Roll the dice: How UAE residents are trying their luck with niche hobbies

The National chats to four hobbyists from Abu Dhabi with passions from painting books to trading cards

A project manager by day, Khalid Al Mehairbi says crafting his own dice to play with feels therapeutic. Photo: Khalid Al Mehairbi
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Not all hobbies play out the same. Some are wildly common and involve groups of friends and even strangers, others are more intimate, personal even, and practised in solitude.

And then there are those that make some think, I can't believe people do “that” for fun.

The niche ways in which we choose to spend time – be it via unorthodox ways of gaming or indulging in age-old art forms – find a special place in our lives, as the Abu Dhabi residents we speak to here can confirm.

Break from reality

Abdullah El Omari, 32, developed an interest in Dungeons and Dragons (D&D) in his university years, when he discovered a content creator group called Critical Roll, which he still watches to this day.

D&D is a game where a dungeon master designs a story using modules that help streamline the narrative, or designs stories from scratch (a concept called home-brew). Players then create their own characters and play the story with the DM's guidance, leading it in myriad directions, which could have an impact on the fictional world the story is based in.

Until 2015, El Omari had only watched other people play in live streams on YouTube and Twitch. When the pandemic was at its worst, he joined a website called Roll 20 and started playing with other people from around the globe.

El Omari now plays the game for 20 hours a week; he has two ongoing stories that he is running himself. On a biweekly basis, he runs a “one shot”, a story that begins and ends on the same day, which helps to lure more people into the hobby.

El Omari has always enjoyed fantasy, history and fictional writing, and playing D&D also serves as a medium for these interests.

“Over the years, I have taken up different hobbies here and there, but I wouldn't call any of those truly ‘mine’. However, D&D has become a staple of my life, and I play it on a daily basis both because I enjoy it and because I am good at it – creating stories and fun experiences for others,” says El Omari.

How the dice fall

Khalid Al Mehairbi, 35, a project manager in Abu Dhabi Distribution Company enjoys working on projects rather different from the ones assigned to him in his day job. Like El Omari, he enjoys playing D&D, but a particular part of that enjoyment is crafting his own dice.

Dice rolls determine how well your character does at a certain task in the fictional game, and Al Mehairbi says he loves to play with dice he has crafted with his own hands no matter whether his character succeeds or fails.

Al Mehairbi bought his first dice from a vendor and became curious as to how it was made. Online research left him fascinated with the process, and he decided to create his own shapes and designs ever since.

Al Mehairbi uses a silicon mould, resin and mica powder – a material similar to glitter – to create his dice.

“I liked the creative process and I wanted to play with dice created uniquely by me, for me. Choosing the colours, shape and experimenting with the design feels therapeutic,” says Al Mehairbi. “It’s very rewarding when you see your own creations coming to life.”

Cutting edge

Afra Alawadhi was always inclined towards artistic hobbies, especially painting. One day, a friend asked if she could paint the edges of a book. Alawadhi recalls she had no idea this was even a thing, but decided to give it a go nonetheless.

“She got me The Godfather and asked me to paint the edges of the book with the picture of the main character. I searched on YouTube on how to do it correctly and realised this is something of an age-old art that goes back centuries and it’s called fore-edge painting.

“It used to be done for churches and scriptures in ancient times, and artists would even use real gold to paint the edges of books,” explains Alawadhi.

Since then she has painted the edges of more than a dozen books, learning the art of shutting the tomes tight with clampers, so the paint doesn't seep on to the pages.

While she used to take commissions via social media, at the moment she practises her hobby just for her own creative satisfaction.

Trump card

From being a collector of the trading card game Magic the Gathering, to owning his own card-trading shop, Abu Dhabi resident Zayed Al Mazrouei has managed to hit the ultimate goal: Turning a hobby into a business.

“Earlier, to do the collecting, my brother and I had to order the cards online or depended on traders within the community; they would come with a binder and sell their cards this way,” Al Mazrouei says. “Then we came across a collector who was selling a rather large collection.”

The cards were way too many for the brothers to effectively sell in Back to Games, the local shop they relied on. Initially, the Al Mazrouei brothers considered making the sale on E-bay or Amazon, but that further evolved into them opening Card Oasis Trading, an online store, initially for that one large collection.

“My main reason for this business has become to better accommodate hobbyists here. The decision was a combination of us finding that large collection for sale mixed in with the idea that we had suffered before when ordering from the UK and the US, as it could take ages to get the cards that we wanted.

“That translated from us being hobbyists to becoming someone taking care of a problem for the hobby community at large.”

Next on the cards is expanding the games they stock as well as having their own bricks-and-mortar shop.

Updated: February 23, 2024, 9:42 AM