age, they will be selected for races. Trainers make the camels run certain distances each day to enhance their stamina and prepare them for the tracks. The animals also go through a thorough medical check up before signing up for races.
In the past, camel racing was a practice exclusive to wedding ceremonies. Today, however, it is recognized as an official sport in the UAE. There are many race tracks across the country with Nad Al Sheba Racecourse in Dubai and Al Wathba in Abu Dhabi being two of the most famous ones. You’ll also get to ride camels in many of the country’s desert camping spots. Check out our article on the best UAE camping spots to learn more.
- Falconry, One of the Oldest UAE Traditional Sports
Falconry is one of the oldest and most cherished traditional sports in the UAE. Food is scarce in deserts and Arab tribes of old had to come up with innovative ways to battle hunger. Falconry, this 2000-year-old practice was initially a means of sourcing food in the desert. Falcons were trained to aid hunters in their hunt for animals such as hares and houbara, and falconry became an inseparable part of the UAE culture.
Falcon trainers train their trusty hunting partners with great patience and many consider this practice not a sport, but an art. It also became a very prestigious practice when it became the favorite sport of the UAE royal families. UAE Emirs have also imported the species of falcons from other countries.
Nowadays, falconry is not practiced widely due to the endangerment of the species of these birds. New restrictions have also been instituted on the commercial sale and import of falcons. Trainers usually showcase their skills in annual festivals and through competitions such as the International Hunting & Equestrian Exhibition in Abu Dhabi as well as the Sheikh Zayed Heritage Festival. The lucky winner of these competitions can score up to a whopping 500k-Emirati-dirham prize.
- Horse Racing, a Traditional Sport Cherished by the Royal Family of Dubai
Arabian horses can easily be recognized by the district shape of their heads and are one of the most sought-after breeds across the world. Arabian horses have dense, strong bones and their superior stamina has made them specifically perfect for endurance riding. Wherever there are fine steeds like the Arabian, one can expect that horse racing is one of the most popular sports.
Horse racing is cherished not only by the people of the UAE and other countries around the globe, but also by the royal families of the UAE. Emir of Dubai, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum and his son, the crown prince, Sheikh Hamdan, are in fact skilled horse riders and have also won several riding competitions in foreign countries (if you want to learn more about the Emirati ruling class, check out our guide to royal families of the UAE).
The UAE also hosts several prestigious horse racing competitions, among which the Dubai World Cup is famous for rewarding its winners with the highest amount of monetary prizes. For example, the prize money for the 2021 winners was a whopping $12 million! The country has also hosted the FEI World Endurance Championship. All emirates of the UAE feature top-notch horse racing facilities and this reflects the preciousness of horse riding to the Emiratis.
- Dhow Racing, the art of Sailing in Traditional Boats
Don’t let the UAE’s dry climate trick you into believing that the Emiratis are strangers to watersports! In fact, most of the world-renowned major cities of the UAE were once small fishing villages and their economy depended mostly on what the sea had to offer. This made room for several watersports in the UAE’s culture, among which traditional boat sailing is still widely practiced.
Historians speculate that originally, traditional Arabian boats, known as “Dhows”, were used for fishing and pearl diving or served as trading vessels carrying fruits and other goods. A dhow is a wooden boat and usually has one or two masts and a long overhang forward.
Nowadays, dhows are mostly used in traditional boat races. The races are usually held in cooler seasons of the year, from October to April. Every year, a watersport festival is held in Mubarraz Island near Abu Dhabi in which you can watch spirited competitors sailing their dhows towards the finish line. Another hotspot for Dhow sailing competitions is Sir Bu Nair Island.
Dhows are not used exclusively in races though. The modern version of these traditional boats are well-equipped with the newest amenities for the convenience of the passengers. If you want to bask in the pleasure of a Dhow cruise while enjoying the view of the city, you can head to Dubai Creek and indulge yourself.
- Free Diving, a Skill Once Paramount to the UAE’s Pearling Industry
Free diving is another traditional watersport in the UAE and in the past, it was a necessary skill for pearl divers who wanted to be a part of the pearling industry. Pearl diving dates back to the 12th century and became a pillar of the UAE’s economy. The industry was so profitable that it not only became the major profession for most of the locals, but also attracted bold adventurers and treasure hunters from other regions of the world. In fact, the UAE’s two world-renowned metropolises, Dubai and Abu Dhabi, came into being thanks to the region’s lucrative pearling industry. Pearl divers from across the region and even other countries moved into Dubai and Abu Dhabi with their family to hunt the treasures deep in the pearling sites of these two cities.
The industry collapsed in the early 1900s due to the development of cultured pearls. The diving however, remained popular among people as a recreational activity and nowadays, is one of the UAE’s hotly contested traditional sports. Not only Emiratis, but also people from all around the globe join the competition whenever the UAE hosts a free diving contest. The Fazza Freediving Championship is one of the major sport events that attracts highly skilled divers from across the world and obliges them to remain under water at a depth of 30 meters for as long as three minutes.
- Saluki Racing, a Commemoration of Traditional Hunting
Falcons were not the only companions of hunters and trackers of old. During hunting expeditions, hunters were also accompanied by their loyal hunting dogs, the Salukis. Saluki is one of the oldest dog breeds and desert tribes used to train this breed to run down game animals. Arabian Saluki dogs were so fast they could even catch a running gazelle! They can reach speeds of up to 65 kmph. A great number of Saluki dogs were lost to world war II but breeders managed to save the breed and they are still among us today.
Nowadays, Saluki racing is one the UAE’s most popular and prized traditional sports. Each year in the UAE, the Hamdan bin Mohammed Heritage Center (HHC) holds a festival called the Arab Heritage Saluki Race. During this festival, championship contests are held and Saluki dogs race at racetracks such as Sweihan near Abu Dhabi and Al Marmoom in Dubai. The winning dogs reward their owners with prizes as high as AED 400k!
- Archery, an Ancient Eastern Practice
Archery is one of the oldest practices in the Middle East and dates back to the era of the Babylonians and Assyrians. It was the Middle Eastern superiority in the equipment and techniques of archery that allowed the nations of the region to conquer much of Europe and Asia. Ancient Arabs used bows whether on foot or from the back of a horse or a camel. They used different kinds of arrows. Excavations at the ancient city of Al Dour in the emirate of Umm Al Quwain has led to the discovery of a great number of 2000-year-old trilobite arrowheads. Today, you can find many of these ancient arrowheads at the UAE’s museums, such as Al Ain Museum in Abu Dhabi which is the oldest museum in the country.
The desert tribes of old practiced archery not only for hunting, but also for military purposes. Archery is also of significant religious importance to Muslims since it was cherished by their prophet Muhammad. Nowadays, archery is one of the UAE’s popular traditional sports. Many camping sites, resorts, and sporting venues across the country allow their visitors to practice archery. If you ever found yourself in Dubai and wanted to hone your marksmanship skills, pay a visit to the Jebel Ali Shooting Club which is one of the best places to practice archery.
- Shooting, a More Recent Tradition
By the time guns made their way to the Middle East, people of the UAE had long been practicing archery and boasting their marksmanship skills. That’s why they welcomed this new means of hunting and warfare with open arms and shooting quickly found a foothold in UAE’s culture. UAE sharpshooters have won many olympic championships and this reflects the importance of this sport to the nation. Abdullah Sultan Al Aryani and Sheikh Ahmed bin Hasher Al Maktoum are two of the famous Emirati sharpshooters.
There are many world-class shooting ranges in the UAE. In Dubai, the Jebel Ali beach resort greets its visitors with one of the top gun ranges of the UAE. Jebel Ali Shooting Club features both an outdoor and an indoor environment and welcomes gun lovers of all levels. Abu Dhabi too is home to some of the greatest shooting clubs of the UAE. Al Ain Shooting Club meets the highest standards of the International Shooting Sport Federation (ISSF) and offers a wide range of facilities.
- Bullfighting, a Controversial Tradition
Popular among cattle breeders, bullfighting is a less-known tradition in the emirate of Fujairah. Every week, on Friday afternoon, breeders gather together and organize the fights to determine which of their cattle are the strongest. It is different from the fights that are held in Spain and Portugal. Organizers insist that there is no bloodshed in the matches and it’s more about the animals’ show of strength and the owners’ pride.
Animal rights campaigners, however, condemn these fights and believe they are unnecessary. Overall, bullfighting is a controversial tradition in the UAE and authorities are going to make a decision about whether it has to be banned or not.
- UAE Traditional Games
Aside from traditional sports, you can find a number of traditional games that have emerged from Arabian culture and are still very popular among the people of the UAE, including:
- Ghommemah: A game of tag in which the tagger wears a blindfold. The tagger chases other players as they run around and when they catch someone, they must guess who they are. If the guess is correct, the player that was caught becomes the tagger and wears the blindfold.
- Fashkhah: Two players sit together on the ground with their legs straight out. Another player tries to jump over their legs. Each time the player makes a successful jump, the other two sit further away from each other. The game continues until the player fails to make the jump.
- Carrom: An ancient pool-like board game that requires two players. Each player has a set of nine disks, either black or white. There is also a red disk called the queen. Players must get all of their disks and then the queen onto the four pockets on the corners of the game board using a special disk called the striker.
This concludes our article on traditional sports in the UAE. These sports have emerged from the UAE’s unique culture and are reflections of the lives of people of old. The region was once a vast terrain of sand that stretched along the sea. Desert tribes relied on hunting and the use of camels and horses to survive and thrive while the economy of coastal villages depended majorly on the sea.
Those who lived in the deserts trained falcons and saluki dogs to aid them on their hunting expeditions while those who resided in fishing villages used to sail their dhows along the shore in search for fishes and pearls. These daily practices eventually turned into recreational activities when times changed and became the UAE’s traditional sports.
Nowadays, people of the UAE cherish not only their traditional practices, but also modern international sports. The country is home to many world-class sport facilities and trains athletes in a wide range of fields.
Sports are not the only fun you’ll find in the UAE though. The country caters to its visitors with a vast array of opulent resorts, gorgeous attractions, enormous shopping centers, beautiful camping spots, and a plethora of recreational activities. The UAE has also one of the strongest passports (we have covered all about the UAE passport in another article) in the world. Good news is, you can become a UAE citizen and have permanent access to all the fun and joy thanks to the new UAE nationality law. Feeling intrigued? Start by investing in Off plan projects in the UAE. Don’t worry about the procedure; our team at dxboffplan.com are always ready to help.