In the first of our Sport Industry Insider Meets… series we sit down with Dr. Abdulla Al Karam, Chairman of the Board of Directors and Director General of the Knowledge and Human Development Authority (KHDA) and leader of a corporate wellness revolution.

Dr Abdulla’s passion for sport has taken him to all corners of the globe, from playing golf on the Old Course at St Andrews to diving in the Galapagos Islands.

He was instrumental in initiating one of the UAE’s most expansive corporate wellness schemes at the KHDA and here, talks about his motivations in sport and business.

When I was a child, everyone played football at school.
We’d wake up at the morning and look forward to going to school so that we could play. In the yard of the school we’d make a ball out of old socks and play. Then after school we’d play in the neighbourhood. The beauty of football was that you could play anywhere. Yes, we went to the sea to swim and to fish but it didn’t feel like sport in the same way as football.

I used my savings to buy trophies so we could organise tournaments.
My dad used to work in the British Bank of the Middle East – there were a lot of bazaars and souks nearby. I would end up saving some money and I would go to a grocery store and find some chewing gum. I’d go back and sell these things with little margins. I’d buy trophies with the money I made. If I made 15 dirhams I’d get the trophy with the marble base, which everyone loved. I organised tournaments and everyone would look forward to playing because we had a prize.

I love those sporting role models who recognise the value of community.
Of course, winning is important but someone like Michael Jordan had it all – I remember when he played in the championship game in 1997 with a high fever. This man was, and is, incredible. As much as he won, his impact off the court to get other kids to pick up sport was remarkable.

Dr Abdulla: Leading by example.

A close encounter with a hammerhead shark changed my perspective.
I have been diving all over the world and once went to the Galapagos Islands when the hammerhead shark migration was taking place. On one dive, a huge hammerhead swam directly towards me. There was nothing I could do – I just accepted my fate. But at the last minute it swam over me. It was a very profound experience – I didn’t speak for hours afterwards – to feel that you could be something else’s lunch. That feeling of not being at the top of the food chain is not something that we are not used to as humans. It really helped me to appreciate many things in life.

When we are children we are fearless, we ask ‘why not?’
We lose that as we get older and it soon becomes ‘why’ – you always need to have to justify every decision that has made. At the KHDA we have reverted to ‘why not’ and ‘what if’ – no idea is off the table and this has helped people be more creative. We celebrate failure because it means you’ve had an idea and when we hire people the first thing we ask them what their greatest failure is.

People are scared of change, particularly when it first happens.
It is difficult as we seem programmed to prefer the familiar but once we embrace change, it becomes exciting. People said to us, ‘what do you mean we are not going to have offices?’ and   ‘what do you mean we’re going to have a boxing ring that employees can use?’ I used to be interested in people telling me about their new ideas but now I prefer not to know so I can be surprised. That culture of change has become integral to the KHDA.

Amateur bodybuilding taught me discipline and it has always stayed with me.
When I was in college in the U.S. I got into fitness in a big way and that led on to bodybuilding. I wanted to compete and in order to do that I had to prepare, meticulously.  You have a tough regime of a few months of nutrition, training and resting. It’s all about diet and exercising early morning and late evenings. But when you stand on a stage and pick up the trophy it all feels worth it. Then you just want to go and eat a pizza!

I took up golf in 2008 and instantly regretted not doing it earlier.
Golf is like no other game. It’s you against yourself and I love this – it is a constant process of improvement and a test of mental strength. If you hit a bad first drive, you could be mad for four hours. Or you could forget about it. You have to be in the present and you are only in control of your own game.

Hole number seven at Emirates Golf Club. 160 yards into the wind. Six iron.
That was my first hole in one. I hit it, looked at my friend and said ‘what just happened?!’ He said ‘you’ve got a hole in one!’ Nothing prepares you for it. Sometimes you think your game is not in the right place and then end up with your best round. Every day you wake up with the chance to be your best – it’s true in golf and it’s true in life.

If I had to swap places with one sportsman, it would be Tiger Woods.
We’re talking about a man who has had an indescribable impact on his sport You see him play with Rory McIlroy and you know that Rory is playing golf because of Tiger. Most of the players on the tour are the same. That must be an incredible feeling, to have that influence over an entire generation. Where would they be if it wasn’t for Tiger Woods? Before him, golf was for older people, richer people. He opened up the game, made it accessible. He totally transformed the landscape.