When it comes to keeping fit, there are many Emirati women helping set the pace in the UAE.
Over the past decade, we have heard about their achievements in the realms of weightlifting, racing, CrossFit, horse riding and more.
We spoke to some of the women who have established or are cementing their careers in sport and fitness, specifically as trainers and instructors.
They share how they came to love training, the challenges they faced along the way and how fitness has shaped their lives.
Rania R Saeed and Futtaim Beljaflah
They might be new to the fitness scene, but Saeed and Beljaflah are eager to make their names as two of the first Emirati cycling instructors.
Though Beljaflah, 33, has tried various forms of exercise in the past decade – pilates, yoga ballet, long-distance running and tennis – she says that cycling and weightlifting is what really captured her attention. Saeed, 29, felt the same way.
“It merges fitness and music and brings life and fun to exercise,” she says, adding that fitness has allowed her to be “more in tune with myself and have more energy to get things done, which has helped me to improve in all areas of life".
The two friends, who bonded over their taste in music, decided to train as a duo. They created the Instagram page Soul Fitness, where they share their routines and tips on diet and exercise. After completing their personal training certification, the two decided to continue working as a pair. They currently teach women’s only cycling classes together at Crank in Al Quoz.
“It was only natural for us to decide to teach as a duo, especially since we both love the same music and we enjoy each other’s energy,” they said.
Their style blends a mix of dance to the ride, with genres of hip-hop, RnB, reggaeton and dancehall as their soundtracks. “I believe in the power of music and movement, combined with the energy that is created in class, one will be pushed to their limit and will leave with more energy than when they came in,” says Beljaflah.
“In my class, I want to feel connected to every single person. I want them to feel the highest level of comfort, forget everything, enjoy the curated playlists and feel the vibe,” adds Saeed.
The duo says that reactions to their classes have been “very positive” so far. “Perhaps an advantage is that not many Emirati women have ventured into this field and it makes us feel proud to be one of the first Emirati cycling instructors as this will definitely open more doors for other women to pursue fitness as a career or part-time job,” they explain.
Even while maintaining corporate jobs, they have carved out time for their classes and say they will continue to advocate for wellbeing. “We hope to inspire women to commit to their health and physical fitness, to adopt a more active lifestyle, to make small healthy changes to their life and to commit to themselves the way they would with others.”
Last year, the 36-year-old became the first Emirati female boxer to represent the UAE in the Asian Boxing Confederation Championship. Now, Falaknaz shares her passion for the sport with other women by teaching at the Real Boxing Only Gym in Al Quoz.
Active in sports from a young age, she says the number of Emirati girls who shared her interests were few and far between. “I was struggling to find someone to play sports with me when I was in school and college. I never had an Emirati partner. So I went alone on this journey.”
Today, she says, it is a different story. Hoping to bring more women into boxing, Falaknaz set up women’s only classes, and it worked. Currently, half of her classes are comprised of Emirati women. “When they know it is a female coach, they feel more comfortable to join, both Emiratis and expats,” she says.
Though her parents were initially uncomfortable with her going into boxing, specifically training in a mixed gym and the risks of combat sport, she says they’ve learnt to accept it over time. In her experience, she has seen a growing acceptance of boxing within the Emirati community.
“I see young men push their daughters from a young age to come and do boxing. It’s really impressive.”
Amna Al Haddad
Al Haddad made waves years ago after winning a string of CrossFit competitions that eventually led her to train for the Rio Olympics in 2016. Although she helped the UAE team earn a spot, she experienced injuries that prevented her from competing.
Still, by that point, Al Haddad had already made history, becoming the first Emirati woman to partake in a several CrossFit and weightlifting competitions, including undertaking Olympic training in weightlifting.
“I achieved an incredible amount of milestones in a short period of time and, given some of my injuries that were debilitating, I decided to use my experience as a teaching opportunity and focus on spreading awareness on building a sports culture in the UAE,” she says.
In 2016, she was awarded the Rosalynn Carter Journalism Fellowship for Mental Health, which helped her hone in on issues around mental wellbeing. Though she no longer lifts, Al Haddad rebuilt her career while staying in the realm of health and wellbeing.
“Fitness and health will always be part of my life whether I am actively competing or not,” she says. “Competing was a phase I undertook with a clear and specific goal, while general fitness and lifting will always have room in my life and be part of my day-to-day.”
Al Haddad is a now a public speaker and mentor to young athletes, providing workshops on personal development. In her work, she emphasises that wellbeing encompasses both body and mind.
“Physical and mental health feed off each other and intertwine. Being physically active does not guarantee optimal mental health or vice versa, as there are many factors to look into beyond the release of feel-good hormones," she says. "Every individual is complex in their own way, and there is no one piece of advice fits all when it comes to wellbeing. The best approach is holistic.”
“For me, sports has been a key pillar in shaping my personality,” says Baker, the first Emirati aerialist. “Fitness is so much about the mind, about overcoming fears, finding or building a community, establishing discipline and routine, but also balance and focusing on progress rather than perfection.”
When she was young, her parents encouraged her to take up various activities, enrolling her in gymnastics, tennis and horse riding. “As a child, had I not been pushed out of my comfort zone to try different sports, I don’t think I would have the same level of self-awareness, self-acceptance and interpersonal skills as I do today,” she says.
It was in the US while completing her degree that she developed an interest in aerial skills. After receiving specialised training, she was ready to teach basic lessons by the time she came to the UAE. While currently taking a break from teaching, Baker previously taught for three years.
“The more women in sport, the more normalised it has become for other girls and women to purse their athletic passions without fear of criticism or self-doubt in their abilities," she says.
"All it took was a handful of role models to pave the way. We have prominent women engaging in everything from endurance horse racing to figure skating, from judo to parkour and so much more. It is something that as an Emirati woman, I am so in awe of and so proud to see.”
The first Emirati parkour athlete, Murad says she was always physically active, even as a child. “I was always the rebel in the neighbourhood. I was always the one running around,” she said in a 2018 BBC interview.
She began learning the sport at her cousin’s calisthenics gym in Dubai. The 28-year-old eventually left her corporate job as a graphic designer to become a personal trainer and parkour coach. Four years into her training, she was approached by Nike to become a brand ambassador.
After the birth of her daughter a year ago, Murad became interested in coaching pregnant and postpartum women. She recently launched #LeapMom, a postpartum programme that helps new mothers return to exercise.
In a 2017 interview with The National, she revealed her family easily accepted her decision, to her own surprise. Murad also expected criticism from outsiders, but it never really came.
“The people I thought would be my biggest critics have been my biggest supporters. I’ve had so much support from people, but it was unexpected just how much people were reacting to my videos and telling me I inspired them and I never expected that. I never expected people to tell me that I inspired them or their kids to live a healthy lifestyle. It’s the biggest motivation.”