It’s not as cosmopolitan as its sister city Dubai; in fact, Sharjah remains one of the UAE’s most traditional and conservative emirates. But not, it turns out, when it comes to extreme sports.
“The other day, I was watching the finals with a friend, and I turned to him and yelled, ‘This is happening in Sharjah, dude!’”
Maysam Faraj is talking about the Skateboarding Olympic Qualifiers, the first to take place in the MENA region – and in Sharjah, nonetheless. He’s one of the UAE’s most well-known skaters and owner of Habibi Skate shop.
“It’s absolutely unbelievable. I mean, you’re talking to somebody who grew up skating in Sharjah… I had a best friend who lived in Ajman at the time… We skated the Sharjah Gold Souq religiously almost every day for two years… But we always kinda felt lonely, skating in Sharjah, because there wasn’t much of a skate scene…” he says.
It’s not so lonely anymore, with the emirate now housing the region’s largest skatepark spread across a staggering 90,000 square feet in the Aljada master community by UAE developer Arada. It is in that very skatepark where the qualifiers were hosted in February this year.
But it wasn’t the first time the UAE had dipped its toes in the world of extreme sports. And Aljada isn’t the country’s only impressive skateboarding spot.
Last year, Abu Dhabi built its own dedicated venue to host its first-ever UCI BMX Freestyle Urban Cycling World Championships in November, while Dubai’s “BBay” in Business Bay, XDubai in Kitebeach, and Abu Dhabi’s Yas South in Yas Island are just some of the country’s most popular skateboarding parks.
In fact, the nation’s oldest skatepark located at the corniche in Abu Dhabi is still standing to this day, having initially opened in the early 2000s, mainly attracting BMX riders and roller-skaters due to its huge banks and quarters. But long-time residents may remember the UAE’s skateboarding scene began long before its first skatepark.
In the 80s and 90s, local skaters would meet up and test the smooth flat grounds and pristine white ledges of what is now known as Deira Fountain, the oldest street skateboarding spot in the UAE.
It continues to be so cherished by the local skating community that Faraj’s Habibi Skate shop commemorated the area by collaborating with local artist Rami Afifi to produce an exhilarating skateboard graphic, while the floor tiles of Deira Fountain inspired the insole design of one of the most anticipated and iconic Nike SB dunk collaborations with Dubai shop Frame in December 2020.
Indeed, the UAE’s extreme sports community has enjoyed its fair share of facilities and events, but it wasn’t always the case, particularly in Sharjah, where some skaters find seshing, meaning to have a skating session at a certain place, street spots more rewarding than practicing the sport in a dedicated park.
“I loved skating [street spots] in Sharjah and… I started trying to bring my friends from Dubai to Sharjah but… It wasn’t very friendly. [The authorities] would pull up on us and try to stop us from skating,” says Faraj.
“The Sharjah Gold Souq is no longer free to skate. Last time I was in Sharjah, I was in a police station for 9 hours with 3 skater friends visiting from Canada,” he adds.
Riding street spots is strictly prohibited by authorities in the UAE due to its damage to public and private property, which some skaters trespass. And while the skating community has faced other setbacks, including the closure of multiple skateparks in the early 2010s, some skaters attribute the shutdowns to bad business decisions rather than a lack of demand.
“I thought the people running those skateparks weren’t as invested in the sport as they used to be, but after talking to some of the OG skaters, they believe some of the skateparks actually shut down due to financial reasons,” a skater who asked to remain anonymous for the purpose of this article told Frankly.
The rise of skating facilities in the country backs his claims. More than ever before, extreme sports are thriving across the UAE, with the emirates attracting and hosting international competitions.
It has even helped local talent attract global sponsors. In March last year, Nike SB added Egyptian, Dubai-based skater Karim Nassar to their team of sponsored athletes, making him the first Arab sponsored skateboarder by the brand.
More recently, in January 2023, an Iraqi, Dubai-based BMX rider also became the first sponsored Arab BMX athlete for British bike brand Collective Bikes.
It’s gotten developers like Arada banking on the world of extreme sports with the building of the Aljada skatepark.
“We are seeing some great local talent, who are impressively engaged in the championships. It would be great to see a skater from this part of the world standing on the podium at an Olympic Games in the future…” says Ray Tinston, Events Director at Arada.
While Arada claims there are over 2,000 skaters in the UAE, the local community tells Frankly the number of active skaters is closer to 500.
Faraj believes the rise of facilities will help bring that number higher.
“There are a lot of skateparks now. There’s a world-class Olympic skatepark in Sharjah, brands are starting to get a little more involved, and obviously having a skater-owned skate shop or two [Habibi & Casino] definitely helps the scene… All those things, and adding time, is gonna be something special,” he says.
Judging by his reaction to the Skateboarding Olympic Qualifiers taking place in Sharjah, we’d have to agree.