ABU DHABI // Shooting has always been a part of Mubarak al Mansouri's life. He learned to fire air guns with his father and his grandfather when he was young. Now he is a top competitor in local competitions such as the Caracal Shooting Club's new pin-shooting competition, set up last month. Competitors must shoot down five bowling pins from 15 metres in the shortest time possible.
"It's my main hobby," says Mr al Mansouri, who now shoots most days. Using the 9mm UAE-made Caracal pistol, he says he has found a hobby that is a large part of the local culture. "We grow up with this," he says. Last year he competed in the club's Ramadan competition, which this year they say will have at least 300 men, women and children competing in the rifle and pistol shooting categories. But it is the just-for-fun pin shooting that has become his latest challenge. Every Wednesday, he puts on his ear and eye guards to compete against 10 to 20 other fanatics, eager to improve his speed and accuracy but thrilled regardless. "With the coaching I've had here, I've grown to love shooting even more," he said.
He first started shooting pistols while he was studying in the US, saying the availability and low prices made it an easy hobby to pursue. Khamis al Muwaiji, one of the club managers, says it is important that the sport moves with the times, remaining a part of the country's tradition but in a more modern setting. Hunting is now illegal in the UAE but he says locals still take great pride in shooting. "This competition allows people to do something different, rather than just coming and doing target practice, this gives them the chance to compete and really see if they want to take the sport further, otherwise, it becomes routine."
Caracal opened at the Armed Forces Officers Club 18 months ago and now has a loyal following of both locals and expatriates. "Competing encourages and motivates the members to be developing their skills in a different, but social way," added Mr al Muwaiji. "The Prophet Mohammed says in a hadith that men must learn shooting, swimming and horse riding so this is a very important part of our culture." It may look fun but the pistols, of the type used by the UAE police and military, are deadly weapons and safety is stressed at all times.
"These are trained shooters competing against each other in a fun environment. They absolutely must know how to handle the weapon," said Guillaume Gerrier, the new range manager and a former armed-response police trainer from Paris. The club has 200 dedicated members as well as hundreds more drop-in clients. Mr Gerrier says the pin shooting will begin to take the level of participation to a higher standard, moving towards dynamic shooting, a more advanced level using moving targets.
A top-level shooter will knock down the five pins in just three seconds. The participants now are averaging around six or seven. "Shooting is a metaphor for life," said Mr Gerrier. "The way you live is the way you shoot. If you lose your temper, you won't win." He said mastering the art takes many years, a lot of practice and constant reminders of skills such as grip, stance and aim. "It's a long process, even if it's very exciting," he said.
The UAE's firearms heritage has brought success at the highest levels of international competition. In 2004, Sheikh Ahmed bin Hashar made history in Athens when he won the nation's first Olympic gold medal, in the men's double-trap shooting event. At the same games, Sheikh Saeed bin Maktoum bin Rashid represented the UAE in skeet shooting, in which he won silver at the 2006 Asian Games. Both men also competed at the 2008 Beijing Olympics and Sheikh Ahmed is now supporting the establishment of shooting academies around the country.
Today, children as young as 10 are learning the sport of shooting, which was a means of survival for their forefathers as they hunted for food in the harsh desert. John Williams has been in Abu Dhabi for two years and began shooting in February. The construction manager now shoots every week in the competition as he aims to better his new skill. "It's an opportunity to do something that I couldn't do back home in the UK," he said. "It's different and you get to meet a lot of interesting people."
Mr al Muwaiji says the camaraderie is what makes the club so popular. "It's one of the few places where locals and expatriates have really formed a community," he said. @Email:firstname.lastname@example.org