The ex rugby player with Olympic dreams and the surprising stories of the UAE surf scene

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There are over 80 surfers in the water this morning. The sun is beating down. The wind is blowing defiantly. Beyond those on the beach, long sets of 4-foot waves break along the shore. This isn’t Hawaii. It isn’t the Maldives, nor Sri Lanka. Countries that are often associated with surfing. It’s Kite Beach in Dubai.

People have travelled from all across the UAE to be here. From Abu Dhabi to Al Ain and even further afield. Wave after wave surges, peeling sideways and crumbling into the shore. Some surfers stay for hours, connecting with the water through feelings of calm and peace. Others attempt to navigate a handful of waves and leave. Happy with their progress.

While some may not realise that the UAE is blessed with regular, quality waves, there is roughly 90-100 days of surfable conditions per year; this certainly builds an interest which continues to rise.

One of the trail blazers of surfing in the Emirates is Mo Rahma. The Dubai native made history in 2014 when he became the first local surfer to compete on the International Surfing Association (ISA) Tour.

Since then, the 32-year-old has been facing athletes who have been immersed in the sport for large parts of their lives. In comparison, Rahma only picked up a board for the first time in 2011.

So how did the UAE, a country with no previous reputation for producing surfers, end up with one athlete negotiating the rigours of the ISA tour?

It all began in 2008, when a career as an international rugby star looked on the cards for Rahma. The former Dubai Hurricanes and Abu Dhabi Saracens winger lined up for the UAE national team and big things were predicted for the promising player.

But in a match against New Zealand at the Dubai Sevens, Rahma ruptured his ACL (anterior cruciate ligament). It was an injury which ruled him out of competitive sport for an indefinite period, leaving his hopes of becoming an elite sportsman in tatters.

“With my injury, most athletes don’t make it back,” Rahma said. “After countless physiotherapy sessions, the doctor told me I wouldn’t be able to run again which was tough to take.”

It was through his rehabilitation work in the water that a new love blossomed.

“I remember one day when I was in the water doing rehab for my knee I saw people surfing and I thought it would be cool to give it a go. I tried and fell in love with it,” he said.

“I fell in love with surfing because I fell in love with the ocean. Since I’m an athlete and I love sport, what picked me up was surfing. I still remember the first time I surfed. I went to Surf House and tried my first wave. Daniel (van Dooren) pushed me on the first wave. From there, I bought my own board.”

Dubai’s Mamzar Beach gave him the perfect spot to connect with the ocean and he surfed at every opportunity. The knee was starting to feel strong again. It was 15 minutes from home. Close enough to embrace the water early in the morning.

When the sea was flat, he hit the artificial waves at Wadi Adventure in Al Ain to experience more consistent swells. It fuelled his appetite, but it was not enough for a man with lofty dreams.

The next stop was Australia where he lived for two years before moving to Los Angeles. Bright lights. Palm trees. Packed beaches and bustling streets. He trained for 14 months under the tutelage of renowned coach Sean Mattison, a former United States Surfing champion.

The waves at Manhattan Beach and El Porto threw up new challenges but only served to increase Rahma’s level of expectation and desire to improve.

“Sean transformed my surfing to a crazy level and it helped me so much. I started to compete and Sean encouraged me to go for the ISA and compete for the UAE,” he says.

On the World Qualification Series – a stepping stone towards the World Surfing League, which involves the top 25 surfers in the world – Rahma competed in 10 events across Australia, Sri Lanka, Maldives, Taiwan, Japan and China.

Now, backed by experience on the pro circuit, he has set his sights on a place in the Olympics this summer. An ISA World Games competition in El Salvador in May will determine the final five men for Tokyo 2020.

“It takes a lot of hard work and dedication to make the step to the next level in surfing. At the moment, I’m running and swimming in the water, doing some gym, and I’m in the wave pool. Some weekends I’m in Sri Lanka and the Maldives to catch some good waves,” he said.

The UAE has been developing into somewhat of a surfing hotbed in recent years, with the wave height continuing to flourish during the summer months.

Down on Kite Beach and Tim’s Reef in Fujairah, surfers are out in force as a previously peripheral sport in the region grows in popularity.

Mohammad Sultan is among a group of 10 Emiratis excelling locally. His dedication is unerring and Rahma recalls how he once drove 16 hours to Salalah in Oman to catch an evening wave.

Sultan took up the sport around the same time as Rahma after a trip to California inspired him. Watching surfers on Pacific Beach in San Diego sowed the seed for what is now a serious passion.

“I remember seeing a sign saying ‘learn how to surf’. I thought to myself, maybe this is an alternative. Ever since, it’s been the perfect alternative and I kept at it,” he said.

“If your better you are at something, the more enjoyable it is. You need to put the time in. Nothing is diverse as surfing because you have so many factors that combine together to get a certain condition.

“When the waves are on, I’ll surf. I compare a lot of websites with each other. It’s a lot of prediction. At the end of the day, you get to the beach and it’s either on or sometimes it’s not really. I thought the waves would be amazing this morning but the conditions weren’t right.”

Rahma and Sultan agree that the reputation of the Surf House Cafe, with over 3,000 members, has helped, as well as places like Kite Beach, Sunset Beach and Tim’s Reef.

“It has grown a lot. It’s crazy. We are having a lot more surfers but not enough surf spots around. Surf House has done a fantastic job to promote surfing, teach people and allow them to learn,” Rahma said.

“There was a period before where surfing wasn’t allowed but it’s opened up again and now the community is growing. The beach life is amazing. If you like the beach then you can’t go wrong with surfing.”

Such commitment, coupled with the persistence of personalities like Rahma and Sultan, could yet see the Middle East join more illustrious locales in America, Australia and Hawaii as the latest paradise for surfing aficionados.

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