Special Olympics Makes Great Strides in Middle East-North Africa

Recently, the first-ever Special Olympics regional event was held in Qatar — Special Olympics Middle East-North Africa (MENA) regional business meeting and election, which was held the first week of May, 2012. The below is a summary of the event from the Regional President & Managing Director of the MENA regional office, Mr. Ayman A. Wahab.

Many people think of the Middle East and North Africa as a region wracked by conflict, but we say, let them come to our meeting in Doha. So it’s no surprise that 46 Special Olympics Program leaders from the MENA 23 countries were there to announce to the whole world that Special Olympics is on the move!

Special Olympics Middle East-North Africa leadership meets in Qatar

Indeed, attendees came from all parts of the region and each came with his or her own “why” — their own story of why they believe in our mission, why they are so determined to make a difference, why they are so ready to give their lives to this sacred purpose. Some of them come with stories of struggle in the midst of tough times, others with stories of hope in the midst of the darkest rejection, still others stories of resilience even in the face of war. For some, their stories are of goals and victories, of hard training and tough finishes, of bravery and triumph, of teamwork and love.

The meeting was inaugurated by His Highness Sheikh Saud Bin Abdul Rahman Al Thani, the Secretary General of the Qatari National Olympic Committee. H.H. showed great interest in hosting the 2014 8th Special Olympics MENA Regional Games. Also, along with the meeting two initiatives events were held; the Special Olympics Gulf Families Forum 4–5 May 2012 where 14 Family Leaders from the 7 Gulf countries participated and the Special Olympics Young Athletes Demo on 6 May. Around 40 young athletes demonstrated 8 different skills.

A young athletes participant from the Special Olympics Middle East-North Africa region

When I looked around the meeting room, I remembered the year 2000 when our region had just under 20,000 athletes, 75% of whom were in Egypt, and I remember back when our Special Olympics Chairman & CEO, Tim Shriver, said to me: “NIFAKAR AKBAR — Think Bigger!”

I remember people saying, you can’t grow a sports movement for people with intellectual disabilities in the MENA region. There’s too much war and too much conflict. The people are too poor. The region is too complex. You’re not going to be able to find coaches to serve these athletes. Citizens have busy lives, you are never going to find enough volunteers . You can’t create competitions in all of these countries, there’s not enough interest. Many also questioned our Middle East-North Africa regional games. And I’ll never forget the marketing experts who said you won’t get great brands to grow with you around the region; your athletes just aren’t aspirational figures. You don’t have enough staff to attack the problems of people with intellectual disabilities and you can’t do health and other initiatives with local volunteers. You can’t count on this generation of young people — all over your region, they’re too selfish, too focused on their own satisfaction, too greedy. You can’t grow in MENA.

But now, look at us! Our growth plan places a strong emphasis on ensuring the continuity and quality of our region’s operations and programs, and on making the most from the regional marketing tools to support fundraising and partnership building. This Middle East-North Africa region started its operation through its head office in Cairo, Egypt back in January 2001. At that time there were 20,428 athletes in 20 Programs of a total potential number of athletes of 985,973 (we reached only about 2%). Despite the persistent challenges in the region with the on-going war in Iraq and instability for several other programs, including sanctions imposed on some countries, the number of athletes in the MENA Region has reached 133,586 — a record 654% growth since 2000! Some highlights of our successes:

  • The Dubai office was able to secure a “Create Heroes” Campaign with longtime Special Olympics partner Procter & Gamble (P&G). Initially in 2005 & 2006, for the six Gulf countries, the agreement was renewed for 2007 and 2008 , which included an increase of 25% and wider partnership including the six Gulf Countries, Egypt, Syria, Lebanon and Jordan. It was then renewed for another following three years!

  • The first unrestricted $1,000,000 gift in the history of the Special Olympics MENA Region was secured from His Majesty King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia thru HRH Prince Sultan bin Fahd. Abu Dhabi’s Crown HH Sheikh Mohamed Bin Zayed also provided support for the continued development of Special Olympics programs in the MENA region. In general the Region has been very successful in recruiting First Ladies, Princes, Princesses and Sheikhs to support the movement in their countries.

  • The MENA Region is the only Special Olympics region that holds a Regional Games every two years. The 7th Regional Games, featuring 1,500 athletes representing 21 Special Olympics MENA Programs including the three Programs newly established in 2009 (Somalia, Djibouti and Comoro Islands) was held in Damascus, Syria from 25 Sept-2 Oct 2010 under the patronage of H.E. Mrs. Asmaa Al-Assad, Syria First Lady.

Also the MENA Region hosted the first ever Special Olympics Global Congress in Marrakech, Morocco, in 2010. Since then, there has been a surprisingly quick development of civil unrest which has swept across many countries in the Region since early 2011. As has been widely reported, this situation is still ongoing and is expected to continue for some time.

Aside from the obvious threats to personal safety and our Program operations, the most immediate question this unrest has posed is whether we can continue long-standing and successful strategy of hosting a Regional Games every 2 years. If MENA Regional Games were to be held in 2012, it would mean finding funding and a country which could not only host the Games but most importantly could guarantee that our Region’s 23 Special Olympics Programs would be able to participate safely for the duration of the event despite the unrest throughout the Region. The key challenge for the Region is the continued state of unrest, collapse or outright war in many of the countries that make up the Region. Only 42% can be described as Stable, with 38% experiencing regime Collapse, 14% at war and 6% under some form of Sanctions. Given the political unrest in the Region, the decision to adapt from a traditional Regional Games this year to a new approach consisting of single sports competitions is working well. Our Special Olympics Programs are engaging with this approach, and our region will deliver a broad range of sports competitions, training events and other events such as Healthy Athletes screenings, a Families Forum and more during 2012.

Aside from the clear impact of so much instability, Special Olympics has invested much in this region in the last decade, has built a reputable profile and also increased athlete population in the MENA Region. The key is not to lose this momentum now when the situation is so difficult in many countries in the Middle East-North Africa region. We need the support of Special Olympics staff, fans and family all over the world to ensure that what has been built in our region is not completely lost, that our Special Olympics athlete population is maintained, and that the Special Olympics in Middle East and North Africa region survives the current political and turmoil situations to come back stronger than ever!

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