x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

Fighting spirit wins through

The Life: A mugging at the age of 17 taught Emirati student Wael Al Sayegh about the discipline of martial arts.

Wael Al Sayegh opened a Family Martial Arts Training Academy with a grant from the Khalifa Fund in November. Courtesy Khalifa Fund
Wael Al Sayegh opened a Family Martial Arts Training Academy with a grant from the Khalifa Fund in November. Courtesy Khalifa Fund

On his way to buy a packet of cigarettes in a rough suburb of Glasgow, 17-year-old Wael Al Sayegh was mugged. The attack not only encouraged the teenager to give up smoking but also persuaded him to turn to boxing to learn how to defend himself. It was the start of a journey that years later would result in him opening his own martial arts business in Dubai.

"In retrospect, I was begging to be mugged," he says. "I was the easiest target. I didn't like the feeling at all." The young Emirati student signed up at Glasgow University's boxing club, which was run by Andy Grant - "a big, chubby Glaswegian". The trainer's first words were: "Och, so you're an Arab are you? I dinnae train Arabs or Muslims; I dinnae train black folk or white folk; I train fighters."

These are words Mr Al Sayegh has never forgotten and they underlie his own teaching philosophy.

After graduation, he was hired by a reinsurance company partly owned by the UAE Government. He was posted to Bahrain before jumping ship two years later to take up a banking job in the UAE. He lasted seven years in the industry, all the time increasing his knowledge of martial arts. This included studying with Geoff Thompson, a "massive name" in the field who had tested his techniques over a decade as a bouncer working in violent nightclubs in the UK.

Mr Al Sayegh identified with Mr Thompson, who as a working-class British boy was dissuaded from following his dreams of being a writer. He was told "people like us don't write". His young student was having a similar experience.

"When I told people I wanted to do martial arts or teach martial arts I got the same response: 'People like us don't do that'," he recalls.

On a black belt training course with Mr Thompson, who, incidentally is now an award-winning writer, the aspiring martial artist met Ivan Rolls, the founder of the Family Martial Arts Leadership Academy (FMA) in Liverpool. He was astounded to learn that the FMA instructors made good money teaching martial arts full-time.

He looked more closely at FMA's business model, which draws heavily on Michael Gerber's book The E Myth Revisited - a work Mr Al Sayegh advises every entrepreneur to read.

"I was genuinely impressed," he says. "Here was an entity that had a business system, a franchisable system; these guys could fight; and they had a very strong self-development side too. For me the franchise option was perfect."

His next move was to approach the Khalifa Fund. His first application was turned down but he applied again - after figuring out where his business plan fell short - and won a Dh500,000 grant. He opened for business last November.

Elements of the FMA system were tricky to adapt to Dubai such as finding a firm that would insure a martial arts business; finding a substitute for the direct debit payment system; tailoring the multi-year programmes to make them more suitable for Dubai's transient population.

But these wrinkles were smoothed out. "We've just crossed six months of business, which is pivotal," Mr Al Sayegh says. "Family Martial Arts in the UK like what I do."

Now Mr Al Sayegh's goal is to open an FMA academy in every emirate.

"We have a certified instructors' programme so we have the ability to produce locally bred instructors so they can earn a good living from marital arts as well," he says.

For an entrepreneur who previously started up two HR consultancies that foundered because he made the "typical beginner's foolish mistake" of failing to put proper business systems in place, his latest venture seems to be working well.

"Most people start a business based on passion and very quickly run into a wall because passion alone won't sustain you," he adds. "As [Rich Dad Poor Dad author] Robert Kiyosaki says, business is a combination of science and art.

"The business tools are the science. To combine those two - science and art - now are you talking stuff that really changes the world, makes it a better place."