x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 20 July 2017

How the UAE's skateboarders are grinding out a future

Go Skateboarding Day celebrates a sport that is proven to benefit restless youth. Nick Leech talks with members of the local skating community about their determined push for better facilities.

Brunto Santana, an instructor at Rage. Antonie Robertson / The National
Brunto Santana, an instructor at Rage. Antonie Robertson / The National

Today is one of the most important dates on the skateboarding calendar. Whether they are alone, in small groups or at large organised events, millions of skaters worldwide will mark the 10th anniversary of Go Skateboarding Day - the "grind heard around the world" - a global celebration of what for many is more than just a sport. It is their passion, their obsession and their life. Internationally, more than 500 events are expected to take place in countries such as Australia, Saudi Arabia, the Philippines, Afghanistan and Brazil.

In the US, Innoskate, a public festival organised in conjunction with the Smithsonian's Lemelson Center for the Study of Invention and Innovation, will feature demonstrations by professional skaters such as Tony Hawk and Rodney Mullen in the National Mall in Washington DC. In the UAE, a series of smaller events are taking place, most of which would have happened anyway, but which are no less important to the riders involved.

In Dubai, junior skaters such as 13-year-old Peter Dawes of the UK and scooter rider Harley Snowling will congregate at Dorell Skatepark in The Springs for their last "jam" of the current season. Dorell Sports' "Tricky Friday" is a monthly competition in which riders young and old battle for prizes and the satisfaction of having pulled off the day's best trick. Alongside the park's diffident Filipino skate instructor, Sid Dela Paz, Dawes and Snowling form the Dorell Sports skate team.

"I just love skateboarding. It makes you feel so free, and when you land tricks that you've been practising for a while, you're like, 'Yes!'" says Dawes as he pumps his fist in the air. "My friends from school play video games. They're like 'Hey, do you have an Xbox?' and I say 'No, I skateboard' and they're like, 'Get a life!'"

"My parents think it's good that I'm outside," adds Snowling, "but sometimes they can get a bit annoyed because I'm always asking them to bring me to the skatepark. It's good because you're out in the fresh air getting exercise and there's nothing you can really lose, apart from breaking a leg or something."

Wearing safety gear is a requirement at the park, but judging by the way the boys throw themselves at the ramps, rails and half-pipes, it's clear that injury is the last thing on their mind. Instead, they share a vision of improved skills and a bigger, better facility. "We're going to renovate the whole park, add some ramps, rearrange the ones we have," adds Dela Paz. "We want to provide an indoor facility with a rest area, AC and a shop. We're just waiting for papers so we can apply for the electricity."

While Tricky Friday looks set to draw a band of around 70 dedicated riders from across Dubai, the event with most resonance for local skaters is the reopening of a temporary indoor skatepark at the Dubai World Trade Centre.

Sponsored by Rage, the oldest skate business in the Emirates, the facility will not only allow skaters to avoid many of the hazards associated with summer skating here but it will also offer a tantalising vision of a possible indoor future for skate culture in the UAE, a future that every local skater dreams about.

"We really suffer with the heat," explains Ghassan Luqman, a softly spoken 17-year-old Yemeni skater who has lived in Dubai since 2005. "In the summer, we get sunburn and heatstroke. We'd really appreciate something inside. That's all we ask, really."

While Luqman's request may sound simple, the reality is more complex. UAE-based skaters have been demanding a permanent indoor facility for many years, not just to escape the heat, but so they might have a properly designed park to keep them safe, secure and free from harassment by some members of the public . In 2008, more than 250 Abu Dhabi skaters formed a group, the Abu Dhabi Skateboard Community, with the aim of lobbying the Municipality for improved security, but their demands went unheeded.

Shahriar Khodjasteh and his brother founded Rage, the UAE's first skate business, in 2001. For Khodjasteh, the main problem for the local skateboarding scene is the fact that skateparks are commercially unviable. While this didn't stop Khodjasteh building the only permanent indoor skate facility in the UAE, the tiny Rage Bowl, an improbable plywood structure hidden above the Rage boutique in The Dubai Mall, it has made him think twice about further investment.

"The Rage Bowl cost us an arm and a leg. We built it during the recession and, if you ask me why, I still wouldn't be able to tell you."

To the uninitiated, the only clue to the Rage Bowl's existence is the unmistakable locomotive sound of skateboards that emanate from the bowl, a mysterious plywood structure that floats above Khodjasteh's shop. The bowl can be booked for lessons, special events and for testing products from the store below. Unfortunately, space is severely limited and, for Kodjasteh, the vision it provides will remain little more than a mirage unless skateboarding receives government backing and financial support.

"I would like to see a combined effort between all the groups and more support from the government because, at the end of the day, a skate park is not a viable business … In the grand scheme of things, the investment required is not that much, but the benefit that it would bring to the kids, to the sport and to the community as a whole would be phenomenal."

Recently, a new park has opened in Arabian Ranches in Dubai; good news for skaters there. But since 2001, skateparks such as the one that briefly existed in the Dubai Festival City car park have come and gone, and there have been periods when skaters in Dubai have had to take to the streets because there have been no formal skate facilities in the city at all. Brad Kirr, the project manager at the Tashkeel skatepark in Nad Al Sheba, remembers the shock he experienced when he arrived in the city in 2005.

"It was beyond my imagination that a city of this magnitude, with all this crazy stuff, didn't have a skatepark. It kind of made me angry, so I met up with all the skaters and made it my mission to create a skatepark here."

After many years of grassroots activism, which saw people such as Kodjasteh and Kirr create temporary parks, host competitions, sign petitions, sponsor teams, make movies and publish magazines, it appears that momentum is slowly building. Thanks to facilities such as the skate ramp at Tashkeel, which opened in January 2012 as part of a skateboard art exhibition, local authorities are showing increased interest in the potential benefits of skateboarding, BMXing and in-line skating.

"At the opening, there were people from government, from Dubai Culture and Arts, and from the Dubai Sports Council. They were sitting here in awe watching all these kids skate from 3pm to 10pm when we had to turn the lights off," Kirr explains. "I think it was a watershed moment. They realised how addictive physical activity could be and that you could almost trick kids into being active. It clicked with them because there are these very real issues with obesity and diabetes here."

For the former pro-skater and award-winning skatepark designer Simon Oxenham, now is the time to seize the opportunity and to consider teenagers and "action sports" facilities in strategic plans for urban futures throughout the Middle East. At a recent conference for Government, planners and urban designers in Abu Dhabi, Oxenham showed how effective action sports and "youth-inclusive spaces" in Australia have proven in dealing with issues affecting young people, a key demographic throughout the Arab world.

"Why am I so passionate about these sports and spaces? Because they work. Young people engaged in sporting activity are less likely to have tried drugs and alcohol and … less likely to have engaged in sexual activity," he explains. "What are the benefits to the community of having engaged young people? Sporting programmes run in eight indigenous communities in Australia showed a 48 per cent reduction in youth crime."

Oxenham also sees momentum building and believes now is the time for the action sports. He sees the International Olympic Committee's 2008 decision to replace baseball with BMX as an indication of deeper shifts in world sport and believes it is only a matter of time before skateboarding also becomes an Olympic sport.

"When we grew up, it was football, soccer, cricket - regimented sports with training three or four times a week and a coach yelling at you. Kids aren't as attracted to this kind of recreation as much as they used to be. They're looking for freedom these days, and action sports offer that. They also offer creativity and the opportunity to become elite sportsmen in their own way without necessarily following the regime that traditional sports require you to follow."

Local skaters agree. "I find skateboarding limitless," explains Luqman. "You do whatever you like, whatever you love. There are no rules, no officials telling you to do something. You just do what makes you happy."

Dubai-born 19-year-old Karim Nassar is a member of the Rage skate team.

"Without skating, I'd be doing a lot of unacceptable things. Skating has kept me out of trouble and I've gotten to explore. It takes you to places and you experience things that an ordinary person might not normally see."

That is certainly the case for Nassar, who will represent the UAE at the forthcoming Asian Extreme Sports Championship in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. He will be joined there by the 16-year-old skateboarder Khaled Al Dhaheri, 13-year-old BMXer Mubarak Rashed Al Hajeri, 24-year-old in-line skater Alan Khinchagov and 22-year-old in-line skater Sobhan Sohaili Manish. "I've never skated in front of 40,000 people before," says Nassar, smiling and seemingly unfazed by what lies ahead of him.

Whether it's taking part in international competitions or achieving the seemingly impossible task of creating the UAE's first indoor skatepark, the enormity of the task ahead for the UAE's skateboarders is matched only by their dreams, determination and talent. Internationally, skateboarding has already proven its sporting, social and cultural bona fides, and now it is a chance for local decision makers and moneymen to step up to the ramp. Brad Kirr's vision is clear.

"We want to grow the scene as a whole and to create a culture of skateboarding across a wide breadth of nationalities and ethnicities, and to grow that from the Dubai kids. They're the kids who will be here for their entire lives and they have a vested interest in the outcome of their country. They will be the decision makers in the future."

For more photos of the skateparks of Dubai, visit www.thenational.ae/multimedia