This article was written for and first published by LawInSport. The original version is available to view here
The UAE government has always placed a strong emphasis on physical education for Emirati and expat youth and as early as 2010, the government started introducing binding regulations 1 in that space. In time, this also started trickling down to numerous school sports programs and initiatives that are aimed at healthy living. Practicing organized sports has proven benefits in reducing the risk of child-obesity and combating historically high rates of Type 2 Diabetes not to mention mental health and well-being benefits, by promoting socialization, self-esteem and self-confidence.
The sports industry and parents are no doubt glad to see that the UAE is not resting on its laurels and is seeking to do more by legislating for further development and maturity. The 2021-2022 UAE legislative agenda was the busiest in some years, with progressive and wide-ranging new legislation that includes promising developments for sports. This momentum shows little signs of slowing down, including in the sports sector.
This article examines the latest developments in grassroots sport in the UAE, looking at:
- Scouting local talent
- New sports law
- New synergies (and oversight)?
- The role of organized youth sports in the development of professional sports and national sports teams
Scouting Local Talent
“. . . we are a key pillar in promoting school and university sports in the UAE in cooperation with strategic partners in each of the Ministry of Education, the Emirates Foundation for School Education, higher education institutions and various sports federations to achieve the vision of the UAE Centennial, which aims to make the UAE the best country in the world by the time the centenary of its founding approaches.”2
In a bid to provide a more holistic approach to the development of grass-roots sports, the UAE government decided to merge the UAE Higher Education Sports Federation with the UAE Schools Sports Federation in December 2021 to form the UAE Sports Federation for School and University Education Institutions (SFSU). SFSU works closely with the UAE General Authority for Sports (GSA) and the UAE National Olympic Committee.
On 15 February 2023, the SFSU celebrated the ribbon cutting ceremony for its first youth sports-talent center at Dubai International School 3. This is the first of many such centers planned by the SFSU and it is part of a wider feeder strategy designed to nurture youth athletes to compete in school, emirate and national competitions. There will be two types of programs, the first is competitive, targeting age groups between 15 and 17 years old, and the second is training focused, targeting groups between 9 and 14 years old.
UAE based students and their parents can already enroll in the program on a dedicated online portal provided by the SFSU 4. The portal is intended to match interested parties with the nearest venue, provide information on facilities, available coaching capabilities and so on. The SFSU is also focused on growing its higher education memberships; statistics commissioned by the SFSU indicated 2,340 active young adult athletes.5
No doubt to bookend the SFSU efforts, the UAE government (in its first UAE Cabinet meeting last year) announced that work is underway on a new sports law 6 that is set to introduce multiple modernization amendments as well as provide new regulations supporting the wider sports industry (e.g., those pertaining to sports media).
Drafts of these amendments and new regulations (the “New Law” for the purposes of this article) are currently undergoing deliberations by the National Federal Council’s Sports Committee 7 and further news on the reported 63 new provisions is awaited with great interest.
The UAE government also announced the equally important news that the mandate of the GSA would be restated (i.e., to replace the current legislation 8). This is intended to complement the New Law, as appropriate, and we expect that both laws will be promulgated at the same time.
>Whilst drafts of the New Law and GSA law have not been published as yet, we expect that they will likely contain substantive new policy. We look forward to reviewing both laws and providing further commentary on these developments in due course.
The enduring popularity of private sports academies that partner with private schools in the UAE present an opportunity for cooperation with the SFSU centers described above. If the New Law provides sufficient flexibility, we see a significant role being played by such academies in bridging the gap until such time when the SFSU infrastructure reaches a state of uniform coverage both geographically and across all sports as and when required (at present, specific focus is on Archery, Swimming, Badminton, Athletics, Judo, Shooting, Taekwondo and Fencing).
Furthermore, and to the extent the New Law (or the aforementioned new GSA law) provides for extensive GSA oversight of such private academies, we may see an expanded mandate covering areas such as safeguarding, model contractual terms with minors’ legal guardians, health and safety requirements and similar areas of regulation.
The Role Of Organized Youth Sports In The Development Of Professional Sports And National Sports Teams
Grass-roots sports’ in the UAE is typically based on sporting activities and amateur level programs organized officially as part of governmental departments’ mandates. Additionally, there are some private sector actors in this space – although they are largely government regulated. These activities cover the early stages of sports development, typically involving children and young adults, and include everything from youth leagues teams to recreational events and amateur competitions.
The importance of grass-roots sports to professional sports and national sports teams is multifaceted. Grass-roots sports provide a pipeline for identifying and developing talent. Amateur and youth sports programs allow aspiring athletes to hone their skills, gain access to high level coaching, equipment, facilities, experience and most importantly provide them with a pathway to compete at higher levels and, for some, professionally as career athletes for national and professional sports teams.
In conclusion, grass-roots sports play a crucial role in the development of national sports teams and professional sports. As such, it is important to support and nurture grass-roots sports programs, as they have an overwhelmingly positive impact on the development of sports and will ensure a strong and sustainable future supply of talented UAE athletes to compete at the highest levels of sports.
The UAE government has certainly been aware of this for some time, and we are enthused to see how it is now seeking to realize that vision through legislative tools to provide for the necessary level of sophistication for a structural framework that will ensure a healthy grass-roots ecosystem.
1† ‘Focus on physical training in schools’, khda.gov.ae, 30 June 2010, last accessed 2 March 2023, https://web.khda.gov.ae/en/About-Us/News/2010/Focus-on-physical-training-in-schools
2† Mr Ali Al Zahiri, the Chief Executive of the SFSU (last accessed 2 March 2023)
3† ‘UAE School and University Sports Federation launches the first training center for school games with the aim of developing the discovery of sports talents’, uaeusf.ae, 16 Feb 2023, last accessed 2 March 2023.
4† School Sports Games portal
5† As at 29 May 2022.
6† ‘Labour reforms, green building, new sports law: 11 highlights from the first 2022 UAE Cabinet meeting’, khaleejtimes.com, 14 Jan 2022, last accessed 2 March 2023, https://www.khaleejtimes.com/uae/labour-reforms-green-building-new-sports-law-11-highlights-from-the-first-2022-uae-cabinet-meetin
7† Deliberations took place 30 November 2022 and we expect this to be on the Committee’s agenda for its upcoming meeting in March 2023.
8† General Authority of Sports, Laws And Regulation, https://gas.gov.ae/#/en/open-data/laws-and-regulations (last accessed 2 March 2023)