Seven-year-old Alain trains with two dozen other children in Doha, the host city of the World Cup, struggling to lose weight in pursuit of his dream of becoming a professional footballer.
Dribbling around the cones on a hot, sticky evening, he is part of a massive campaign to encourage health and fitness in the Gulf, which is home to alarming levels of obesity.
“I’m here to lose weight and become a footballer…because this sport makes me happy,” smiles Alain, wiping the sweat from his brow.
The boy isn’t alone in wanting to improve his fitness in the resource-rich Gulf, whose wealth and daunting heat for exercise have combined to produce some of the world’s most overweight populations.
The hundreds of fit international footballers currently in Qatar for the World Cup, which begins on Sunday, are an anomaly for the desert peninsula where 70% of adults are overweight.
It’s a similar story in the region, with 66% of Omanis overweight or obese, according to official figures, and a 2020 study putting childhood obesity in Kuwait at 35%-40%.
In the United Arab Emirates (UAE), childhood obesity has risen from 12% to 17.4% in just two years to 2020, the health ministry said.
Unhealthy diets and sedentary lifestyles are to blame in a region that imports most of its food and experiences some of the hottest summers in the world, making exercising outdoors dangerous.
Ali Koteich, director of the Cedars Sports Academy where Alain trains, said physical activity was vital for children in Doha, where options are largely limited to “going to malls or parks”.
“In a place like Doha, sport is very important for children,” the 39-year-old told Agence France-Presse (AFP).
“Connected sport and health”
Some 24% of adult deaths in the emirate are due to heart problems and 7% are due to diabetes, according to the health ministry.
In a report on physical inactivity released last month, the World Health Organization (WHO) said nearly half a billion people will develop associated medical conditions by 2030 and called on governments to “take urgent action”.
“Obesity is linked to multiple chronic diseases, including diabetes and stress,” said Yousef al-Maslamani, a doctor and health spokesperson for the 2022 World Cup.
“That’s why it’s so important to show how sport and health are linked.”
Gulf countries have started promoting healthy lifestyles, including a fun run organized by the WHO in Doha on Saturday.
Dubai, the commercial capital of the United Arab Emirates an hour’s flight away, is in the midst of a “30×30” campaign, encouraging residents to exercise 30 minutes a day for a month.
And at the World Cup, children are encouraged to send in videos of dance moves that players can use as goal celebrations, in a FIFA-backed bid to get them more active.
“We know the negative impact on children’s health that a lack of exercise can have,” said FIFA chief Gianni Infantino.
Whether hosting major sporting events can improve a nation’s health is debatable.
In 2019, the UK’s National Institute for Health and Care Research said the London 2012 Olympics had only “small and transient” effects on the physical activity of nearby residents.
But healthy messages are at least being heard. Back at the football academy, nine-year-old Oubay el-Sayyed gives a pep talk to his teammates as his mother, Nada, looks on approvingly.
“You shouldn’t play with your phone all the time because you need to exercise,” he tells them. “Football will make your life easier and help you.”