Bassem El Jawhari, from Lebanon, organises bodybuilding contests in the UAE two to three times a year. When he started the shows in 2014, he only had 60 competitors, but now has local shows with 150 to 200 participants and international shows with 400 competitors from more than 22 countries.
“I think there is a lot of potential as people who take sports to the extreme like to show off their bodies, to show off their hard work and all their training. The only way they can do this is by going on stage and competing,” El Jawhari, who organises the events with approval from the Emirates Bodybuilding Federation, says.
Bahraini Haifa Al Musawi, a bodybuilding competition judge and the first female Gulf Arab bodybuilder, credits the rise in popularity of bodybuilding in the UAE to these competitions and the awareness they generate. Worldwide, the sport is popular with men and women, but in the UAE there are fewer Arab women involved, because “the sport is not really taken in the right way. It’s a cultural issue,” El Jawhari says.
Gheeda Chamseddine, from Lebanon, competed in the “bikini” category for the first time in May at the Universal Muscle Fitness and Fashion Show in Dubai, and sees the scene as being a “bit underground”. She adds: “Everybody wants a good body, to look in the mirror and be: ‘Wow, I look amazing.’”
Sofia Cervantes from Texas, who has been an amateur bodybuilder for four years, credits social media with bringing the community together. “You have to be self-aware,” Cervantes says. “Do it for your health first. I’ve met lots of bodybuilders who let it get to their head.”
The transformation of your body for these competitions and taking bodybuilding to a professional level takes years of consistency. To become professional, you have to weigh at least 110 kilograms. Dubai-based bodybuilder Zaher Moukahal, from Lebanon, has been competing on a professional level since 2011. Moukahal trains his muscles for 45 minutes a day, five days a week, with an extra hour of cardio. Seventy per cent of bodybuilding is down to the food you eat, he says. Moukahal eats six meals a day and his food budget can easily reach Dh20,000 a month. He weighs 135kg, but says “if I get bigger, I won’t be able to sleep properly”.
Amateur bodybuilder Fouad Said, 31, from Egypt, came to Dubai two years ago. He dreams of becoming professional and entering Mr Olympia, the ultimate accolade in bodybuilding. He currently spends much of his salary on his hobby, but he hopes to recoup his investment with future sponsorships if he turns pro. Said works during the day, cooks, sleeps early, wakes up, eats, trains and repeats – he says he has little social life. “When it comes to competing on the stage, you have to be committed for the training,” he says.
Bodybuilding as a sport isn’t yet in the Olympic Games. The reason, El Jawhari explains, is that “it is related to [people’s perceptions that the competitors use] steroids and supplements, so that’s why people are against it and it’s not included in the Olympics. But it should be included in major sporting events – they do the same testing on bodybuilders that they do for other sportspeople. Bodybuilding [requires] a lot of skill – the way you train, the way you develop your muscle. We cannot say there is no skill. It’s a lot of discipline.”
Moukahal runs a business selling organic supplements and advises on safe ways to bodybuild with his business partner Andrew John Picken, a clinical sports dietician. “You have to know your body and what it needs: a supplement, a mineral and you can always fix it the right way,” he says.
Picken takes blood tests to advise his bodybuilding clients on their overall health, how to build muscle and lose excess weight safely. “If you eat a diet of just steak and lamb, your cholesterol can be really high, and certain supplements can also have the same effect,” he explains. “Some people put their liver under a lot of stress. Some people start having too many protein shakes, and instead of putting in one scoop of the powder, they will start putting in six. So even though protein shakes are safe, if somebody starts overdosing, they put their kidneys under stress. It’s a fantastic sport; it can make you more confident and [give you] a healthy lifestyle, but only if you do it properly.”
Most of Picken’s clients in the UAE are bodybuilders, and he credits bodybuilding’s popularity to “the way Dubai is set up: very glamorous, very Hollywood”.
In a city of year-round sunshine and extreme temperatures, outdoor training can be prohibitive, so gyms are essential. “It’s quite like when you see somebody with a Lamborghini and you think: ‘Oh, I wouldn’t mind having one of those,” he says. “It’s the same when people go to the gym and they see somebody else’s physique. It’s something that’s appealing. Some people take it to the next level.”