Expatriates will soon be eligible to join local clubs and represent the country in all sports in what is being called a "ground-breaking occasion in the history of UAE sports" following a decree from the President, Sheikh Khalifa.
As of September, men married to Emirati women as well as children born in the UAE and any player who resides in the Emirates will be eligible to register for sports clubs and, potentially, represent the country.
The Presidential decree was declared in November and the Federal National Council approved the regulations and conditions drafted by the UAE General Sports Authority on Monday.
“It was approved on Monday and we are announcing it today,” said Mohammed Khalfan Al Rumaithy, president of the General Sports Authority, at the Abu Dhabi Sports Council auditorium on Tuesday.
“Indeed it’s a ground-breaking occasion in the history of the UAE sports and we are extremely delighted of the milestone.
“The expatriate community that has helped us to build the nation is now provided the opportunity to play a role in sports.
“This is a long-awaited need for the expatriate community. Their participation in local sports will create a bigger pool of players for the national federations aside from the competition they will provide for the Emirati players.”
All UAE sports federations including football, basketball, volleyball and rugby clubs will begin implementing the Cabinet-approved regulations in September and local clubs can start the registration process.
“We are excited and honoured to issue this statement for the participation of players in this category as it will encourage more athletes to participate in different sports,” added Al Rumaithy.
“Of course this is a pathway that’s new and we’ll have some teething problems at the beginning. We’ll know where we stand at the end of the first season and if amendments are required, we are prepared to do that.”
'They feel they belong here': judo and ice hockey federations welcome decree
While many of the country's predominantly expat sports such as rugby and ice hockey already have a high number of foreign playing staff, the UAE Football Association along with the country's basketball, volleyball and handball federations, will be first entities to trial the new regulations.
For example, the presidential decree means UAE football clubs can register an unlimited number of expatriates in all age-group competitions, male and female, from ages 4 to 18. However, teams can register only six players - three born in the UAE, three residing in the country - in their 18 and 21-year-old squads and senior squads.
The unlimited number of foreign players that can be registered at age-group teams will also apply to the country's basketball, volleyball and handball clubs. However each of these teams can register 10 players born in the UAE and 10 players residing in the Emirates (male and female) in their over 18s and senior squads.
The General Authority for Sports has requested the respective federations make their own proposals and guidelines with regards to the participation of the new registered players.
Teams who play in Arabian Gulf League, the top tier of football in the country, are allowed to register four foreign players in their squad. It is unclear if players registered from next season will qualify to represent the UAE national team.
“As of now football [it] is open for all registration except youth and first team which the federation will approve,” said Ibrahim Abdulmalik, general secretary of the General Sports Authority.
“This is just for registration. In the three years, each federation will approve one or two players.
“Some of those federations may request to approve all and we might approve them all. However, the authorisation will come from the government."
Aref Al Awani, a board member of the General Sports Authority and general secretary of Abu Dhabi Sports Council, said the decree was based on the need to involve the expatriate community in sports, adding it could also help boost each team's economic model.
“The initiative came from the country’s leadership and it will benefit our players and national teams,” he said.
“It will help us fill the stadiums with lot of families and fans. Obviously there will be a lot of talent emerging and those making it into the national teams.”
The decision is also in line with the country's Centennial 2071 Strategy to put sports at the heart of society and reinforce family cohesion, as it is also the latest move to benefit the children of Emirati women who are married to expat men.
The children of those couples are not automatically entitled to Emirati citizenship and have in the past not qualified to join official sports teams and compete in national competitions.
The judo and ice hockey federations in the UAE have welcomed the decree.