Today in Dubai, the first tentative, but ambitious, steps will be taken to earn the UAE a new place on the world sporting map, in lawn bowls. Ambitious they are, as the sport has no clubs, association or playing facilities in the Emirates. In fact, the nearest greens of a nation registered with World Bowls are as far away as Cyprus. Ali Akbar, a banker in Dubai who is better known as a cricketer, is a key figure behind the push, which will take its big step onto the world stage at a World Bowls Association meeting. He believes there is huge potential for what is a gentle, skilful sport among both Emiratis and the expatriate population. He sees the game being played on indoor rinks, which would make it a viable proposition 24 hours a day in all weather.
Akbar, who has a fine career behind him representing the UAE and has his own cricket academy, sees his new dream as certainly ambitious, but not all that fantastic. In the mid-1990s, the game of bowls in Malaysia had declined from a popular colonial pastime to a state of neglect so severe that once-treasured greens were being used as golf-putting greens. Then the realisation struck some latterday pioneers that this was a sport that may suit the Malaysian culture and they embarked on a recruitment drive for younger people to join the game, imported world-class coaches, and last year Safuan Said was the men's world singles champion, with Siti Zalina Ahmad ranked third on the world women's singles ladder.
This suggests bowls is a sport that can be enjoyed in a Muslim nation by both sexes in a social environment or at international level. Akbar said he first hit on the idea of being involved in bowls while playing cricket in South Africa and watching older players drift out of the game. It occurred to him that these people had just the skills that were needed to play lawn bowls, and pondered the possibilities of guiding former cricketers into the game.
During his time in the UAE the idea has stayed with him and he has received expressions of interest from potential sponsors in Sharjah, but as yet they have not been able to find a suitable venue. "I believe we have a promising environment for development of the game here, it just needs a push to get it started," Akbar said. "It would be relatively inexpensive to set up an indoor bowls complex here, and if we get it to international standard from the start, with facilities for TV broadcasts, I am sure we could get international competitions being played here in no time.
"There is also enormous tourist potential in lawn bowls." At the biannual meeting of the World Bowls Association in Dubai, which is being held here at the invitation of Mr Akbar and his backers, representatives of the world's nations that have a history of playing the game will discuss its development and future promotion. While the UAE will not be represented at the meeting as it does not yet have an official association, the game's promoters here will be busy lobbying for support for their plans. They have already received pledges of technical backing in setting up an indoor facility and Akbar said there was an air of excitement about the UAE becoming a major international venue for bowls in the same way as it has for motor racing, cricket, tennis and golf.
"Hopefully, we will come out of this with a far more focused plan for the game and will then be able to intensify our search for players, sponsors and supporters." Who knows where this could all lead in 10 years? Add in a few more people with the determination of Akbar's fledgling team, and a little political will to broaden the sporting environment in the Emirates - as suggested under the law decreed recently by Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed, President of the UAE - and the game could just take off. Just look at Malaysia.