DUBAI // Football hooliganism has been significantly reduced since police deployed new units to deal with unruly fans five years ago, in part because of the death of a young sheikh during a match, a senior officer has said.
Sheikh Mohammed bin Khalid Al Qasimi, 28, a member of the Sharjah Royal Family, was fatally injured by a firework during a match between the UAE and Egypt which took place in Dubai in 1996. Sheikh Mohammed, who was the nephew of the Ruler of Sharjah, Sheikh Sultan bin Mohammed Al Qasimi, and who worked as director of the Sharjah department of culture and information, later died at a private hospital in Scotland.
Speaking at an international police conference here on Monday, Lt Col Ahmad Khalfan al Mansoury, the head of the general department of emergencies at Dubai Police, cited the creation in 2003 of specialised units, including mounted police, dog handlers and riot-control officers who have received training by police forces in other countries, for the decline in violence. Before that, regular patrol officers provided security at sporting events.
He said that five years ago, for example, there were 35 incidents of fireworks being used during football matches. Last year, there were none, while there were also just three recorded fights between fans."Despite the increase in the number of championships and games being held, we have recorded a decline in violence, and while we aimed to reduce the number of firework incidents by 80 per cent, we actually achieved a 100 per cent drop."
Lt Col al Mansoury said the death of the sheikh spurred officials to start looking at how other countries handled the problem. "Dubai Police has built its ideas of how to deal with this issue on the experience of our colleagues in police forces internationally," he said at the International Symposium on Best Police Practices. "We visited the World Cup finals in Paris in 1998 and South Korea in 2002, the Athens Olympics, the Germany World Cup and the Beijing Olympics to see how other countries dealt with security."
Now, not only are sporting events guarded by officers with special training, police dogs also scrutinise fans for fireworks and explosives. Fans are also photographed during matches to identify troublemakers so they can be banned from future games. That is not to say football matches have been completely free of violence in recent years. In the most prominent example, angry fans threw water- and juice-filled bottles at players and officials during the UAE's World Cup qualifying defeat to North Korea in Abu Dhabi in September. The sport's world governing body Fifa fined the UAE's national football association almost US$7,000 (Dh25,000) for the incident.
According to Lt Col al Mansoury, police are now also working closely with clubs and sports associations to redesign stadiums with security in mind and are speaking directly with fans themselves. "We have held public information campaigns at schools and sports clubs, to encourage young people to support their teams but in the spirit of fair play, and those in charge of sports clubs and federations have been supportive. We appointed 'police friends' among the fans; we have their phone numbers and stay in regular contact with them," he said.
Ahmed al Rahoomi of the Dubai Sports Council confirmed that clubs were working closely with police to prevent violence. "It's not a big problem here at all, but the police and authorities need to be prepared for anything," he said. "There is a very good relationship between the sports council, the clubs and the police. We involve the police in the planning and organisation of events and even in the design of stadiums - they are experts in crowd safety and will see possibilities that non-experts might not think of."
One fan said he welcomed the stronger police presence at matches. Kareem Shaheen, who was at the 1996 match during which the young sheikh was fatally injured, said: "I saw the rocket that killed the sheikh during that game; there was a fight between one of the Egyptian players and a member of the UAE team, and it looked as if the firework was aimed at the players but went off course." "I had never seen anything like that at a game here. I have seen other times where there has been some pushing and shouting between fans, but there have always been police around and it has never turned in to anything serious."