United Arab Emirates to be first in Middle East to host Special Olympics

“You have to have an open mindset when 90 percent of the general population [of the UAE] consists of expats.”

Members of Israel’s delegation to the Special Olympics World Games pose for a photo with Minister of Welfare and Social Services Haim Katz (center in blue) prior to their departure for Los Angeles (photo credit: AVI HAYUN)
Members of Israel’s delegation to the Special Olympics World Games pose for a photo with Minister of Welfare and Social Services Haim Katz (center in blue) prior to their departure for Los Angeles
(photo credit: AVI HAYUN)
In the largest global sporting event of 2019, Abu Dhabi will host the first-ever Special Olympics World Games to take place in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region. The games will start on March 14, with some 7,000 athletes from more than 170 countries participating in the week-long event.   
Renate Baur-Richter, Program Manager at the SEDRA Foundation, a United Arab Emirates-based research institute that facilitates inclusion for individuals with intellectual and physical disabilities, explained to The Media Line that Abu Dhabi had been chosen in part because of its approach to diversity.
“You have to have an open mindset when 90 percent of the general population [of the UAE] consists of expats,” she said.
Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed al-Nahyan, president of the UAE, declared 2019 as the “Year of Tolerance.” The Gulf nation extended this progressive view by reaching out to countries lacking Special Olympics programs to help those of their citizens with disabilities to take part in the games.
This spurred what Baur-Richter described as a “chain reaction” in inclusivity among Arab countries, where disability often remains a stigma. Just this week, Saudi Arabia appointed Princess Reema bint Bandar bin Sultan to head the country’s newly formed Special Olympics Federation, which will send its first delegation to Abu Dhabi.
This outlook of acceptance, a core value of the Special Olympics, allows the games to transcend political boundaries. For instance, despite a lack of formal relations, Israel will be sending a delegation of 25 to the UAE games.
“The Special Olympics promises no country will be excluded because of its geography and politics,” Sharon Levy-Balanga, CEO of Special Olympics Israel, told The Media Line. “It’s powerful to send a delegation to a country with which we have no diplomatic ties and for them to serve as ambassadors of Israel.”
Baur-Richter said that a little over a decade since the UAE ratified the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UNCRPD), the country was chosen to host the games because of its commitment to helping people with disabilities.
She explained that as part of an ongoing national policy beginning in 2017, the UAE coined the term “determination” to replace the word “disability” in order to change how people view this demographic. The government has instituted programs to help people with determination by addressing all relevant areas of life, including access to health care, education and social activities.
An example of this is the so-called people with determination card, issued without regard to citizenship, status or race. It provides bearers with services and an array of benefits, like parking, access to support and cultural programs, and an option to purchase a reduced-rate mobile data plan. Individuals must register for the card, which allows the government to approximate the number of such people who are living in the country so it can better plan for assisting them.
In addition to governmental programs, part of the UAE’s success in improving the quality of life for individuals with determination is its inclusion of the private sector, which offers training programs, internships and employment.
“Companies are being asked what they are doing for people with determination,” Baur-Richter said.
She added, however, that there was still room for improvement in the UAE. For example, residential programs require further development and people living in the periphery still have a harder time obtaining the support they need.
Baur-Richter said the country would have to address these issues while also tackling costs, which can put services out of the reach of people with limited means.
“It’s not only a question of accessibility, but also affordability,” she noted.
The impact that the first MENA-based Special Olympics World Games will have on reducing regional taboos surrounding intellectual and physical disabilities remains unclear. While Baur-Richter doubts that the event will immediately change hearts and minds, it could initiate the process by putting people with disabilities in the public sphere, whether on the playing field, in social media or in news coverage of the event.
“Perception only changes when you have exposure to people with determination,” she said.