For the last 5 years, I have lived in Abu Dhabi, the capital of the United Arab Emirates. During that time I have been a player and youth coach with Abu Dhabi Harlequins. I will be leaving the Gulf soon, so I thought now would be a good time to write about the rugby scene here.
Gulf Rugby Overview
Rugby in the Gulf is dominated by the UAE, where there are 14 senior clubs. Some of those clubs have as many as 3 men’s teams. Harlequins even fielded a 4th team this year. There are also competitive teams in Muscat (Oman), Kuwait, Doha (Qatar) and Bahrain. This year, unfortunately, Doha were unable to participate due to the political situation between Qatar and its neighbours. Rugby in Saudi Arabia is a growing sport and they often have teams participating in the Dubai 7s. Unfortunately, they don’t yet punch their weight at regional level.
The season in this part of the world runs from early October through to mid-April. For the men’s first teams, there are a number of competitions. In pre-season, there is the West Asia Champions League, with Abu Dhabi Harlequins beating the Sri Lankan champions Kandy in the final this year. There is the West Asia Premiership, now held by Jebel Ali Dragons, and the West Asia Cup, won this year by Bahrain. The local newspapers often carry Gulf rugby news, match reports and features.
UAE Rugby on TV
Over the last 2 years local rugby in the UAE has been televised. On finals day, which fell on 13th April this year, the games are shown live. Harlequins 3rds won the UAE community league (effectively the 3rd team league), Dubai Tigers won the UAE conference (effectively the 2nd team league) and Dubai Exiles won the UAE Premiership. There is also a UAE cup competition, currently held by Abu Dhabi Harlequins.
There is a strong womens scene with 9 clubs fielding at least one senior women’s team, although the focus is very much on 7s rather than 15s. The women’s clubs each host a 7s tournament, this year seeing Dubai Eagles take home both the Dubai 7s and overall series titles.
The Dubai 7s at the beginning of December is a focal point of the regional rugby calendar. Everyone switches to 7s for most of November, and there are warm-up tournaments like the Eden Park 7s. This year Harlequins had been aiming for a 4th title in a row, but Dubai Exiles took the Gulf Mens trophy instead. There are also vets and womens competitions, plus age group competitions for older children. The whole rugby community turn out for the event, and it’s unique magic is that the tournaments all run simultaneously at the same venue.
Junior rugby has a huge presence in the UAE. Harlequins alone have a junior section with around 800 players, and clubs such as Dubai Hurricanes are not far behind. Most age groups send multiple teams to tournaments, with junior rugby starting at under 4 and inter-club TAG tournaments starting at under 6.
One fantastic initiative at Harlequins is TRY-rugby. This programme originated with Sema Faulkner and is designed for children with learning disabilities, although anyone can join in. Many players and coaches at Harlequins volunteer their time on match day mornings. They give the children a chance to enjoy rugby in a relaxed environment with a much higher coach-player ratio than normal training sessions.
Most of the local private schools and many Emirati-only state schools play rugby. Dubai 7s actually has two schools competitions. This year Abu Dhabi school VEDC won the Emirati-only schools competition for the first time. Another Abu Dhabi school, British School Al Khubairat, won the competition open to expats. Both finals took place in the main stadium in front of thousands of spectators.
The National Team
The national team is coached by former St Helens RL, Sale Sharks and Samoa legend Apollo Perellini. The strongest players are all expatriates playing in the UAE Premiership. That league is now of a standard similar to the 3rd level of English rugby. This is not just a subjective opinion. Several players have gone straight into National 1 teams after leaving the UAE. The better sides are littered with recent ex-professionals and players with tier 1 country age group caps.
The UAE make full use of the World Rugby 3 year residency rule. However, many expats move countries quite often. As a result, a lot of outstanding club players never qualify to play for the UAE. The better club sides are already more than a match for the national team. 5-year residency can only exaggerate this situation. Efforts to improve the playing standard of Emirati nationals have been very successful. More and more Emiratis are taking up rugby. Importantly, some Emiratis are now reaching adult rugby having played pretty much since they could walk. This improvement in numbers and standard looks set to continue.
Rugby looks in good shape in this part of the world. With Saudi Arabia now rapidly changing, hopefully, they can join the UAE as another regional powerhouse. The Dubai 7s tournament will continue to bring world-class rugby to the region. There is interest in hosting both internationals and club matches here. The UAE, in particular, has a great history of hosting world class sport. Cricket, Formula 1, tennis, jiu-jitsu and golf are just some of the sports that regularly bring their big stars to Abu Dhabi and Dubai. Playing numbers and the profile of the game domestically are on the rise. The future looks bright for rugby in the Arabian Gulf.
Author: Daniel Pugsley
I am a 31 year old from Yorkshire, England. I have played social rugby for 25 years in England, Japan, Italy, Poland and the UAE. I teach English as a foreign language, which explains why I’ve lived in so many places. I recently moved back to England and have had to take a break from playing, but I hope to pull on the boots again soon.