FUJAIRAH // Ali Rabei, a professional footballer, sits on his sandals in the dirt, his eyes fixed on two half-tonne bulls wrestling before him.
The Al Wahda goalkeeper commutes from Abu Dhabi each weekend to Fujairah, where he shares Friday lunch with his family. He then joins hundreds of spectators to watch humpbacked Brahman bulls lock horns at bloodless bull-butting competitions beside the Fujairah Corniche. Mr Rabei is what is known around the arena as "the second generation", consisting of young professionals who are buying into the traditional of bull-butting with their hearts and wallets.
"He's got money, he's got fame, he's got everything," teases Abdulla al Sharqi, Mr Rabei's middle-aged friend. "And what does he do? He buys four bulls." While Mr Rabei might not be one of the original spectators in the bull-butting arena, he is aware of the tradition behind it. He has been part of the spectacle since he was a boy. "It is heritage," shrugged the goalie, who spent Dh45,000 (US$12,250) for his bulls. "It starts from when I was young until now. I'm working in Abu Dhabi but in my spare time I'm here."
He is part of a growing group that is investing in the sport for different reasons, from starting a new hobby to becoming more involved in the local culture. "Every year some new kids come in," said Mr al Sharqi. "It becomes part of the social life. The flash, the fame, that's it. "Like this guy," he said, pointing to a young man leading a pink and grey bull. "He was a very popular handball player. Now look. He got the bull!"
The contests begin each Friday at sunset. The Brahmans, which have characteristically floppy ears, snort, lock horns and kick dirt inside the arena. If one bull is too strong and risks hurting his rival, men rush into the arena to pull the beasts apart. The bull that pushes his opponent the furthest is the winner. While a fence and metal barrier surround the arena to stop rogue bulls from running down the street, most spectators still prefer to watch the excitement inside the ring.
Among them is Fujairah's youngest bull owner, Saif Rashid, a 12-year-old who is considered an up-and-coming bull tycoon. He is at an age where he is shy about talking to girls but unafraid of head-butting his bull in training. "Every day he will go to school, once back to his house to eat and after he will see his bull," said his brother Mohammad al Suwaidi, 26. Saif's bull is one of 120 competing in a sport increasingly dominated by the young, said Abdulla Ali Kindi, a founding member of the bullfighting committee.
"It's an old habit and tradition in this area, especially along the coast," said Mr Kindi. "We don't have camels here. Camels are in the desert. The one thing here is the bull. "It started with 25 or 30 owners [in the 1980s] and now it's more than 60 and most are from the young. "Most the of young guys on this side are the new generation. They bought two or three years ago. It brings them fame, they become very popular."
Bull-butting is not a poor man's sport. Bull care costs as much as Dh5,000 a month for a diet that ranges from simple feeds such as dried grass to more exotic items such as spiced clarified butter, dried fish and mountain honey. While no money is won in battle, successful bulls increase in value with each victory. The value of an unaggressive or losing bull can fall to a fraction of its original purchase price.
Case in point: Ali Obadi, 42, has worked with bulls since he was nine years old and thought he had a winner in an animal he bought for Dh24,000. The bull proved to be passive in the ring and Mr Obadi is now trying to sell it for Dh4,000. While the sport is being passed down to a younger generation, it remains an important social gathering for those who established it. Mohammed al Shari, a commentator whose sharp tongue and quick poetry charmed spectators and riled bull owners for 25 years, still comes to the fights every Friday after being replaced by a younger, more conciliatory Omani a few years ago.
Other veterans of the scene are more concerned about its future than its past. The site of the arena does not belong to the participants, who might be forced to abandon it some day, as they had to leave the two previous grounds. "The area is owned by the municipality. There's lots of parking but we don't own this place," Mr Kindi said. "One day we will have to leave it. Lots of old people, they can't see because they are in the back seats. They called the government to make a small, simple stadium. But there's no interest."