Money & Me: ‘I have learnt that money doesn’t come easily and involves a lot of work’

Swimming, free-diving and fitness instructor Shehab Allam is a former monofin world champion and hopes to find a sponsor to continue his sports career

DUBAI UNITED ARAB EMIRATES. 02 NOVEMBER 2020. Shehab Allam, Egyptian champion who has mono-swum the whole of the 25km of Dubai Canal, a world first. He talks about the difficulty of continuing in the sport when it doesn’t pay. At 29, he has not entered any competitions since he was 17, as he had to work to earn money instead. (Photo: Antonie Robertson/The National) Journalist: Suzanne Locke. Section: National.

Egyptian “merman” Shehab Allam, 29, is a swimming, free-diving and fitness instructor who won the 6km Monofin Swimming World Championship in 2008. Monofin swimming uses a single, two-footed fin. He has just become the first person to swim the full 25 kilometres of the Dubai Canal in under six hours. Mr Allam lives in a studio apartment in Jumeirah Village Circle with fitness instructor wife Asmaa, 25.

How did you get into monofin swimming?

Growing up in Alexandria, my father was a government worker; mum took care of my brother and I – and our sporting careers. At 10, I got my first medal: third place in the Egypt Cup for modern pentathlon (fencing, swimming, show-jumping, shooting and running). In swimming, I was good at the butterfly stroke and the dolphin kick. So when I tried monofin swimming, the coaches were impressed. My brother Serag, 27, came fourth in the 20km Monofin Swimming World Championship the same year I won my world race. He now lives in Germany and is also a swimming instructor.

How did your upbringing shape your attitude towards money?

Unfortunately, monofin swimming requires a lot of money. In 2008, it probably cost Dh5,000 for my different monofins – a lot at the time. I have learned that money doesn’t come easily and involves a lot of work. I didn’t understand this when I was young: I thought my equipment and food came from the sky to my parents. Then I got married and I understood.

How much did you get paid for your first job?

Being a world champion and training for 10 hours a day didn’t bring me the money I needed. It’s not like football, where good players get paid very well and they just have to train. If you don’t come from a rich family, you have to leave sport. My family had sponsored me, but you cannot be sponsored by family all your life. So, although I kept training, I left competitive sport. The sea is where I belong, so it broke my heart.

I started working as a swimming instructor, then diving. At first, I was earning E£800 – less than Dh200 a month. After a few years, I started working in Marsa Alam on the Red Sea, where the tourists come, and you could be paid in Egyptian pounds or euros. By then, I was 23 and earning €1,000 a month (Dh4,300).

What led you to the UAE?

Being a freelancer in Egypt, you can be paid well for a few months, then there is a crisis and no jobs. So my wife and I moved to Riyadh for two years and then Fujairah for a year, but Dubai was always my destination. It’s the dream city. In Riyadh, we earned very, very good money but had nothing to spend it on, apart from a nice coffee shop or dinner. I was earning SAR7,000 (Dh6,855) a month in Riyadh and then Dh4,000 plus commission in Fujairah. Now I work at Enhanced Fitness in Dubai, who also sponsored my Dubai Canal swim.

Are you a spender or saver?

I spend on whatever I really need – clothes, food, going out – while, at the same time, trying to save money in case of something like the coronavirus pandemic. No one feels 100 per cent secure in any work, even as an owner or employer. But who could have imagined this? I did fitness sessions online this year, so was still paid. I save extra now because of the coronavirus.

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I spend on whatever I really need – clothes, food, going out – while, at the same time, trying to save money in case of something like the coronavirus pandemic

Do you own property?

We have a two-bedroom apartment in Cairo, which we bought for E£300,000 (Dh70,000) when we were living in Saudi Arabia. It’s empty, somewhere to stay when we go back for holidays. When you buy property in Egypt, it doesn’t go down in value: it’s very safe money.

Do you find Dubai expensive?

If I could pay in cash, I would buy in Dubai. It’s one of the most expensive Arabian cities for rent. In Saudi Arabia, we rented a big one-bedroom apartment for SAR2,000 a month; here we spend Dh3,500 a month. I spent around Dh150 a month for internet and phone in Riyadh compared to Dh600 now. But I’m very happy with anything I pay in Dubai. We deserve to pay that to live in a city like this.

Do you have a credit card or any loans?

I was warned not to get a credit card in the UAE. I wondered, why is everyone afraid of credit cards? But people put Dh20,000 on one card and then do whatever they dream of. I use my card very little. For instance, I’ve recently put Dh3,000 on it for a training course – it’s an investment in my career. I’m paying it off at Dh70 a month, with about Dh500 in interest. I also have a 2020 Kia Soul car with a five-year loan. I pay Dh1,500 a month and it will cost me Dh91,000 with interest.

Does money make you happy?

Holding money in the hand doesn’t make me happy. But feeling secure, not being afraid of tomorrow, being able to help other people – this makes us happy. We have no currency for this other than money right now. But I’m not that person who loves money; I like to be secure and happy, that’s all.

DUBAI UNITED ARAB EMIRATES. 02 NOVEMBER 2020. Shehab Allam, Egyptian champion who has mono-swum the whole of the 25km of Dubai Canal, a world first. He talks about the difficulty of continuing in the sport when it doesn’t pay. At 29, he has not entered any competitions since he was 17, as he had to work to earn money instead. (Photo: Antonie Robertson/The National) Journalist: Suzanne Locke. Section: National.

Do you have any financial regrets?

I became responsible very early on. I started to take care of myself at 19 and have known my wife since I was 20. So, I was preparing for us to get married, saving about E£500,000 for an apartment, the wedding and gold. When I was young, I would spend on some stupid things like games. But everything you spend, you learn from it.

Do you have a philosophy on money?

Be wise when you’re spending: that money could help you with something very important later on. I also have a deal with myself that any time I’m happy, I have to make someone else happy. I care about making me and my family safe, and I’m proud of the apartment I bought, but otherwise it’s about happy moments. I’m not very rich but I’m trying to do my best.

Do you plan ahead for your future family?

If I decide to have children, I would save a good amount before they come, for schools and for any sicknesses, but also for what they need in order to develop. Every time I wanted to do a course, I had to work a year. I want to be a shortcut for my children to develop themselves.

Do you have a financial plan for the future?

I want to save as much as I can while living a happy life. Maybe I’ll set up a swimming academy or a restaurant. My concern is to find a sponsor to continue my sports career. I dream of swimming long distances, more than the Dubai Canal’s 25km, and to places nobody has been before. But that cannot happen when I’m working eight to 10 hours a day and only training for three hours. If I weren’t working, I could train for six hours a day or more.

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