The rise of jiu-jitsu in the UAE: How a Brazilian martial art took hold in the Middle East

The UAE’s commitment to jiu-jitsu showcases the power of sport to bridge cultures, promote discipline, and nurture champions

By Dr Kristian Alexander

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Published: Mon 28 Aug 2023, 9:05 PM

In the coming months the United Arab Emirates will host a series of jiu-jitsu championships, culminating in November with the Abu Dhabi World Championships in the para, youth, amateur, masters, and professional categories. The sport, which originated in Japan and was adopted and modified in Brazil in the 1920s, has steadily gained prominence in the small Arabian Gulf country since the 1990s and became the UAE’s national sport in 2012. Jiu-jitsu is now a mandatory subject in Abu Dhabi public schools, and the UAE is recognised as one of the world’s most ardent advocates for the martial art. The country’s commitment to jiu-jitsu has helped project a positive image of the country as a hub for martial arts, promoting discipline, physical fitness, and self-defense skills.

From Far East to Middle East: Jiu-jitsu’s origin story

Jiu-jitsu carries a rich cultural and historical heritage that dates back to 1530. The martial art developed in Japan and evolved through the warrior class in the 1700s. In 1917, a jiu-jitsu master travelled to Brazil and taught the sport to Hélio Gracie. The Gracies, whose ancestors came from Paisley, Scotland, became a prominent family of martial artists originally from Belém, in the state of Pará. They modified the original Japanese jiu-jitsu to focus on ground fighting and submission grappling rather than strikes and throws. This new version also adapted the martial art, used mainly for self-defence in Japan, into a competitive sport, which became known as Brazilian Jiu-jitsu or BJJ. Black belts and instructors from Brazil began to travel abroad and teach the techniques and philosophy of BJJ. They established academies and conducted seminars, and eventually caught the attention of entrepreneurs in different countries who saw the international potential for BJJ. The first Ultimate Fighting Championship, held in 1993, featured experts in many different martial arts such as judo, Muay Thai fighting and BJJ competing for $50,000. In the final, Royce Gracie won, thrusting BJJ into the spotlight and launching a new sport, which would become known as mixed martial arts or MMA. Thirty years later, UFC is a multi-billion dollar enterprise that hosts over 600 events worldwide.

The leadership of the UAE, particularly the President, His Highness Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, recognised the potential of jiu-jitsu many years ago. The UAE’s involvement in BJJ can be traced back to Sheikh Tahnoon bin Zayed Al Nahyan, a member of the ruling family and an avid martial arts enthusiast. In the early 2000s, Sheikh Tahnoon recognised the value of BJJ and its potential for practical self-defence and combat effectiveness.

He invited several renowned BJJ practitioners to the UAE to teach and train local practitioners, laying the foundation for the growth of the sport in the country. This cultural exchange helped accelerate the development of the sport in the country. The UAE Jiu-Jitsu Federation (UAEJJF), affiliated with the International Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu Federation, was established in 2012, further solidifying ties between the countries and providing a platform for Emirati athletes to compete internationally.

Jiu-jitsu blossoms in the Gulf: From grassroots to the big leagues

The UAE prioritised grassroots development of jiu-jitsu by introducing it into school curricula in 2008. This approach aimed to instill the values of discipline, respect, and self-confidence from a young age. The sport is now taught at more than 140 schools.

The UAEJJF implemented initiatives to promote jiu-jitsu as a lifestyle choice, leading to a rise in participation and interest. During the summer months, the UAEJJF organises jiu-jitsu summer camps and workshops to introduce children and youth to the fundamentals of the sport. The camps often include activities, games, and friendly competitions, creating a positive and engaging environment for participants and fostering a love for jiu-jitsu.

The UAE’s military and police forces have also integrated jiu-jitsu training into their programmes, recognising its effectiveness in close-quarters combat and self-defense situations. Jiu-jitsu is an effective non-lethal option for apprehending adversaries because grappling and ground fighting emphasise control over an opponent, joint locks, and submission.

The UAE government has invested in infrastructure for jiu-jitsu, including training centres, academies, and jiu-jitsu-specific facilities, providing a world-class environment for local practitioners and international athletes. This includes financial support from companies such as Mubadala Investment Company — The Mubadala Arena at Zayed Sports City in Abu Dhabi hosts the International Jiu-Jitsu Federation’s World Championships — and Yas Holding, and partnerships with jiu-jitsu federations from other countries. The government’s support has enabled the growth and development of the sport across the country.

The UAEJJF organises and hosts high-profile international jiu-jitsu competitions, such as the Abu Dhabi World Professional Jiu-Jitsu Championship. These events attract top athletes from around the world and garner global attention. The UAE’s commitment to organising and supporting prestigious competitions elevated the status of jiu-jitsu in the international sports community. UAE-based athletes achieved remarkable success in international jiu-jitsu competitions, winning medals and titles in prestigious tournaments, showcasing the UAE’s prowess in the sport. Faisal Al Ketbi, Abdulmunem Al Hashemi, Omar Al Fadhli, and Mahra Al Hanaei are examples of prominent UAE BJJ athletes who have excelled in both national and international competitions and won numerous gold medals in various weight categories. This success contributed to the growing reputation of the UAE as a jiu-jitsu powerhouse.

The UAE’s contributions to global jiu-jitsu

The UAE also played a pivotal role in professionalising and organising jiu-Jitsu as a global sport. The establishment of the UAEJJF brought structure, regulations, and standardised rules to the sport. The organisation has implemented comprehensive ranking systems, weight classes, and competition formats, providing a clear framework for jiu-jitsu practitioners worldwide.

The UAE has also encouraged innovation and technical advancements in jiu-jitsu such as electronic scoring systems and video replays, which ensure accurate and fair judging in competitions. Such advancements have influenced the way jiu-jitsu is practised and evaluated in various international tournaments.

From its distant origins in Japan to its Brazilian evolution and subsequent global journey, jiu-jitsu has found a new home in the UAE. The sport has become an integral part of the nation’s national identity. The country’s commitment to jiu-jitsu showcases the power of sport to bridge cultures, promote discipline, and nurture champions.

Dr Kristian Alexander is a Senior Fellow and the Director of International Security & Terrorism Programme at TRENDS Research and Advisory (Dubai).

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