I was delighted to read several weeks ago of the successful venture by Elham Al Qasimi, a courageous and determined 26-year old Emirati, to become the first UAE national and the first Arab woman to reach the North Pole. She will, I am confident, prove to be an inspiration to many other young Emiratis showing them that it is possible to have a goal and with determination and guts, to reach it. If the UAE had a system, as do some other countries, of awarding medals to individuals who have excelled in their chosen field or endeavour, then she would surely be a leading candidate for the next honours list.
She is but one among many Emiratis who have now made their way into the record books or into the list of the country's achievers in a wide range of sporting activities. Another unfashionable sport where there's been international success is that of ice-hockey, scarcely something at which one would expect the UAE to excel. Yet, from small beginnings, the UAE national team won its first international match in 2007, moving on to win the first Arab ice hockey cup in 2008 and then, a much more impressive victory, the 2nd Asian Ice Hockey Championship last year.
Of course, there have been flurries of international achievement in the distant past. Back in 1979, Saeed Ahmed Saeed won the world Under-14 chess championship and repeated his success a couple of years later. More recently, in 2004, Sheikh Ahmed Al Maktoum won the UAE's first Olympic gold medal for double trap shooting and just missed the bronze medal for the trap event. He remains today the UAE's only Olympic medal winner.
There's a thread linking all of these achievements. The people who have accomplished them have done so in sports or pursuits that are very much dependent on the human element, rather than on finely-tuned machines. They have found success in sports that receive little attention and often with little assistance of any kind. As Sheikh Ahmed has commented in the past, most of the funds that go into supporting sporting activities in this country are allocated to popular sports.
There are signs that this is now beginning to change. It's been encouraging, for example, to see the way in which Etihad Airways have emerged as sponsors of rugby in Abu Dhabi, even though that came about as a by-product of their sponsorship of one of England's leading rugby teams. I wonder whether the UAE is the kind of country that will produce world-beating sides in team sports. We lack the population to be able to build a football team capable of winning a World Cup, even if we did manage to get to the World Cup finals in 1990. The excitement over winning the Gulf Cup in 2007 was understandable - I still remember being stuck in an overexcited cavalcade of cars - but UAE football is still inconsequential at a global level. Our cricketers have done relatively well too, winning the ACC Trophy on four occasions and being runners-up three times, but there's little sign, as yet, of young Emiratis making their way up through the cricket leagues to earn their place in the expatriate-dominated UAE national team.
I suspect, too, that it'll be a long time before the country produces any Olympic medal winners in hockey or, perish the thought, in synchronised swimming, although I do cherish the hope that one day a brilliant marathon runner will emerge from a childhood of scrambling up the steep slopes of the Hajar Mountains. In my view, it is likely to be as a result of individual efforts or out of unfashionable team events that we may see the UAE really making its mark.
I wouldn't wish in any way to underestimate the achievements that have been made by Emirati sportsmen in the field of motorsport, whether on land, such as Mohammed bin Sulayem, or by the host of successful competitors in powerboat racing, both from Abu Dhabi and Dubai. They've made their name globally, and quite rightly, given the number of successes that they've recorded. Still, it's fair to note that they've done so in partnership with expensive machines and with an enormous amount of technical and human support: the glory is not theirs alone.
The achievements of Elham Al Qasimi and Sheikh Ahmed are of another order. They have shown intense commitment, a dedication that borders upon obsession and have strained their physical powers to their limits in order to achieve their goals. They should inspire and I hope that they do. It would be nice if the young men and women of the Emirates took such people as role models. How satisfying it would be if the UAE made more appearances in the record books as a result of achievements such as theirs that derive from a triumph of the human spirit.
There are, I am sure, others out there of whom we have not yet heard, engaged in sporting or other activities attracting little attention, setting themselves similar targets and making progress towards them. I look forward to hearing of them in the years to come. Peter Hellyer is a consultant specialising in Emirati culture and heritage