For four years, Dubai was the hub of world badminton. From 2014, the season-ending Super Series Finals took place in the emirate, bringing the world’s best players together at the Hamdan Sports Complex. Existing supporters were treated to thrilling contests on their doorstep and many new fans emerged in the wake of the tournaments.
But one annual event does not maketh a sport. While the Super Series Finals hogged many of the headlines, there was tireless work happening behind the scenes to grow badminton in Dubai and the wider UAE. The last Super Series Finals took place in December 2017, departing the UAE for China as the newly braded World Tour Finals. However, the sport of badminton has remained, continuing to develop under the watchful eye of the Badminton World Federation (BWF).
More specifically, the stewardship of badminton rests in the hands of Jaffer Ebrahim. The BWF’s Dubai Badminton Development Manager was installed in 2014 to coincide with the first Super Series Finals but even after the fireworks of the farewell event of 2017 fizzled out, he remained dedicated to the sport.
Legacy is the lofty goal of most major international sporting events, the golden promise that secures hosting rights for cities and countries all over the world. Unfortunately more often than not those promises prove to be empty, but Ebrahim is ensuring badminton makes a permanent impression on the UAE sporting landscape.
“When I arrived in 2014 there was no national federation, no schools program,” Ebrahim recalls to Sport Industry Insider. “It was just a small community sport mainly led by expat players.
“The aim of the World Super Series was to leave a genuine legacy for badminton so we started with the Shuttle Time Dubai initiative – training teachers, distributing equipment in schools, launching schools’ tournaments. We trained officials and provided education for all people involved in the sport.
“Year after year, the sport grew – our schools tournament became very popular and the World Super Series Finals was a huge success. We brought badminton courts to Dubai Sports World in the summer months, providing the space for free in our first three years. We made badminton accessible for the community.”
Two years after launching the Shuttle Time Dubai program, badminton was officially recognised by the UAE government and was placed under the umbrella of the UAE Table Tennis and Badminton Association. That organisation was then accepted by the BWF, enabling the UAE to participate in international badminton tournaments for the first time.
In 2016, the UAE Olympic Committee made badminton the only racquet sport in its School Olympics in response to the growing popularity of the sport among both expats and Emiratis.
“That was an important moment,” Ebrahim reflects. “Through the UAE Olympic Committee we now have a centre where players can train regularly and our team this year participated in the World School Championships in India.
“Our story started with training teachers and providing opportunities for children and has grown into an exciting pathway program.”
Players membership announced – UAE Badminton https://t.co/099Gjtnh2c
— Shuttle Time Dubai (@ShuttletimeDxb) July 17, 2018
Like most sports, the Olympics provides an obvious pinnacle to aim for and Ebrahim believes UAE participation may not be far away.
“If you talk about the size of the market and the number of events, the UAE is now comfortably the No. 1 country in whole Middle East for badminton. But in terms of player development, there is more to be done.
“The dream of course is to get UAE players to the Olympics; it’s certainly possible if we continue at the same rate of growth. We have seen thousands of Emiratis playing badminton for the first time and some are now ready to go to the next level – our target is to see Emirati players at the 2028 Olympics.”
The rapid growth of badminton is undeniably impressive and was initially achieved with the help of funding from the BWF and local partners Falcon and Associates. Since the World Super Series Finals left town, however, Ebrahim and his team have been on their own. In 2018, every sporting sinew has been stretched, from the budget to the volunteers. And yet development continues apace.
Sustaining badminton has proved an even more commendable accomplishment than introducing it.
“It has definitely been a more difficult year,” Ebrahim admits. “When the Super Series Finals was here, Falcon and the Dubai Sports Council gave us huge support in terms of budget and operation.
“This year we are operating fully only thanks to the volunteers who have been working with us for the past few years and the partnerships we’ve established with the likes of Nad Al Sheba and our equipment sponsor Unex.
“We now have very limited resources but because we created a solid foundation over the past four years, we are still in a good positon. We don’t have any UAE government funds going towards badminton but my mission to grow the sport remains the same.”
Ebrahim’s attention has so far been focused mainly on the operational side of badminton, with three new events launched this year. The first edition of the Dubai Junior Series took place last month – welcoming 170 players from 12 countries, while the inaugural Fazza Para Badminton Championship earlier this year saw 110 players from 23 countries participate.
It is remarkable given his resources but Ebrahim knows that in order to preserve the future of badminton in the UAE, he needs to improve the commercial offering.
“We hope that we can have more government funding towards the sport. A large number of Emiratis participate now and they need more support for training and travelling abroad to compete. Otherwise it will be very hard for us to help them get the best out of their ability.
“We know how to get the best out of our resources and everything we have done so far, we’ve been able to cover the cost of delivering. But there has to be improvement on the commercial side in the future – it is an under-addressed area.
“We charged players for courts at Dubai Sports World for the first time this year and thankfully it seemed people didn’t mind paying. We have started exploring corporate sponsorship and this is a huge area of potential growth as we believe we have a sport in badminton that deserves to be showcased.”
Badminton’s development continues to be nurtured against the odds and Ebrahim reiterates that it wouldn’t be possible without the team around him, the majority of whom work for free – solely for the love of the sport.
“I am immensely proud of the technical team we have put together. We have around 120 volunteers and call them ‘the army’. They deliver all badminton events here in the UAE.
“A great example was last month. It was too expensive to hire an event management company for the Dubai Junior International Series so our volunteers organised it and it was a tremendous success. This was the badminton community delivering an international tournament. It’s an incredible achievement.
“We have trained 150 Level 1 coaches working in the academies and schools here in the UAE. We have trained over 500 teachers to deliver badminton. The sport has become part of the Ministry of Education’s curriculum last February.
“The future of the sport looks incredibly healthy and this is down to our volunteer team. I can’t thank them enough.”