x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 24 January 2018

Do Emiratis have it too easy? Ask an Olympic gold medallist

Government has done a lot to give the younger generation a good start in their working lives. But too many advantages can prevent people finding their own initiative.

Although I'm not a great follower of sport, as a participant or a spectator, on occasion there is news in the local sporting world that grabs my attention. Over the past few weeks, there have been a couple of such items.

The first was the announcement that Al Wahda's defender Hamdan Al Kamali has been loaned to the French club Lyon, becoming the first Emirati footballer to play with a top European club.

As I've said for years, it's all very well to talk about promoting Emiratisation, whether in sport or anywhere else, but this is not sufficient. Developing talent and expertise does not depend on getting a special boost of your nationality, but because instead on proving your ability to compete, on equal terms, with people of all nationalities.

If and when Al Kamali proves himself at Lyon, as I hope he will, he will be a role model for every aspiring Emirati footballer. When he returns home, he will bring with him a challenge for other players to rise to his level, and for the standard of UAE football as a whole to improve.

This doesn't apply just to football, of course. I learnt last week that several young Emirati engineers have been working on a major oilfield development in Sakhalin, in eastern Russia, testing their mettle against other engineers of many nationalities. Professionals who finish their secondment are much better equipped to tackle the challenges at home than compatriots who have had no overseas experience.

To perform to the best of their ability and to compete, both locally and internationally, people need to develop a mindset that enables them to rise to challenges, often without much support.

That brings me to the second piece of sporting news: the announcement by the UAE's only Olympic gold medallist, Sheikh Ahmed Al Maktoum, that ill health had obliged him to retire from competitive shooting just a few months before the London Olympic Games. It was a tragedy for Sheikh Ahmed, for whom it would have been his fourth Games.

Since the build-up to his double-trap gold medal at the 2004 Athens Olympics, Sheikh Ahmed has shown that absolute dedication is an essential component of his success. While he was able to shoulder the costs of training, it's important to note that he achieved his success as an individual, without a lot of official support.

Indeed, as he has bluntly said, while plenty of money has been poured into popular sports such as football, in which the UAE's record has been far from impressive, very little investment goes into the "Cinderella" sports in which local teams and players have often performed well, locally and internationally.

After Sheikh Ahmed's gold medal, one would have thought that there would have been an upsurge in funding for competitive shooting, which after all does have a direct link to the heritage of the UAE's people. Yet, he warns, the sport is still not taken seriously inside the Emirates.

Sheikh Ahmed offers another lesson for the would-be sportsman though - one that is applicable in all walks of life. To succeed, it is necessary to try, and try, and try again, always seeking to improve one's performance. In an interview after he announced his retirement, Sheikh Ahmed said there was a need for a different approach, and not just in his sport.

"We need to change and catch up with the rest of the world. We Arabs have to change our attitude towards life and not just sport," Sheikh Ahmed said. "We cannot just live in luxury - beautiful cars, beautiful malls, and wear beautiful clothes. These things don't make champion guys: our generation should learn to suffer in the real life."

In effect, he said, many young Emiratis just have things too easy. Whether in sport or in their working life, they are not being stretched by real competition or being challenged to aspire for the best. That's a view with which many will agree.

Government has done much to give the younger generation a good start in their working lives, including education, helping them to find jobs and providing them with homes. Will that generation now just take things easy, or will it build upon the opportunities provided to try to excel? The future of the country will depend, to a very large extent, on the answer to that question.


Peter Hellyer is a consultant specialising in the UAE's history and culture