The sport has always been popular - but gyms such as Kuwait's Oxygen are now attracting global stars
From Mr Universe in '70s Iraq to the Lion of Lebanon, how bodybuilding has muscled in to the Middle East
The year was 1972. Iraq nationalised its petroleum company as a man by the name of Saddam Hussein ominously expanded his power base.
But 1972 in Iraq was noteworthy for another reason: the Mr Universe bodybuilding competition held in Baghdad that November. Bodybuilding was then considered a quirk in the West, populated by a shadowy sub-culture of musclemen who were considered at worst, freakish and at best, to be laughed at. But in the Middle East, the sport was hugely popular and its protagonists were held up as heroes by an adoring public.
According to a report from 1971, the Iraqi delegation was overcome with emotion after the decision by the International Federation of Body Builders (IFBB) to award it the 1972 pageant (also known as the World Amateur Bodybuilding Championships).
Iraq said its national airline would fly in entrants and officials from Geneva, Switzerland and Pakistan free of charge, while its Olympic committee claimed it budgeted $45,000 to host the event.
In that same report, then IFBB president Ben Weider can be seen gleefully pointing to Baghdad on the world map. Mr Arab and Mr Middle East were formally recognised by the IFBB that year too.
Mr Universe was held from November 15 to 23 and it was nothing short of a revelation. Weider spoke in Arabic at the opening gala; limos ferried delegates and contestants to first-class hotels; a visit to the Hanging Gardens of Babylon was organised; while the eventual winner Ed Corney and compatriot Mike Katz were treated as major celebrities.
Fifty contestants from 32 nations took part, while thousands attended the competition.
Journalists Charles Gaines and George Butler covered the spectacle and it featured in Pumping Iron: The Art and Sport of Bodybuilding, their seminal 1974 book that firmly put the muscle game into the mainstream.
Pumping Iron detailed the exploits of a little-known Austrian muscle man by the name of Arnold Schwarzenegger, propelling him to stardom. But it also tapped into the popularity of bodybuilding in the Middle East and its marginalised status in the West.
“In America, bodybuilding happened in places like Holyoke, Massachusetts and no one knew about it. In Iraq, 15,000 people tried to gain entry to the movie theatre [Al Nasr] where the Mr Universe contest was held,” wrote Jon Hotten in his 2004 book, Muscle: A Writer's Trip Through a Sport with No Boundaries.
“George Butler took pictures of guys trying to tear off the doors and climb in through the windows and rows of men two hundred deep in the hot streets outside. Butler and Gaines and Katz and the other bodybuilders had the most amazing time.”
Butler was also representing Life magazine, its last overseas assignment before it became defunct, and he photographed the competitors in front of the "Lion of Babylon".
Fast forward to the Dubai Muscle Show that was held last weekend. Bronzed bodies posed under the glare of stage lights; thousands of starstruck fans queued to meet their favourite bodybuilders, while dozens of stalls dished out free protein samples.
It featured global stars such as Jay Cutler, a four-time winner of Mr Olympia and Kai Greene, the 2016 Arnold Classic winner.
The show was also rich with regional talent: Egyptian superstar Mamdouh Elssbiay “Big Ramy”, who won this year’s Arnold Classic Europe; Egyptian-born Mo Ismail, aka Mo Muscles; and Kuwait’s Ahmad Ashkanani, 2017 Arnold Classic winner, were in town. They were joined by Emirati Essa Obaid, who was the first person from the Arabian Gulf to participate in the Mr Olympia bodybuilding competition.
“We saw a huge gap, especially in the Arab and local community,” says Nick Blair, exhibition director of the show that's only in its second year.
“A lot of these guys don’t go out and party – so they love to be in the gym and train. The competition we have this year is officially the most athletes ever to compete in the Middle East in a bodybuilding competition.”
The growth of the sport is a testament to how bodybuilding has moved from backstreet gyms into the mainstream. But it also feeds into the long history of bodybuilding in the Middle East.
One of the most famous regional bodybuilders is Lebanon’s Samir Bannout. Known as the “Lion of Lebanon”, he was the first and only person from the region in 1983 to win Mr Olympia. Mohamed Makkawy “The Magic Egyptian” also came second in the Mr Olympia competition in the 1980s.
“Bodybuilding is massive in Egypt,” says Egyptian-born Mo Ismail, aka Mo Muscles. “In the 1990s, you saw posters of Arnold [Schwarzenegger] almost everywhere. People look up to them and professional soccer players – a Hercules-type physique is idolised in a way.”
Bodybuilding shows are regularly held across the region. Kuwait, and in particular its Oxygen Gym, has emerged as a global centre. Oxygen was founded by Bader Boodai and “Big Ramy” is based there. Ashkanani has also worked out of the gym.
“Bodybuilding is the most popular sport in Kuwait, especially in the past five years,” says Ashkanani. “Now we have more than 10 Kuwaiti pro athletes.”
Emirati bodybuilder Obaid works out of Dubai’s Nashwan Gym. “Now the scene is growing very fast,” he says of the UAE.
Obaid tells me Dubai has big gyms but Kuwait has Boodai, and he is a smart guy. “They are like a team. They support each other with everything.”
Women, too, are trying to get involved, fighting against cultural restrictions and stereotypes that hold them back.
Take Haifa El Musawi, for example, a Bahraini female bodybuilder who was profiled on these pages in 2015. Kai Greene, meanwhile, arrived at the Dubai Muscle Show from an expo in Jeddah. He is a global bodybuilding megastar with 3.4 million followers on Instagram and 254,000 on Twitter.
Greene is known for his philosophical approach to the sport as much as his gigantic muscles and he speaks at length about how self-development is at the core of bodybuilding, the issue of drugs and his thoughts on the Middle East scene.
Greene tells me that about a decade ago, he heard of top-tier athletes such as Melvin Anthony, Denis James and Dennis Wolf travelling to Kuwait to train so it’s no surprise to see how it has expanded there.
“I expect it to be a bigger contributor to the world in the coming years,” says Greene. “Culturally they have some very interesting things – a structure and a lifestyle. So if a champion was having difficulties getting into the headspace, or setting aside the creation of the solitude necessary to train, eat and sleep, it seems they have put together an interesting little world that is totally devoted to being able to do that.”
Watching the athletes refuel at the Dubai Muscle Show is a testament to their singular commitment.
Before major competitions such as My Olympia, bodybuilders forgo water so the skin tightens to reveal every muscle and fibre. Take Eddie Hall for example, the world’s strongest man. His daily diet includes waking up at 2am to drink a litre of protein shake, followed by another at 7am and then a full English breakfast. With this kind of commitment required, it’s not hard to understand the appeal of a gym such as Oxygen where outside interference is kept to a minimum.
Ismail even puts Oxygen in the same category as the legendary Golds Gym in Venice Beach during its 1960s heyday.
“It has produced a lot of champions. Even US bodybuilders train there so they can focus. No distractions. No parties.”
The use of drugs in the sport is an issue that refuses to go away. It is a murky part of the muscle world but none of the bodybuilders in Dubai are reluctant to discuss the issue.
According to Ismail, only a small fraction of athletes use drugs but one area of concern are the smaller gyms, where impressionable youngsters are encouraged by unscrupulous trainers to try the “juice”.
Walk into many of these smaller gyms even in Abu Dhabi and you'll hear hushed talk of steroids and see a few suspect bodies. This type of dangerous advice is sometimes referred to as bro-science.
“They’ll say ‘oh yeah bro you should try this, it will get you big’. They end up ruining themselves in the long run – whether through kidney issues or hormonal problems,” says Ismail. “This is one thing I’ve always seen in the Middle East and I would like to see outlawed."
The IFBB is a signature to the World Anti Doping code and it says random drug testing is carried out.
But for Greene, the issue of performance enhancing drugs, or PEDs, is talked about far more than it should be,
"As far as drug abuse goes, it depends on what you want to focus on. People make their own choices and the path they choose to follow. It’s a terrible thing if we allow the idea of PEDs or their use and abuse to be the only thing we talk about."
The muscle game today is one indistinguishable from the exotic world of the 1960s. Schwarzenegger went on to become a Hollywood legend and governor of California, while bodybuilding is no longer obscure.
Quite the contrary, it has tapped in to the worldwide explosion of fitness as a type of lifestyle choice. The muscle game too has become commercialised, more cut throat and its stars have become big brands – with millions of followers on social media. There are also big plans for Dubai Muscle Show and it is hoped female bodybuilders will be competing there soon.
“We are already booked for next year,” says Blair. “It’s going to be 75 per cent bigger.”