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Of Robots & Ice-Skating: Sports in the UAE

With average temperatures of up to 40°C or more, you may be less than motived to participate in any kind of physical exercise while living in the UAE. However, there are still plenty of opportunities for you to enjoy some modern as well as traditional sports, whether as athlete or spectator.
A peculiar sight at camel races in the UAE: robot jockeys.
  • Equestrian favorites include both short races as well as endurance riding.
  • Falconry, camel racing, and dhow sailing are traditional sports still practiced today.
  • Not only thanks to expats’ influence, ball games enjoy a growing popularity, from football to golf.

Flight without Wings: Experiencing the Desert on Horseback

Despite the hot desert climate, the breeding, riding, and racing of horses is a very popular, if luxurious, pastime in the UAE. You can find equestrian clubs in all major cities, from Dubai to Al Ain. Top racing events include, among many others, the Dubai World Cup as well as the President Cup in Abu Dhabi.

While many of the horse races take place across shorter distances only, endurance riding, too, enjoys a lot of popularity, with the Arabian breed particularly suited for this type of racing. During such an event, riders have to cross long distances of up to 160 kilometers, including regular veterinary checks and mandatory rest periods to judge horses’ overall condition and ensure their continued health.

Next to the winner, i.e. the fastest horse, a so-called “Best Conditioned” award goes out to the horse that performed best overall, taking into account its speed, the vet check results, as well as the weight carried. Sounds interesting? You can watch these endurance races at designated parking points in the desert, by joining in on the festivities at the start of the track, or simply on television.

Not an Everyday Sight: Robots on Camel Backs

Similarly to horse races, camel racing is one of the most popular spectator sports in the UAE, with the Zayed Grand Prize at the Al Wathba Camel Racetrack in Abu Dhabi just one famous example. The sport has a long tradition in the region and during winter, there are regular events taking place at various tracks around the Emirates — a treat for anybody who’s ever wanted to see robot jockeys on camel backs!

Covering distances ranging between four to ten kilometers, the dromedaries reach speeds of over 60 km/h. For a less speedy perusal of these animals, head to the famous camel souk in Al Ain, Abu Dhabi and have fun observing the intense haggling at the morning auctions.

Across the Sea with Motor or Sail

In the past, so-called dhows, Arabian sailing vessels with long, thin hulls made out of wood, were used to transport wares, to fish, or to dive for pearls. Nowadays, you can best admire the boat-builders’ craftsmanship as well as the crews’ skills during one of the traditional dhow races, such as the Al Gaffal Dhow Race, the Marwah Traditional Dhow Sailing Race, or the Abu Al Abyad Traditional Dhow Sailing Race. Try to grab a spot on one of the accompanying spectator boats and/or ferries for the best view!

The modern equivalent, powerboat races are held throughout the year, for example by the International Marine Sports Clubs in Dubai and Abu Dhabi. At top events, it is not uncommon for the sleek high-tech catamarans to reach average speeds of 200 km/h or more. The highlight of the season is the UAE Class One Grand Prix, which is part of the offshore powerboat world championship circus.

Falconry: More than Just Pest Control

Less technical, but no less complicated, is the taming and training of falcons. An age-old tradition in the country, trained falcons used to play an important role in the hunt for food. Nowadays, falconry in the UAE is less about getting meat on the table and more about preserving this cultural gem of a tradition as the living heritage it is — it has even been registered on UNESCO’s Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity in 2010. Many of the world’s best falconers are Emirati and the UAE, or better said Abu Dhabi, can boast the world’s first falcon hospital. The latter also offers guided tours for those interested in learning more about falcons.

What is more, the fast predators seem to have found a new calling in the modern cities of Dubai, Abu Dhabi & Co. Hotels and other large buildings employ falconers and their feathered friends as living pest control, chasing away the multitude of pigeons that would simply love to make the cities’ many nooks and crannies their new home.

Less Traditional, but Just as Fun: Ball Games

Next to the mostly traditional sports we have mentioned so far, there are of course numerous other sporting opportunities to be found in the UAE as well.

First and foremost, football has managed to generate the same kind of interest as it enjoys in many other countries and it is nowadays one of the most popular sports in the UAE. There are both big and small stadiums, as well as numerous amateur football clubs, to be found throughout the country; to the particular delight of many an expat.

Similarly, cricket’s growing popularity in the Emirates is in large part based on the not insignificant number of expatriates hailing from Pakistan, India, and other cricket-friendly countries. You can find large cricket stadiums, where regular national and international matches are held, particularly — but not only — in Abu Dhabi and Sharjah.

If you prefer putting over batting, you’ll be happy to hear that another foreign import has become quite fashionable in recent decades. Golf courses and clubs — around twenty at the time of writing — can be found in most of the emirates and particularly in Dubai and Abu Dhabi. These include not only PGA-sanctioned championship golf courses, but also an all-sand course where the “greens” are made up of oiled sand, which makes for an interesting putting experience.

Lastly, tennis, basketball, and rugby are further examples of ball games that enjoy a growing popularity in the UAE, both in terms of participation as well as spectator numbers.

The Odd Ones Out: Winter and Motorsports

Rather unexpectedly, winter sports in general and ice skating in particular have their fans in the UAE, too. For a refreshing change in temperatures, simply head to one of the ice skating rinks, which are often — but not only! — found at large malls. In the world-famous Mall of the Emirates, you can even go skiing on snow in a desert country. Alternatively, and more suited to the local environment, you might want to give sand skiing or boarding a try.

There is also a range of motorsport spectacles and opportunities to be found in the Emirates, from the Formula 1 Abu Dhabi Grand Prix to smaller events and competitions. Motor enthusiasts have much to look forward to, but with the Arabian Desert covering the vast majority of the country, rallies in particular own a special place in the hearts of fans. The annual Abu Dhabi Desert Challenge, for instance, sees participants brave the desert for days on end on quads and motorbikes, as well as in trucks and four-wheel drives. Regardless of your favorite choice of vehicle, though, just make sure you aren’t tempted to take your racing to the streets as speed limits are strictly enforced in the UAE!


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