UAERF defends rugby's standing in Middle East: ‘What is the legacy they want to invent?'

Mohammed Al Zaabi, the federation’s secretary general, says the sport has a rich heritage in the region

Mohammed Al Zaabi, the secretary general of the UAE Rugby Federation. Chris Whiteoak / The National
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The secretary general of the UAE Rugby Federation has told rugby administrators not to underestimate the sport’s standing in the Middle East.

Mohammed Al Zaabi was responding to comments made by the head of the United Rugby Championship, a league which involves professional sides from Ireland, Italy, Scotland, South Africa, and Wales.

Speaking to media in the UK earlier this month, Martin Anayi, the chief executive of the URC, said the competition’s new sponsorship agreement with Qatar Airways can help create a legacy for the sport in the region.

“What they can take from a partnership with a rugby competition is that we stand for great values and stand for championing those values,” Anayi was quoted as saying in the Irish Times.

“They are about legacy post Fifa World Cup in December. What do they do after that and can rugby and its values be part of that conversation going forward. Rugby has never been that in Qatar and the Middle East.

“I think rugby and western values around rugby especially are more pertinent than ever in the Middle East.

“And they are open to having those conversations around progress and sport is a big part of that conversation of how they progress, how they’re seen to be progressive, and I hope we can be part of that.”

Al Zaabi disputes the idea that rugby has never been part of the sporting landscape in the region.

“Talking about creating a legacy for rugby in the Middle East underestimates our history,” Al Zaabi said. “If you are talking about rugby in the Middle East, there was a match at a stadium in Alexandria between New Zealand Forces and a rest of Egypt side in 1943.

“Here, the Dubai Sevens has been going for more than 50 years, and it is bigger that the Sevens World Cup – and even that tournament was hosted in Dubai in 2009.

“It is the biggest sevens competition in the world, with more than 40,000 spectators [per day] and over 300 teams from all over the world.

“So if you want to talk about legacy, please don’t underestimate ours. We have created that through our partnership with Emirates, who are one of the biggest supporters of rugby in the world.

“We need to protect our legacy. Don’t mention legacy and forget UAE and Dubai. What is the legacy they want to invent?”

To support his position, Al Zaabi points out there are clubs regularly playing recreational rugby in Sharjah, Abu Dhabi, Al Ain, Ras Al Khaimah, as well as Dubai.

He points to the fact rugby is part of the PE curriculum in Emirati schools, which – pre-Covid – saw 120,000 children given a chance to try rugby. He also says the federation is proud of their success in bringing Emirati female players to the sport.

In November, there are plans to stage the third leg of the Asia Sevens Series in Ajman, an Emirate which has been without rugby until now, in either a converted football or multi-sport stadium.

In the same month, Dubai will host a tournament involving Portugal, USA, Hong Kong and Kenya that will decide the final qualifier for the next 15-a-side World Cup.

“What else do we need to build?” Al Zaabi said. “It is fine if you want to focus on your own partnership with anyone – whether it be Qatar, Saudi, it doesn’t matter. We are all brothers, the same culture.

“But don’t jump on other people’s efforts, and the work other unions have done. Don’t say you want to create a legacy. The legacy has already been created here in UAE and North Africa.”

Updated: September 18, 2022, 8:14 AM