Emirati girls ‘knew rugby was a sport for boys’ but are proving it is for them, too



DUBAI // Under the floodlights at the Rugby Centre at Dubai Sports City, a set of expatriate players with multicoloured boots and smart, orange playing kits that are awash with sponsor logos, line up for a training game.

Opposing them are some Emirati girls, without a uniform playing kit, most wearing trainers, and almost all cutting an unlikely figure as sports people.

Neither side seems to know quite what to expect. Kick-off happens. The Emiratis receive the ball, and it finds its way into the hands of Asmar Marwan, a 15-year-old schoolgirl from Dubai.

Suddenly, she steps, cuts a sharp line through the middle of the defence, busts through a variety of would-be tacklers, and dots the ball down over the try-line.

The first try of the match elicits a roar of approval from a group of supporters wearing hijabs. The opposition, meanwhile, exchange the sort of glances that suggest: “Ah. They mean business. This is serious.”

Which is a nice way for new teammates to get to know each other.

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“I just gave it a try at school,” Asmar said of her introduction to rugby. “At first I didn’t know how to throw the ball, how to catch it.

“But I saw another school playing the game, and after that I fell in love with it. I like the pushing, the running. I also like jiu-jitsu, so I like physical sports.”

Now she is one of eight girls from her school who play regularly, and who have agreed to join up with Arabian Knights for extra training. And, it is hoped, some game time, too.

The UAE Rugby Federation took their first tentative steps at introducing the sport to Emirati girls in 2013. Ahead of this season, they have had nearly 40 actively involved on a regular basis.

According to Sami Smara, the federation’s rugby development officer, they did not start out the scheme with high expectations.

“In the beginning, to be honest, we thought it was a big challenge, maybe impossible,” Smara said. “But we asked them to come and play with the Knights, and they did. We found that they enjoyed the challenge.

“They knew rugby was a sport for boys, and they liked the challenge of proving they could do it, too. These Emirati women like the challenge, and they want to be competitive.

“It was a surprise, and this result was not expected. But we are very happy about it.”

Smara said the chance to represent the country has been a major incentive for the girls to continue playing. The federation hope to have a UAE national team involving Emirati players for the first time at this year’s Dubai Sevens in December.

According to Maryam Al Hay, 16, who has caught the eye as a player of promise due to her speed, representing the UAE at sport would be a reason for great pride.

“Being the first girls to play rugby for UAE would be something special for us,” Al Hay said. “It would be so great.”

In an attempt to fast-track the development of the novice Emiratis, the federation appointed an Arabic-speaking female development officer, the former Tunisia international Ameera Ben Fkeeh, this summer.

They also sought out an established club to partner up with. Unsurprisingly, they followed a path they had been down before, by asking if the Knights would help out.

The club, based at Dubai Sports City, have a sizeable junior and community presence. It was they who gave many Emirati players their first start in senior men’s rugby, too.

Since that time, rugby among Emirati males has gathered pace, with leading players heading off to join Premiership clubs like Abu Dhabi Saracens, and the Shaheen development side playing regular XVs rugby in the Community League.

It is hoped an alliance between the Knights and the federation will bear similar rewards for women’s development, too.

“The federation’s pathways for Emirati boys, in terms of the Shaheen, etc, have been working very well, but until now they haven’t had it for girls,” Chris Bath, the Knights coach, said.

“There have been taster sessions in schools, but there is no point having development unless you go to the next step — which is to play a game.

“The Emirati boys started with the Knights, so it was a natural progression for them to come to us with the girls as well. I was implying to them at the start of the season that we could do with players, so this was a natural fit.

“What can we do now? An integrated side is what the Knights want, and what the federation want, too. It is the quickest way to get these girls to learn.”

The early signs are that both parties are more than happy with the arrangement. The Emiratis have the chance to learn from experienced coaches, as well as players who have been playing for years. And the expatriates know they can bolster their side with new talent.

Alex Duggan, a 14 year old who has been playing for the Knights since she was nine years old, said the arrangement is a good one.

“It is nice having different cultures in our team,” Duggan said. “They were tough, which really surprised us when we were playing. Having them as part of our side will really help, as there are some strong girls.”

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Mercer, the investment consulting arm of US services company Marsh & McLennan, expects its wealth division to at least double its assets under management (AUM) in the Middle East as wealth in the region continues to grow despite economic headwinds, a company official said.

Mercer Wealth, which globally has $160 billion in AUM, plans to boost its AUM in the region to $2-$3bn in the next 2-3 years from the present $1bn, said Yasir AbuShaban, a Dubai-based principal with Mercer Wealth.

Within the next two to three years, we are looking at reaching $2 to $3 billion as a conservative estimate and we do see an opportunity to do so,” said Mr AbuShaban.

Mercer does not directly make investments, but allocates clients’ money they have discretion to, to professional asset managers. They also provide advice to clients.

“We have buying power. We can negotiate on their (client’s) behalf with asset managers to provide them lower fees than they otherwise would have to get on their own,” he added.

Mercer Wealth’s clients include sovereign wealth funds, family offices, and insurance companies among others.

From its office in Dubai, Mercer also looks after Africa, India and Turkey, where they also see opportunity for growth.

Wealth creation in Middle East and Africa (MEA) grew 8.5 per cent to $8.1 trillion last year from $7.5tn in 2015, higher than last year’s global average of 6 per cent and the second-highest growth in a region after Asia-Pacific which grew 9.9 per cent, according to consultancy Boston Consulting Group (BCG). In the region, where wealth grew just 1.9 per cent in 2015 compared with 2014, a pickup in oil prices has helped in wealth generation.

BCG is forecasting MEA wealth will rise to $12tn by 2021, growing at an annual average of 8 per cent.

Drivers of wealth generation in the region will be split evenly between new wealth creation and growth of performance of existing assets, according to BCG.

Another general trend in the region is clients’ looking for a comprehensive approach to investing, according to Mr AbuShaban.

“Institutional investors or some of the families are seeing a slowdown in the available capital they have to invest and in that sense they are looking at optimizing the way they manage their portfolios and making sure they are not investing haphazardly and different parts of their investment are working together,” said Mr AbuShaban.

Some clients also have a higher appetite for risk, given the low interest-rate environment that does not provide enough yield for some institutional investors. These clients are keen to invest in illiquid assets, such as private equity and infrastructure.

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The Abu Dhabi Investment Authority, one of the largest sovereign wealth funds, said in its 2016 report that has gradually increased its exposure in direct private equity and private credit transactions, mainly in Asian markets and especially in China and India. The authority’s private equity department focused on structured equities owing to “their defensive characteristics.”

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