Conan the Emirati

Arnold Schwarzenegger has inspired a generation of Emiratis to become body builders.

December 2011-Awafi festival Bodybuilding beauty contest. 
Courtesy, Awafi Festival
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When Arnold Schwarzenegger, clad in long hair, animal skin, armour and a horned helmet, got his big break swooshing his sword about in the 1982 movie Conan the Barbarian, he influenced a generation of Emirati boys.

"We all wanted to be Arnie," said Mohammed Shaheen, a 33-year-old Emirati who as a lad decided he would have a barbarian's body someday. "Arnold is very manly, and we Arabs like to be seen as manly."

As Mr Shaheen grew to a height of nearly 188 centimetres and bulked up his body to 136 kilograms of chiselled muscle, he realised his dream. (When he gives his body a break while not competing, his weight goes down to 89 kilograms.)

He won several bodybuilding medals and titles including Mr Arab in a 2003 bodybuilding contest in Lebanon. Six years ago, he began sharing his experience in the field when he became the head judge at the UAE Bodybuilding Federation.

In the past few years, more and more Emiratis have been showing up at both local and regional bodybuilding championships, strutting their Herculean physiques and showing their strength at bench press, squatting and power lifting.

Last week, at the bodybuilding championship in Ras Al Khaimah as part of the Awafi desert festival, 20 of the 45 contestants were Emiratis.

They competed in four categories, the 65kg, 75kg, 85kg, and beyond 85kg. There was an Emirati winner or runner-up in each of the categories.

"There is at least one male in every Emirati household that is into bodybuilding," Mr Shaheen said. "But most don't notice this subculture because we wear the kandura, which hides the muscles in our cases, and the fat in the less-fit men."

"The sport has become more organised over the years and is growing in popularity among the men and even the women," said Salim Said, an Emirati bodybuilder and judge at the contest. "You can't judge this particular sport unless you have done it yourself. Besides numbers and symmetry of the body, it is the impression a contestant leaves on his audience that plays a big part in the final win."

Mr Said and Mr Shaheen said they are annoyed at a perception that bodybuilding is easy.

"Many make fun of us, saying we are nothing but a blown-up balloon of muscles. But it is not true. We are fit and strong like any other dedicated athlete," Mr Shaheen said.

As he mentors newcomers in the field, he makes sure they are on the right track, and ensures that they avoid "the dark side" of the sport.

"When many of us started in the 1990s, we didn't know about the dangerous effects of the booster drugs and steroids," says Mr Shaheen, who stopped using the drugs immediately after learning of their risks.

Anabolic steroids have been known to cause increased aggression, liver damage and baldness.

"We now test for them before competitions, and there is severe punishment and fines to pay if you are caught using any banned supplements," he said, adding that even the over-the-counter protein shakes and supplements must be taken with caution and in the proper dosage.

"I am living proof that without any drugs and a lot of hard work, you can become a champion," said Hamad Al Hosani, 23.

Mr Al Hosani is the most recent national hero whom Mr Shaheen has mentored. He recently became a new champion for the UAE national bodybuilding junior team. In his first international competition, Mr Al Hosani won fourth-best body in Asia at the 2011 Asia bodybuilding championship in Thailand.

"This sport completely changes your lifestyle and priorities in life," said Mr Al Hosani, who started going to the gym as a teenager just for fitness before the routine became a more intense regime.

"Honestly, it is great for the youth to be involved in, as it keeps you off the streets and from wasting your time doing reckless things," he said.

At a height of 170 centimetres and with a compact body that weighs 85 kilograms (65 kilograms when he is not competing), Mr Al Hosani says he is already making a difference in his community.

"Random people stop me and ask me about the secret of my fitness, and then we get into a discussion, and many end up trying out," he said. "It becomes a kind of a brotherhood, but one where there remains a streak of jealousy and competition when someone's body is extra fit and special."