ABU DHABI // As the first Emirati to take the plunge in the world freediving championship next month, Adel Abu Haliqa is guaranteed a place in the record books regardless of how breathtaking his performance proves. Despite generations of pearl divers who mastered the skill of holding their breath so they could harvest the treasures of the seabed, he is the UAE's only freediver and, as such, will set the national record when he competes in Eindhoven in the Netherlands on Nov 23.
"It is not so much breaking a record as setting one," said Abu Haliqa, who runs a traditional clothing boutique in Abu Dhabi. "It would look very bad if I could only dive for one metre, but whatever I give is what is going to be recorded, as long as I don't make any mistakes. "But I believe I am ready - I am going in the name of the UAE and I am very proud of that. It is a real honour for me." Abu Haliqa, 36, has made remarkable progress since taking up the sport two years ago.
His instructor, Sara-Lise Haith, who puts him through his paces at the Armed Forces Officers Club in Abu Dhabi, is proud of him. "When he first started, he was very much a beginner and had equalisation problems, but he took it seriously from the start. He has worked hard and is really patient about it. There are a lot of spear fishermen out there and a lot of them have been known to dive irresponsibly. But Adel adheres to all the safety rules and is very strict about those rules."
Freediving takes various forms. In the most controversial, divers try to reach extraordinary depths at sea with the aid of a giant fin. In April 2007, Loic Leferme, a French diver, died during a world-record attempt in the sea near Nice, while six years ago, Audrey Mestre, a French world-champion freediver, drowned in the Dominican Republic during a dive supervised by her husband. Abu Haliqa's three events take place in a pool, however, and he said that if the rules are followed, it is perfectly safe. One of his events measures the length of time he can hold his breath while submerged, while the other two measure the distance he can swim underwater with and without a giant single fin.
"We have a tradition of diving here in the UAE that is thousands of years old," he said. "Our ancestors were all divers, and used to do long dives. "As my father tells me, it was not uncommon for them to dive for up to three and a half minutes. Freediving is done in a different way and is very safe." His trainer thinks the sport is ready to take off in the UAE. "I think he is going to start a trend," she said. "If he comes back with some success there, he is going to start an epidemic because people can see that this guy has come from nowhere and is setting records."