When all eyes are back on the Premier League and La Liga later this summer, the Middle East GAA season will get underway in Dubai with over 1400 people expected to attend the first tournament of the season at Dubai Sports City.
There will be no separation of supporters, no stewards in high-vis jackets and no police vans outside the stadiums. Gaelic Games are sports that have little existence outside of their own domain.
Gaelic football and hurling are the dominant two games under the auspices of the Gaelic Athletic Association (GAA) based in Ireland.
Football, cricket and other professional sports may have their stamp of popularity across the world, but Gaelic Games is a fundamental expression of Irish identity and is thriving in the Middle East.
It continues to develop worldwide, with Sky Sports coming on board to raise awareness of the sport back in Ireland.
In the Middle East, fifteen clubs across the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Oman, Qatar, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia has made the region the fastest growing international county board in the world.
And since Middle East GAA was formally established six years ago, more than 100 new people are joining one of the 15 GAA clubs every year. A phenomenal rate of growth.
In the final round of the 2018-19 season back in March, 104 teams played 148 fixtures over the two-day tournament in Abu Dhabi, capping off another fine year for the sport in the region.
Most of the club members are Irish-born teachers who have moved over for work, but Middle East GAA is an all-inclusive organisation, welcoming people of all backgrounds and nationalities.
Tadhg Flahive, who hails from Kerry in Ireland, has been living in the UAE for 26 years and is the current Chairman of the Middle East GAA County Board.
Balancing his busy voluntary role as Chairman with a full-time job as Senior Specialist Leadership Development at ADNOC, Flahive is one of the many leading lights when it comes to the promotion of GAA in the region.
“I’ve been in Abu Dhabi now over 20 years,” Flahive tells Sports Industry Insider. “It started with just a few of us kicking a ball around in the park and now our club has 22 teams covering men’s and ladies football, camogie and hurling.
“The Middle East is the fastest growing international county board in the world. We’ve created a monster, but it’s a good monster and we love it. We love to see the games being played in the Middle East and the culture it creates. It’s a highly competitive standard and we’re just trying to drive it continuously.”
But with severe demand comes challenges and, although the GAA is an amateur organisation, the clubs require thousands of hours of pitch hire to train and play games each season.
Renting pitches is the biggest obstacle for teams across the region with one hour of pitch time costing Dhs 850 at Zayed Sports City in Abu Dhabi and up to Dhs 1200 at Dubai Sports City.
Two teams from the same club can share a pitch for one hour, but for 20 teams to train twice a week, then you’re talking north of 20 hours of rental.
Multiply that by the number of weeks from the start of pre-season in August until the end of the season in March and the overall figure is startling.
With this, sponsorship is a must to facilitate clubs and it has proved tough in recent years.
“It is difficult. It’s the same sponsors who keep coming up for us. It’s becoming a problem. The biggest outlay by far is pitch rental,” said Flahive.
“In Abu Dhabi, we have 22 teams and they want pitches twice a week across football, camogie and hurling.
“In the build up to tournaments, some of these teams need the pitches three nights a week. Trying to juggle that is a big nightmare. And all the clubs here are growing and growing.”
Dubai Duty Free (we spoke to Chairman Colm McLaughlin back in November), Park Rotana, Teach and Explore, McGettigan’s, Springbok Butchery and Etihad Airways are just some of the companies that sponsored Gaelic teams around the region in recent years.
Each of them sponsors teams to not only raise awareness for their brand but to help promote Irish culture and games abroad. They recognise how the GAA as an organisation creates a community and an outlet for young people to socialise.
“Without the help of our current sponsors Prestige Building Solutions, McGettigan’s, Teach and Explore, and VITHIT, we wouldn’t be getting on the plane for the World Games later this month so we really appreciate their help and commitment and what they do to help promote Gaelic Games in the region,” said Flahive.
This year’s Renault GAA World Games will be staged in Ireland and four Middle East teams will be travelling back to Waterford aiming to add to their trophy haul on July 27.
Abu Dhabi, in fact, was the first club to host the World Games in 2015 and the competition is now a global phenomenon. Over 5,000 people are set to be involved in this year’s Games, when factoring players, team officials, administrators, families and supporters.
“One of the great privileges of the GAA Presidency has been the opportunity to see first hand the phenomenal growth and development of Gaelic games overseas and witnessing the success of World GAA,” said GAA President John Horan.
“GAA Clubs abroad provide an invaluable service to the Irish Diaspora; establishing a home from home. They are proving increasing popular with non-native Irish, who have been won over to the skills of football, hurling and camogie.
“The GAA World Games is a celebration of this success story. It reflects the world-wide popularity of Gaelic Games and I want to acknowledge Renault for their invaluable support in assisting us in the 2019 event.”
Patrick Magee, country operations director of Renault Group Ireland, says the GAA is an important part of its business.
“The GAA is such an integral part of communities across Ireland and around the world, as demonstrated by the success of the GAA World Games, and we look forward to a successful games in Waterford in July,” said Magee.
“GAA already plays a key role in our business model, as well as within our 26 dealerships around Ireland, and we are excited about our partnership and getting on the road in 2019 and beyond.”
Away from the competitive action on the field, the experience of playing GAA in the Middle East is also a social outlet that helps people settle into the region and meet like-minded people that become friends for life.
“It’s my passion. I probably wouldn’t have stayed on in the Middle East if it wasn’t for the GAA. Since I arrived here 26 years ago, I’ve gone to a wedding every year since I’ve been out here. It’s a network thing, it’s a comfort-zone thing also,” said Flahive.
“We play the games we love. We have an instant network of liked-minded individuals and Gaelic Games give us that focal point.
“It’s a security blanket. I’ve gotten so many e-mails from parents who were thanking me because their son or daughter came out to the Middle East and it was such a release for them to have a network of like-minded people that helps them assimilate into a new country easier.
“I love that about the GAA and the Irish. No matter where in the World you are, we look after one another.”