Senior figures within UAE football have declared the decision to allow expatriates born or living in the Emirates to represent local clubs, and potentially the national team, as a great move for the future of the game in the country.
On Monday, the Federal National Council approved regulations drafted by the UAE General Sports Authority to make eligible from September expats, including foreign men married to Emirati women, to join clubs and play for the country in all sports. That followed a November degree from the President, Sheikh Khalifa. Mohammed Khalfan Al Rumaithy, president of the General Sports Authority, described the decision as "ground-breaking".
The Football Association, along with the UAE’s basketball, volleyball and handball federations, will be first entities to trial the new regulations. The decree means UAE football clubs can register an unlimited number of expats in all age-group competitions, male and female, from ages 4-18. Teams can register only six players - three born in the UAE, three residing in the country - in their 18-21-year-old squads and senior squads.
Abdulla Naser Al Junaibi, vice-president of the FA and chairman of the Pro League Committee (PLC), the body that governs the Arabian Gulf League (AGL), said the announcement could prove a significant boost to UAE football and help overcome a number of the key issues affecting the game here, including low attendances and clubs’ finances.
“We all agree that this is a real major and important decision for sports overall,” Al Junaibi said. “As we know, when looking at the nationalities in the country, the locals are in the minority. So choosing such a decision will help first of all in terms of the engagement of all nationalities and people who live in the UAE. This is a very important issue, which we are trying to really tackle. This decision will extremely help in supporting our efforts in that.
“Another thing that it might give is a big base of players. It will help in the number of players available and therefore in the options and opportunities for the high talent in the country. And thirdly, it will also definitely affect what we’re trying to do in regards to introducing the salary cap and cutting the budget for a lot of the clubs. So it is a wise and very welcome decision.”
Al Junaibi said the onus is now on the different sports federations resolving how to implement the decision going forward and that, for UAE football, it will require collaboration from the FA, the PLC and the league’s professional clubs in determining the new regulations. He said the FA plans to meet “within the next few days” to begin the process.
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Asked if it could effectively open up the national team later this year to expat players – from next season, AGL clubs will be able to field four foreigners irrespective of their nationality – Al Junaibi said: “That’s another story, because it’s a political decision. It could also give a significant base for that, but regarding the nationalities themselves and how to be a UAE national, that’s a political issue rather than a sports call.
“The most important thing is the decision has been made. To have a really positive outcome, I think it will take a couple of years to start seeing the results. But again, let us see first. We need to assess all the angles and find out everything we can use. Once we do, we will announce what form it will take. But I can guarantee this is a great decision.”
Khaled Awadh, a member of both Al Wahda Club’s board of directors and the FA’s competition committee, heralded the decision as “win-win” for UAE sport.
“The rules in football are a bit complex and take a longer period of time to implement, but what’s important here is we have a start,” he said. “This rule is good for both UAE football as well as for expatriates. It throws a big challenge, as there are hundreds of kids born to Emirati mothers married to foreigners and expatriate kids born in the UAE.
“They have good skills and these kids can only improve provided they are given opportunities to train at local clubs, and availing the coaching sessions and using the club facilities.
According to Awadh, clubs will be allowed to register 25 players, although only three of the expat players can be included in the playing 11 at any time of the game.
“While providing the opportunities for outsiders, the FA wants to preserve the status of the local players. The General Sports Authority has provided three months for the clubs to present their proposals.
“But all in all, it is a move that has received overwhelming acceptance from both the locals and expatriates. It is a win-win situation for the UAE sports.”