International sports exchanges, a popular way of bridging cultural divides and creating long-lasting friendships, are not only the prerogative of the U.S. government.
From late June to mid-July, the United Arab Emirates Embassy in Washington, D.C., in partnership with the Philadelphia Independence, a team of Women’s Professional Soccer (WPS), hosted a three-week program for more than 20 members of the UAE Women’s Soccer Team to visit the United States.
The UAE soccer players, ages 14 to 27, had the chance to scrimmage with the Independence players and participated in clinics with local teams in Philadelphia and Washington. There was also time for visiting the Liberty Bell and a sightseeing excursion to New York.
In addition, they were welcomed by officials during a ceremony at City Hall in Philadelphia, had the chance to visit the State Department, and participated in a closing dinner at the UAE Embassy. In highlighting the empowerment of women through sports, the UAE-sponsored exchange had much in common with the Women’s World Cup Initiative launched by the State Department this summer (see main story).
Yousef Al Otaiba, UAE ambassador to the U.S., said he was delighted to provide the opportunity for the players to better get to know the United States.
“Sport is a wonderful tool to promote greater understanding between U.S. and Emirati culture,” he said. “By interacting with U.S. players during training sessions and scrimmages, as well as meeting with other community leaders, the UAE team will hone their soccer skills while also educating Americans about the Emirates.”
Dana Al Marashi, head of the UAE Embassy’s Heritage and Social Affairs Department, said the idea for the exchange began with Sheikha Lubna al Qasimi, the UAE minister of foreign trade, over a year ago. Ambassador Al Otaiba saw its public diplomacy potential and “challenged his team to organize a meaningful exchange that highlighted the growing popularity of soccer in the UAE,” she said.
“The team’s trip to the U.S. marks a significant step forward in the development of women’s soccer in the UAE,” Al Marashi told The Diplomat. “The members of the team are becoming true role models for girls throughout the UAE, encouraging greater participation in soccer and all sports. Outside the UAE, they represent the country proudly as athletes, as women, and as Emiratis. They are breaking down barriers on many levels and showing the true character and position of Emirati women.”
David Halstead, owner of the Philadelphia Independence, said that his team’s interactions with the UAE women helped each side break down stereotypes about the other.
Prior to hosting the Emirati women players, the Independence received a briefing from a member of the embassy on what to expect in terms of cultural differences. “There was the question, ‘How is this going to go?’ We thought we were going to have to make adjustments due to lifestyle, dietary restrictions for example. We just didn’t know,” he said.
But the reservations proved to be unfounded.
“I can tell you, these kids were like any kids, just like American teenagers. For us it was so much fun watching them. We got a lot out of it soccer-wise and we’ll stay friends,” he told The Diplomat.
Created in 2005 to enhance the opportunities for Emirati women to play and compete nationally and internationally, the UAE Women’s Soccer Team has competed in more than 78 matches in the region since 2008 and participated in training camps in Europe and the Middle East. It is coached by the former head coach of the Football Federation of Australia, Connie Selby, and managed by Ambassador Hafsa Al Ulama, chairwoman of the UAE Women’s Football Committee.
Overall, Al Marashi said, the program has been a great success and shown the Emirates as a country that respects women’s equality.
“From fighter pilots and judges, business executives and cabinet ministers, UAE women are fully empowered to pursue any career and pursue any interest.”
For an interesting take on how sports can promote peace in one of the most conflict-prone regions in the world, check out Stephen E. Sealy’s new book, “World Cup Soccer in the Middle East,” which explores how the author built on his success in Caribbean cricket to develop a Middle East Soccer League. www.middleeastsoccerbook.com
About the Author
Jacob Comenetz is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat.