x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Expat team sports are booming

Team building and social networking used to be terms reserved for the corporate guru, but in Abu Dhabi they have been commandeered by woman netball players.

A Dubai womens softball team practice at a ground in Sheikh Zayed Road, Dubai.
A Dubai womens softball team practice at a ground in Sheikh Zayed Road, Dubai.

ABU DHABI // Team building and social networking used to be terms reserved for the corporate guru, but in Abu Dhabi they have been commandeered by woman netball players. It is one of the sports that has led to an unprecedented rise in the popularity of amateur leagues - and we are not just talking football and rugby here. Male and female expatriates are increasingly expending their energies in sports they used to enjoy in their home countries - such as water polo, hockey, softball and, of course, netball. Abu Dhabi's netball league was established more than 20 years ago by British expatriates, but it is now more popular than it has ever been, with Romanians, Australians and Canadians joining in the fun. Companies including Oasis Water, Crowne Plaza and Audi have sponsored some of the teams who play each week at the Royal Marina Health Club. Their participation has gone beyond sport to "social networking", says Erene Spies, the league's organiser. "Many of these women who play are here on their own and they want to meet people, to make friends. They're all professionals and they want an outlet for team sport with people from similar backgrounds. Many of the women are actually teachers." Miss Spies believes the rising numbers of women joining reflects the increasing population and diversity of the capital. Last season, one team even made the four-hour round trip from Al Ain each week to play. "People are surprised when they find Abu Dhabi has a netball league, but it's been a part of Abu Dhabi for longer than most of us here," says Miss Spies. Dubai's softball league is another well-established expatriate sport that has been attracting players. It was first set up in the 1970s by US oil companies on a sand field near the airport, to entertain workers during their free time. The league has become one of the biggest in Dubai, with 13 male and four female teams with 10 players each from a variety of professions. Although grass was laid several years ago and teams no longer play on sand, the surface still suggests the intimacy of old Dubai, similar to "a ball park in Boston", said the league's chairman, John Larson. While softball leagues in countries such as Saudi Arabia have been waning, Dubai's continues to expand. This, said Mr Larson, is a sign of the growing expatriate community. "There just aren't enough people in Saudi any more to form teams," said Mr Larson. "It used to be a huge league but people have been leaving in their thousands. "Dubai is much more expatriate-friendly nowadays and you can see that reflected socially in these sports leagues." Outdoor team sports have become so popular there is a shortage of space for them to play on. The softball league shares its facilities with teams desperate for places to play Ultimate Frisbee, rugby and Japanese baseball. "The Government really needs to provide more open space to encourage sport here," said Mr Larson. "There are so many people who want to play team sports and such a lack of places to do this. We need to keep our grass in good condition so it shouldn't really be used so much, but there are teams who just don't have anywhere else to play." Another sport to take off in Dubai is water polo. The Dubai Water Polo Club started last year with only four players. It now has almost 150. Widely played in other countries such as the Netherlands, Egypt and even Saudi Arabia, water polo is new to the UAE. Its teams draw members from all over the world, including former national players from Lebanon, Canada and Iran. The fast-paced game, a mixture of handball and basketball, is played in a two-metre deep pool. During four eight-minute quarters, players try to score goals in small nets. It is a game of strength and stamina that has attracted both men and women for twice-weekly training sessions at Kings' Dubai. Players range from 25 to 55 and some come from as far as Al Ain and Abu Dhabi. Wilbert Kragten, who started playing water polo at five, has organised a core team of 35 high-level players. At the end of each month they play a team from outside the UAE and have so far met up with Italian national players, a team from Saudi and another from Germany. They will soon be travelling to Iran and have also been approached by the US and Netherlands. "I was so disappointed when I came here to find there was no water polo," said Mr Kragten. "But the league has been such a huge success and is constantly evolving. People who play are passionate about the game but it's also a chance to meet like-minded people." The league has grown so quickly that the club is now looking for new, bigger premises. Some days there can be 50 people in the pool at one time, playing a game that is meant for two teams of seven. "The club's so international and is very reflective of life in Dubai," added Mr Kragten. mswan@thenational.ae