Riding waves in the desert: Is surfing the UAE’s best-kept secret?

Not everyone was on board when two trailblazers tried to introduce the sport. Here, they reveal how their inclusive attitudes help it crest

The UAE surfing community is a young yet vibrant one. Photo: Max Physick / @laybackvisuals
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Tucked away on a tranquil road in the beachside area of Umm Suqeim, the white and blue Surf House Dubai buzzes as it prepares for a new season.

A rack of wetsuits hangs in the yard near rows of colourful boards, while salty-haired surfers with tanned skin and broad smiles tuck into breakfast on the terrace.

Inside, Single Fin cafe is awash with custom-blended lattes and acai bowls topped with gluten-free granola. If you didn’t know any better, the headquarters of the UAE’s vibrant surfing community could pass for Sydney or California.

One man in a black Jeep Cherokee

Surf House Dubai has been open for almost 20 years. However, its polished set-up is a far cry from the original. It started with one man in a black Jeep Cherokee, three foam surfboards ordered from England and a wild idea to give surf lessons off the coast.

“Initially, it was just with my friends and family to test it out, but I found people were really enjoying riding waves,” says Scott Chambers, the Brazilian-Portuguese co-founder and chief executive of Surf House Dubai. “Passing on my excitement for the sport left me with a ‘this is what you need to do’ feeling."

Surfing fosters a culture of spending your spare time at the beach or in the sea, rather than in a pub or mall
Scott Chambers, co-founder, Surf House Dubai

Having moved from the UK – where he’d obtained a degree in surf science and technology – back to the UAE, where he’d spent his formative years as a student at Emirates International School, Chambers says it was a homecoming in many ways.

“Ironically, I surfed for the first time in Dubai, despite being half-Brazilian," he adds. "Everyone assumes I should have started in Brazil or anywhere else in the world, but here. People typically aren’t aware you can surf in a desert country."

Chambers recalls his first time in vivid detail: it took place but a few minutes away from the same Jumeirah coastline where Surf House now stands, off a complex called Chicago Beach Village that’s now occupied by the Madinat Jumeirah complex.

“I was 10 years old, and my elder brother helped me into it,” he says.

Chambers's family had lived in the US and Canada previously thanks to his father’s career in the oil industry, and his brother’s affinity for board sports meant the moment they arrived on Dubai’s beaches, surfing was a natural progression.

“I used a beat-up toothpick 1980s Brazilian shaper surfboard, and it was absolutely the wrong board for me – but it had neon flames on it and I thought it was rad," he says. "I remember thinking: ‘This is the coolest thing I’ve ever experienced. And I haven’t ever felt anything better. This is it, this is what I’m going to do.’

“It wasn’t contrived, this was pure nature. The wave was just there, and you were able to catch it, and I knew that no other wave after that was ever going to be the same."

Daniel Van Dooren, Chambers’s Dutch-British business partner and chief operating officer at Surf House, can relate.

“I remember my first proper drop-in down the face of a wave and going for about five seconds, which at the time felt like it was for ever," he says.

"It was the best feeling of my life, and I still search for it every time I surf."

Van Dooren began at that same strip of Dubai beach when he was 11. When he graduated from university, he helped Chambers out alongside his day job in events, eventually going full-time with the surf business.

Bans, bankruptcy and bounce back

Initially, the duo conducted lessons from a custom-made trailer. “We parked it at the beach and practically lived in what was a little shop," Van Dooren says. "You’d open the trailer doors and there would be leashes and surf wax hanging there."

Still, the legality of the business was hazy at the time, and the boys decided it was time to make things official.

There was a belief that having surfers in the water was dangerous for beachgoers and swimmers, but it turned out to be the other way around
Daniel Van Dooren, co-founder, Surf House Dubai

An old villa on the beach became available, and they snapped it up. Today, they have a team of more than 20, a rental fleet of more than 55 boards and sell up to 350 boards a season. The business encompasses a restaurant, retail shop, clothing line, after-school programmes and annual surf competition and charity paddle around the World Islands.

“For a place with not that much surf, that’s quite good,” Van Dooren says with a chuckle.

It wasn’t all smooth sailing, though. Back when the fledgling business was gaining traction, some neighbours became exasperated with the volume of surfers outside their homes (not to mention the increased traffic), and the authorities banned it.

“At the time, there was a belief that having surfers in the water was dangerous for beachgoers and swimmers, but it turned out to be the other way around,” Van Dooren says.

With their water confidence and flotation devices, surfers were able to rescue swimmers who were in trouble, a fact that helped Chambers and Van Dooren to get the sport reinstated.

“At one point, you’d just turn up to the beach with surfboards in your car and you’d be fined,” Van Dooren says.

"We sat there watching these perfect waves coming through, and there was nobody in the water. Happily, the ban was eventually overturned and the discourse even led to the idea of a Dubai Sports Council-backed national surfing federation down the line."

Three years later, the Middle East’s first wave pool opened in Al Ain and, by 2011, Sunset Beach began featuring the government-supplied "Surf Zone" signage.

In the UAE, surfing is open to everyone, from all walks of life
Daniel Van Dooren

During this evolution, the company had to close down for a year at a huge cost. Undeterred from following their dream, they bathed in the sea and lived by candlelight.

They’d invested in a licence to sell Penny skateboards and were able to scrape a living.

“It was a tough time, but we wanted to pursue what we loved,” says Van Dooren. “It changed things when we decided to go all in. A lot of other companies in the same business here operate as a side gig, but you need to give it everything. That was the tipping point.”

Their business and the city's appetite for the sport grew simultaneously. Now, with surfing an established part of Dubai's tourism sector, its thriving culture and community have spread across to other cities, including Fujairah and Abu Dhabi.

Ripple effect

The capital will soon be home to Surf Abu Dhabi: an urban park on Hudayriyat Island that will contain the biggest artificial wave facility in the world.

Enabled by Modon, Surf Abu Dhabi was created in partnership with the surfing big leagues: it was designed by the Kelly Slater Wave Co, an organisation fronted by surfing legend and a record-breaking 11-time World Surf League Champion Kelly Slater himself.

The facility will offer ways to dive into the joys of surfing for customers of all levels. Big tour competitions in the future will undoubtedly attract talented sportspeople and wave-chasers from all over the world.

Given how close-knit the community is (Van Dooren and Surf Abu Dhabi’s general manager Ryan Watkins are firm friends), Surf House Dubai’s retail arm will also supply some of Surf Abu Dhabi's accessories.

Van Dooren adds one of the best aspects of the UAE’s surf community is its inclusivity.

“There used to be this mentality that you had to be hardcore or punk rock to be a surfer, and you can still see some cliquey localism in places like Australia or Hawaii," he says. "In the UAE, we try to avoid that side of surfing. Here it’s open to everyone, from all walks of life."

While the first ripples of this movement began with a mobile station, Surf House allowed the UAE surf scene to take shape.

“As soon as you have a collection of even 10 people who love surfing, who will be there every time there’s a surfable wave, that’s when it takes root with a scene outside of the water,” Chambers says. "It fosters a culture of spending your spare time at the beach or in the sea, rather than in a pub or mall.

“One of the key things we’ve learnt is having a focal point. It is human nature to enjoy having a physical epicentre, whereby whenever you want anything to do with a particular subject, you know where you can take yourself.”

Surf House has been affectionately nicknamed the region’s “Embassy of Surf”, and Chambers and Van Dooren are its ambassadors. The local community – which includes Emiratis and expatriates alike – is now as much of a reflection of their vision as much as it has shown them who they are.

“This journey has certainly taught me a lot of things, especially sheer perseverance,” Chambers says. "There were moments where I thought there might not be a light at the end of the tunnel. But that initial love kept me going. With anything of value, you really do need to go the distance."

And with recent figures highlighting the UAE as being among the most sought-after travel destinations in the world, the surf scene is a gift that keeps on giving.

Updated: November 24, 2023, 3:05 AM