UAE football received its greatest shake-up in nearly a decade when it was announced on Tuesday that Al Ahli, Al Shabab and Dubai CSC are to be immediately merged for the 2017/18 Arabian Gulf League, with Sharjah and second division Al Shaab later following suit.
The shock decision in the afternoon from His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice-President and Prime Minister of the UAE and ruler of Dubai, will see a new team formed called Shabab Al Ahli Dubai Club and all combined assets from the trio pooled. This was followed on Tuesday night by a similar edict from Sheikh Sultan bin Muhammad Al Qasimi, sovereign ruler of Sharjah, to create Sharjah Cultural Club.
The UAE Football Association and AGL organisers the Pro League Committee met to discuss whether next term’s top flight – of which all are members bar Shaab after Dubai’s promotion – will remain at 14 teams or be reduced to 12. A play-off could be implemented to decide the make-up.
The development – which follows the implementation last month of a similar plan in Qatar – comes amid a backdrop of repeated calls at various levels of the national game to alleviate the economic struggles of clubs by improved budgetary control and more efficient channelling of resources.
“Our objective is to build a club that can compete regionally and globally,” read a tweet from Dubai Media Office’s verified Twitter account, which attributed the quote to Sheikh Mohammed.
That announcement heralded the gravest change since professionalism was introduced for 2008/09, even though such moves are not unprecedented in recent history.
In May 2011, Ras Al Khaimah was brought into a rebranded Emirates Club. But it’s the profile of Ahli and Shabab, in particular, which makes this so noteworthy.
Ahli were beaten finalists in the 2015 AFC Champions League, with two of their seven top-flight crowns won in the last four seasons. The Red Knights – formed in 1970 – have, however, been ravaged by internal tumult and administrative disorder in 2016/17.
Shabab have won 11 major honours since they were established 61 years ago. But they have suffered dramatically declining crowds, with a historic low of 72 people turning up for last Saturday’s final AGL fixture – a 1-1 draw with Al Wahda.
Sheikh Hamdan bin Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Crown Prince of Dubai, has been appointed chairman of the new Dubai club. Its headquarters are to be at Dubai CSC’s current site in Al Aweer, which will have its facilities upgraded.
No announcements have been made about the identity of the coach, local players and quartet of foreigners for SAADC.
The immediate effect was felt at Shabab yesterday, where a 17:00 press conference to unveil new boss Goran Tufegdzic was hastily cancelled.
It is not known how the change will impact Ahli, who on Monday play their round-of-16 opener in the 2017 AFC Champions League at Saudi Arabia’s Al Ahli Jeddah.